THE BLOG
11/18/2013 04:17 pm ET | Updated Jan 25, 2014

Raise Your Hand

Sam,

Raising my hand in school was terrifying. Like standing-onstage-naked terrifying. Back in the day, I raised my hand with such limp timidity that the teacher had to guess whether I had something to say. "Is that a hand, Charley, or are you just stretching?"

It was a hand more often than not. But I couldn't quite raise it high in the air, like it was meant to be there. From time to time, though, my hand shot up with the eagerness of a kid tearing through presents on christmas morning. You might wonder why I was such a mercurial dude, Sam, sometimes wanting to shout from the rooftops, other times wanting to hide under the nearest rug, rock, anything. Well, I only raised my hand with confidence when I knew for certain the right answer, when doubt didn't exist. Otherwise, my hands hid in my pockets.

I didn't learn through conversation, engaging in a back and forth of not yet fully-formed ideas. My identity hinged on knowing things, being smart, doing well in school. Exposing my ignorance to my peers? Nu-uh. That wasn't me. I learned by studying for hours, memorizing the right answer, and speaking up when it was safe. Asking "why" or admitting that I didn't know meant risking not just a moment of humiliation. It meant risking me.

For me, "I don't know" were three of the hardest words to say out loud. The second they left my lips, I felt vulnerable, wide open to the judgement of others. And other people are judgmental like whoa. It's a human thing, like hunger and dancing. Though you're perfect in every way now, even you will succumb to judgment's drumbeat one day.

"I don't know" might not seem hard to say out loud today. You're 2.5. It's not your fault, but you know next to nothing. Okay, okay, you know that motos go vroom and cows go moo. I'll give you that. But most things are still a mystery to be uncovered and discovered. It would seem preposterous at this phase of your life to vanquish "I don't know" or "why" from your vocabulary. You're filled with a curiosity that most adults, myself included, can't quite fathom imitating. It's a beautiful thing that you should never lose.

In a few, maybe six or seven years, though, expectations will creep into your world. Social validation will rival your curiosity. If you're anything like me -- and it seems like you are given how hard you shake it on the dance floor -- you might feel pressure to know things and know them completely. You might feel the expectation to say things with the same certitude that Eddard Stark avers "winter is coming." You may want the respect and adoration of your class. You may want it so bad that you fake it. Instead of saying, "I don't know," you might say something witty or sarcastic. You might guess and say something that approximates the truth. You might not say anything at all.

It's also entirely possible that I'm wrong, that your bout with vulnerability won't be over hand raising or admitting you don't know the answer. Maybe you'll feel vulnerable when you have to rely on someone, introduce yourself to someone new, initiate a hard conversation or ask for help. Maybe you will want to ask this girl out and you're pretty sure she's into you but you can't really tell. Maybe you'll wait until never. Or maybe it's doubly hard because the person you want to ask out is a dude. In these moments, my request to you is this: Raise your hand. Being true to you in the most vulnerable of moments is an exercise in courage. Saying what you think or believe without knowing if it will prompt a blank stare or nod of the head is courage. Engaging in the beginning of a hard conversation without knowing where it will end is courage. Stripping away all the pretense and defying social expectations about what you're supposed to know or say or be is courage. Asking for help when you need it or relying on someone close for emotional support is courage. Indeed, doing all of this in a world that idolizes perfection, yearns for certainty, thrives on comparison and encourages the easy way out is downright radical.

This might sound daunting, especially for a kid who just figured out which shoe goes on which foot (even though you still put your pants on backwards most the time). And it is. But courage is like a muscle -- its strength depends on its use. The first time you exercise courage won't feel like courage at all. It will feel like your own personal hell. If you're anything like me, you'll sweat and stumble over your words. This will be true the second and third time you exercise courage. Maybe even the fourth. But then something funny will happen. You will realize that you lived through the hard conversation, you will wake up after asking for help, and the sun will still be there.

I still have my "hands in pocket" moments of vulnerability. I learned to trust my voice a ways back, but I still struggle at times to initiate hard conversations with friends and family or ask for help. Just the other week I was upset over a soured dating situation. When a friend asked about it I lied, "Oh, yeah, I haven't thought about her in awhile." Not courageous. Not radical. So let's make a deal. You just started preschool. Right now, it seems like a scary place full of new people and unfamiliar things. Whenever you're feeling vulnerable, ask your mom to video chat Uncle Charley, and we'll practice raising our hands together.