We’re seeing people masked on the streets, in the stores and in workplaces. At the same time, I’m noticing how effectively coronavirus has stripped away the pseudo self of so many people.
Masks on. Masks off.
Pseudo self is a survival mask, often developed in childhood from the feeling that who we really are is unlovable. Some people create a false persona for power and control. Think of the wolf pretending to be Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother.
We all have a pseudo self to some degree. Most of us can deal with difficult family members, coworkers and others with a modicum of manners, tolerance and kindness most of the time. We can cooperate and collaborate when required. We can be professional. Hopefully, we also know how to be real with those we trust and love; how to be angry, how to be sad, how to let off steam.
The difficulty with pseudo self occurs when we lose touch with who we really are and our mask becomes permanent rather than something we choose to take off and put on. Creating a pseudo self and retreating behind it permanently means we’re never properly seen, never properly known, never properly connected.
Masks on. Masks off.
Coronavirus is stripping away pseudo selves and revealing the truth of who we are, how we operate, what our hidden agendas and priorities are, our paranoia, our fear, our anxiety and compulsivity, our rage, our unfinished business and our relationships with money and authority. We are distracted and distressed, and our nice, shiny, well-behaved and civilized pseudo selves are slipping, even as we don masks.
This reveal is fascinating, and it’s everywhere, in our homes and workplaces, in our communities and on social media and TV. Especially on TV. Blame games. Competition rather than cooperation. Gaslighting. Ignorance on display. Lies. Distortions. Conspiracy theories. Disinformation. Paranoia. Ill-concealed fear.
You just can’t fix stupid, and stupid is what I’m seeing behind quite a few pseudo selves.
Masks on. Masks off.
Our leaders seem to feel we’ve reached a Y in the road. Are we more interested in political power and the economy, or are we more interested in saving lives? Some turn one way. Some turn another way. Right now, that stark (and false) choice is not hidden behind distractions and polished bombast. It’s right out there in front of us in every update and news conference.
Are we a global people who cooperate to save lives, or are we separate, competitive political entities who try to outbid one another for inadequate resources? Are we human beings concerned with dignity, quality of life and compassion, or are we robotic consumers addicted to a bloated, unsustainable capitalistic system? Do we care more about the lives of those around us or our own entitlements?
Do we share power, or do we grab all we can get during this crisis?
Masks on. Masks off.
I wonder if we’ll ever fully be able to grasp the ways in which this pandemic will reshuffle our personal decks. What are we learning about our families, friends, neighbors, coworkers and leaders? What are we learning about ourselves, the ways we deal with stress and anxiety, our resilience and adaptability, our priorities and concerns? What are we learning about what really matters to us and to those around us?
How will enforced working from home and non-traditional education change the way businesses and education work when the pandemic is over? How much bigger will we individually become as so many of us learn we are not our work? Coronavirus is giving us a crash course in being rather than doing or having. How many will graduate from this experience with a stronger, more peaceful sense of self? How many will fail to graduate?
Unexpected, stressful times like these bring out the real in us. We can’t prepare for such times or see them coming. We can’t pretend our way through them. Our choices and beliefs are visible to others. We are revealed. We are seen. And so are they.
Masks on. Masks off.
The masks we wear for protection against the coronavirus conceal much of the lovely expression of the face. As I interact with masked people, I feel bereft and disconnected, unable to fully communicate and connect. I miss seeing the faces of my friends, colleagues and the strangers around me. Something about masks feels dehumanizing and isolating.
Still, I think this is another gift of coronavirus, this stripping away of all the nice-nice pretty-pretty pretense. I’ve always loved real, my own and the real of others. I suppose pseudo self has a useful place in a social context, but only a limited useful place. The ability to be authentic, to my mind, is far more useful and productive. Coronavirus is a great leveler. It doesn’t care about our clothes, our hair, our makeup, our bank account, our title or position, or our presentation in general. It doesn’t care about our politics or whether or not we believe it’s real. It doesn’t give a damn about the economy. All we are is a potential place in which to thrive and multiply. Our pseudo selves cannot shield us, hide us or help us survive this virus.
