Reading Time: 4 minutes
Tell Should-Zu to Shut Up, by Brian Kirk
If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent far too much of your life pretending.
And I don’t mean the cool kind of pretending, where you imagine yourself to be a shape-shifting spy ninja that can perform a perfect cartwheel and fly.
I mean the not-so-cool kind, where you pretend you enjoy looking at Power Point slides created by your boss who seems to have been born without an imagination at all.
I’ve pretended to like things I didn’t, like professional football.
I’ve spent so much of my life, it seems, conforming my likes and dislikes to the expectations of someone else. A vague parental/peer-body amalgamation that hovers over my decision making like some amorphous judge. Let’s call this thing: Should-Zu. Like Shih Tzu (which is one of my all-time favorite names), but with a “should.” Plus, Should-Zu can be yappy little thing, too.
Let me tell you a little something about Should-Zu. I grew up loving to tell stories. Scary stories, more often than not. And writing has always been the activity that provided me with the most inner joy. But then college came, and Should-Zu told me that writing was frivolous. That it was time to grow up and choose a field of study that could become a career. My dad was in advertising, so Should-Zu suggested I do that. And that’s what I did. For nine years I worked at a large ad agency, adhering to Should-Zu’s demands, counting down the days until I could retire and break free. I made it through about 2,000 of the requisite 12,000 days.
Pretty early on I knew it wasn’t for me. It wasn’t the work. It wasn’t the people. And it wasn’t the pay (although it was pretty abysmal at the beginning). It was the fact that I felt like a fraud. I felt like I was playing the role of an Ad Exec rather than being my authentic self. And it seemed like everyone around me was doing the same thing. Assuming this stiff, awkward posture, wearing clothes they wouldn’t normally wear, speaking in some strange language I never heard outside the office, “net-net, value add, core competencies (that no one would want to have)”.
See, it may have taken me thirty-one years, but I finally wised up to Should-Zu’s game. I saw it one day, at first from the corner of my eye, and then head on. Instead of appearing as some guiding light, it was this malformed lump of guilt. Not only was it gross to look at, it was dumb, and didn’t know me at all. Worse, it was a coward, frightened that I would find fulfillment living as my true self, something it itself was too afraid to do. So, I resigned from my corporate job to work freelance and do the thing I love most: write fiction.
What’s up with Should-Zu? Why do we listen to it? Why do we allow it to outfit us in these phony costumes and pretend to be something we’re not?
This is one of the themes I address in my debut novel, We Are Monsters, which takes place inside a mental institution and studies the attempted restoration of mental health. I had an epiphany when considering this environment. It seemed to me that the patients with their crippling mental disorders were living more authentically than some of the doctors likely were. Sure, it may not be how they would choose to live. Schizophrenia doesn’t sound like fun. But they weren’t putting on a pretense. They were in no way beholden to Should-Zu, and its unwarranted demands. Whereas the doctors may be living lies, or have emotional burdens they were hiding from or shoving deep down inside.
I wanted to unmask the doctors and see what I’d find underneath. I wanted to see what would happen if I woke them up from Should-Zu’s somnolent trance.
I still hear Should-Zu, it never leaves. But I don’t listen anymore, and I’m much happier now. If Should-Zu speaks to you, just tell it to hush.
Brian Kirk lives in Atlanta with his beautiful wife and rambunctious identical twin boys. He works as a freelance writer in addition to writing fiction, and is currently working on the second book in a planned trilogy. We Are Monsters is his debut release. Feel free to connect with him online. Don’t worry, he only kills his characters.