I recently went with my dad to see the Dallas Symphony’s production of Act 1 of Wagner’s Die Walkure. We showed up early enough to catch the tail end of a lecture on the opera. It was a very good lecture, and it has enticed me to want to see more. Something caught my eye during the lecture. Something that you will see in every single lecture you attend: the person who wants everyone to know that they already know a lot about the topic.
This man or woman generally sits where everyone can see them, and perhaps sits up painfully erect possibly on the edge of their seat. Every little gesture and sound he makes seems to demonstrate himself as exceedingly erudite. This particular guy was with a female companion who was an accomplice. It was clear that they had studied and watched and listened to the opera enough to have inside jokes with each other, for they shook their shoulders as they tittered and whispered to each other at the same points in the lecture. You might see this person nod emphatically throughout a lecture and say mm-hmm aloud a lot. They will definitely have impressive questions queued up for the end; questions they already think they know the answer to which they ask for the purpose of appearing to teach the lecturer something.
This person really does know a lot about the topic, and wants some sort of recognition for it. This person wants to be seen as a colleague of sorts with the lecturer; an expert on the level of the true expert. This it the same person who name drops. The same kind of person who would go to L.A. to be an actor, take a bunch of acting classes, get one local commercial, come back home, and start referring to Robert De Nero as “Bobby.”
I understand this person because I’ve been this person. And I hate that. My judgement of that person begins with judgment of myself. Throughout my college years, I showed off in every way imaginable in class. I exasperated my professors and my fellow students. Since, I’ve done it with professional opera singers, professors of voice, grad students, my daughter’s high school choir directors. These are all professions I was interested in, which I either didn’t have what it took or I chose not to pursue for practical reasons. I want those people to know that I might have been them…if only. It’s a very unattractive behavior, I confess, and I’ve come a long way in overcoming it. I’m happy with my life now.
And perhaps that is what it comes down to. Why aren’t we happy with who we are? Why do we show off? Why do we misrepresent ourselves? Regret? Envy? Dissatisfaction? Insecurity? Validation? We all struggle with these in our own ways. We all wonder “what if”. We all wonder if we’re smart enough or important enough or respected enough. The truth may be, that over coffee, I would enjoy the guy . We have a lot in common, after all. And maybe I’m simply reading it wrong. Some people are just so enthusiastic that they can’t help themselves. But I suspect you know the guy I’m talking about. And if you’ve known me long enough, you definitely know the guy I’m talking about.
I respect people who are devoted to something that they care about, but it’s important to recognize that the guy who did his doctorate dissertation on Wagner deserves a great deal more respect in their field than I do or the shoulder-shaking guy. The rest of us are just amateur students who love opera, who either come to a lecture to learn or come to show off. Honestly? It’s far more satisfying to learn. Learning begins with curiosity. Curiosity begins with admitting when we don’t know. And admitting we don’t know begins with humility, which is a hard-earned lesson for most of us.