I don’t know what’s up with the baking analogies. I don’t even like to bake. But I have this thought that people are like cake.
So, this is a hard admission: as you may have deduced by now, I’m a people-pleaser. I’ve always wanted to be a chocolate cake.
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Since childhood, I’ve tried to be the “good kid”–pleasing parents, Sunday school teachers, kids I wanted to be friends with, kids I didn’t want to be friends with, college professors, people at church, random strangers at Starbucks. My code of conduct went something like, “Fly under the radar, don’t irritate people, do what you’re told, appease.” Because people only want chocolate cakes, right? Chocolate cake people make the best friends, students, children, right?
Chocolate cake people: plural noun. Punctual, humble, not only faithful in but excited about prayer, churchgoing, service activities. Don’t talk too much, don’t talk too much about themselves, modest, demure, good grades, walk the straight and narrow. Also hospitable, good conversationalists, and don’t go outside looking frumpy. Ever.
So if people only want chocolate cakes, I have to be one, right? To get approval (and what else could be worth getting?) I’ve aimed for perfection, or as close to it as possible. Other people’s displeasure was my fault, my failure.
Here’s the trouble. I’m not a chocolate cake. I think I might not even count as cake. I get this frequent, sneaking suspicion that I’m made of something else entirely–something green and lumpy that won’t stick together and certainly won’t fluff in the oven. Something like…zucchini.
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Zucchini person: singular noun. Lags just a few minutes late for every activity. Talks too much about self and sometimes snorts at own jokes. Sometimes doesn’t feel like praying. Wakes up without makeup and sometimes on the wrong side of the bed. Worries about job, friends, future.
Well, zucchini is obviously an unacceptable basis for the making of cakes, especially when all cakes are supposed to be chocolate. So my solution has been to slap some nice, thick frosting on top and smear it around. See? Picture-perfect cake.
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Then there’s the broiler.
A little summer heat is one thing; if your inch-thick coat of frosting starts to melt, you just patch the thin spots. You can still hide what’s underneath. But sitting under a 500-degree hot wire for long enough is more than any coat of frosting can bear. A hot wire like eleven months of caregiving, for instance.
Hard times have a way of stripping away your layers of fakeness. Insincerity soon melts under the flame. And what’s left for people to see is…zucchini. Embarrassing, un-chocolate, imperfect, vulnerable.
This is the point, in my imagination, where people scream and go, “Ew, gross! Someone get that unacceptable vegetable out of here!”
But, to my dumbfounded astonishment, that’s not what I’ve seen happen. The more I can’t hide my true substance, the more I show people that my cake is far from chocolate, the more I’m let in on a secret.
Other people’s cakes aren’t, either.
Vulnerability is like an amoeba. It multiplies itself. Numerous times in the last few months, I’ve had the shocking experience of hearing people–even people I regard as the gold standard of chocolate cake–reveal their failings, their doubts, their awkwardnesses, their fears. Almost no one sails through life in complete confidence (and those who do are ignoring some things). No one marches into battle without sweaty palms. No one looks in the mirror every morning, smiles a toothpaste-commercial smile, and whispers, “go get ’em, chocolate.”
Vulnerability also brings people together. I used to think, not very long ago, that I really had to be perfect for people to like me. What absolutely stuns me is the slow discovery that perfection intimidates–and honesty is true beauty. People don’t like you less when you show them your hurt, your awkwardness, your doubt. Honesty levels the playing field. It expresses trust, need, connection. The ugly green truth is what allows deep, real connection to bloom.
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So, here’s my confession. I’m not made of chocolate. Sometimes, with all my zucchini-greenness going on, I think I make a miserable excuse for cake at all. You don’t have to like it. But that’s what I’m made of. And now that that’s out in the open, I’m glad I no longer have to spend my life patching the frosting.