This pandemic is a fact. It’s real. It’s happening. Masks on or masks off, our authentic selves are showing. I see you, and you can see me.
Nice to know you. Be well. Stay safe. Raincheck on a hug or handshake.
Sometimes these posts are like puzzles. I pick up fragments in the course of daily life, and I find they all belong to the same idea. Remember doing dot-to-dot puzzles as a kid? I’m never sure what the shape is I’m working on, but I turn the pieces of the puzzle around until I’m satisfied with a coherent (hopefully!) post. It’s fun.
If I was bent on delivering a learned lecture in this post, I would have titled it “Postmodernism.” I’m not interested in lecturing, though, or philosophizing, or exploring current ideas and trends in a scholarly way. Ick. If you’re not sure what postmodernism is, here’s a link. You can educate yourself and draw your own conclusions — always the best way!
As I researched postmodernism I came across a referral to “post-truth.” Huh? Post-truth is “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” (Oxford Online Dictionary)
Truth is a slippery concept, and I’m not interested in debating whether it’s “real” or not. The tension between objective facts, denial and beliefs is a can of worms I have no interest in opening. I do accept science-based inquiry and methodology, particularly if data can be replicated, the process is peer-reviewed, and the funding is clean and unbiased. For me, truth and learning are dynamic, flexible and organic. What might be true for me today may change tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean today’s truth is necessarily a lie.
I don’t accept that belief and truth are the same, and I don’t accept that feelings and thoughts are necessarily objective facts.
The puzzle pieces I have collected this week all fit into postmodernism, but, as usual, I come at it in my own unique (and slightly off-center) way. Here are the pieces, in no particular order:
One of my four most important values and priorities in making choices is to see things clearly; in other words, not to argue with what is, be in denial, or wholly and unconditionally believe in my own stories, assumptions, and feelings. Understand, I validate, value and rely on my feelings, but I’m very aware they don’t always point to the truth. I might feel rejected, for example, but that doesn’t mean I am rejected. It doesn’t mean I’m not, either. The feeling points me toward something needing further exploration, that’s all.
When I say “see things clearly,” I mean accepting what is without fear, resistance, apology, or the need to rewrite or sanitize my experience.
The second puzzle piece is a conversation I had with an approximately 30-year-old man in which I described a relationship that was not working well and what I did about it. His comment was “harsh.” Intrigued, I asked if it would have been better if I’d lied to the other party, or continued the relationship in spite of believing it was unhealthy for both of us. He had no answer for that. I asked if he had a suggestion for a kinder or different way I could have communicated my truth clearly. He had no answer for that one, either. What I was left with was, from his point of view, it was wrong for me to feel the way I did and tell the simple truth about it, without shame or blame, honestly communicating my sadness, my need to part ways, and my caring for the other party.
I’ve thought a lot about this conversation. As regular readers know, I dislike labels and sweeping generalizations, but I wonder if part of his problem with my choice about ending my relationship has to do with the trend in his generation toward postmodernism; that is, that there is no truth, all stories are equal, and to speak “truth” is somehow hateful, bigoted, and/or mean. I’ve even been told stating the truth is “dehumanizing.” Wow.
From my point of view, identifying and speaking the truth is by far the kindest thing we can do for each other and ourselves. Communicating the truth means we are taking responsibility. It means we have the courage to have a difficult conversation face-to-face, rather than ghosting, making excuses, living a lie, or leaving someone with no closure. It means we are healthy enough to take care of ourselves and manage our time and energy, and authentic enough to be heartful and committed in what we choose to do with our lives.
I realize, of course, that some people use the truth as a club, and take no trouble to employ clear, kind language. Shame and blame and refusing to take responsibility are not truthful. Pretending is not truthful. Making excuses is not truthful. Cultivating a pseudo self is not truthful.
