I grew up in the deep south – a Mississippi town called Petal that’s 65 miles from the Gulf Coast. And naturally, after spending the first part of my life there, I developed a southern accent.
When I moved to Washington, D.C. in my mid-twenties, my southern accent was a novelty. Friendly people saw it as an endearing accessory to my personality and vocation (I was a Mississippi lawyer doing civil rights work in D.C., which evoked comparisons to characters in John Grisham novels). But to the less-friendly crowd, it was an obstacle I had to overcome – it meant that I was probably intellectually-inferior, naive, slow – maybe even prejudiced.
People regularly made remarks about the way I spoke, so I became self-conscious about it. I realized how frequently I used the word “y’all,” how naturally I said “yes sir/yes ma’am” when speaking to elders, and how hard I had to fight to hold onto southern pronunciations that suddenly sounded peculiar (for example, to this day, I still make sure to say “oohhl” when I pronounce the word “oil”).
Five years after I came to D.C., I had an experience that showed just how much of a losing battle it was to speak naturally. I had a minor surgery, and they anesthetized me. A couple of hours later, I suddenly woke up and heard a man say, in a very heavy southern accent, “How long have I been in here?”
A nurse responded, “Two hours.”
Then the man said, in an equally-twangy accent, “What time is it?”
The woman said, “Ten-thirty.”
Then it hit me – the man who was talking was me. I hadn’t spoken with that heavy of a twang since I was a little boy, and apparently, with my guard lowered by anesthesia, I couldn’t help but be myself.
As the anesthesia wore off, my less-southern accent came back, and I went about my life thinking very little about it. But recently, I reflected on that experience, and it made me wonder how many other parts of myself I’ve subconsciously adjusted to keep from standing out.
I mean, if I adjust my accent – of all things – maybe I adjust other parts of myself as well. And more importantly, if I subconsciously adjust for other people, how much does that bleed over into my relationship with Jesus? Am I being myself with Him, or do I bring a man who has adjusted into someone who’s not quite the real me?
I wish I knew the answer to these questions, but since all of this stuff happens on a subconscious level, it’s pretty hard to know for sure. Either way, I can tell you this: it makes me want to sit down tonight and talk to God in my twangiest southern accent and see what happens.