The third piece of this particular puzzle was in a book titled Roadwork by Richard Bachman (a.k.a. Stephen King). Here it is:
“But Mary’s footsteps never faltered because a woman’s love is strange and cruel and nearly always clear-sighted, love that sees is always horrible love, and she knew walking away was right and so she walked …”
I’m a fan of King’s writing, and this quote really caught my eye. I stopped reading, bookmarked the quote, and thought about being a mother and all the agonizing choices one makes when raising a child. (The context of the quote has to do with a mother and child.)
It’s terribly difficult (and sometimes terribly painful) to be clear-sighted about our own children. We are forced to make decisions that tear us apart, always striving to do what we think is best and frequently missing the mark. Moreover, having children means we are forced to look at ourselves more clearly for their sake, and that process is humbling, painful, and occasionally terrifying.
I ask myself, is this how King experiences a woman’s love? If so, is it a woman’s love for her child he has his eye on, or a woman’s love in general? Is it terrible love because it’s “clear-sighted,” or because women who love are capable of making horribly difficult choices and sacrifices for the sake of those they love? Is it the love that’s “strange and cruel,” or the clear-sightedness of that love? Or both?
I recently wrote about unconditional love. Is that kind of clear-eyed love “horrible” because it’s so powerful?
I’ve mentioned before somewhere on this blog that in the Tarot deck, which has pre-Christian roots, The Devil symbolizes authentic experience. This indicates to me dealing with the truth is not a new challenge for human beings. Postmodernism is just another cyclical iteration we’ve come up with as we struggle with the truth, misinformation, outright lies, authenticity and pseudo self, the sincere desire of many to be kind and compassionate, and the equally sincere desire on the part of others to control cultural narratives and (dis)information. I’m the first to admire and practice kindness and compassion, but taken too far they become enabling, denial, codependence, pseudo self and abdication of our own self-defense and needs.
The last piece of the puzzle was this link I received to a piece of satire about the “divisiveness” of truth. Satire is not my gig (I have a sneaking suspicion it’s above my head), and I don’t normally enjoy it or pass it on, but this was certainly timely, and it demonstrates the (to me) crazy thinking postmodernism leads to.
It seems to me truth is connecting rather than divisive. I’m wary of anyone who responds to the presentation of an objective or science-based fact with a rant about divisiveness. Those who seek to persuade us there is no truth anywhere, that whatever we believe is Truth, are the ones who are actively divisive. Critical thinking is not about hate, fear, control or manipulation; it’s about seeing the world around us with curiosity and clarity.
So what’s the deal with the demonization of truth, or authenticity, or honesty, or facts, or whatever? Does it have to do with technological cultural influences? Is it connected to our broken educational system? Does our decreasing literacy (TLDR — too long, didn’t read) play a part? Do our burgeoning health problems, poor diets and ever-increasing toxin loads affect our ability to think well?
Have we become so fat, lazy and comfortable we simply don’t want to make the effort to learn, explore, reflect and think critically?
Are we so entitled and selfish we reject unpleasant or unwelcome truths that might threaten our status quo?
Sometimes the truth is painful, inconvenient, and difficult to hear and say. Are we so precious, pampered and cowardly we need everything sugar-coated and artificially flavored and colored in order to deal with it, never mind if it’s truth or lies? (Have you watched any commercials lately?)
I don’t know. The only power I have is what I do with my own life. In my own life, endeavoring to see things clearly, to understand, to excavate what’s true for me at any given point in time and put it into effective, clear, responsible language and action, are paramount. Objective facts matter. History matters. Science is important. I value literacy, learning, education and professional expertise.
I’ve spent much of my life people pleasing and enabling the destructive behavior of others. I’ve spent much of my life assiduously cultivating what I thought was an acceptable pseudo self. I lacked the courage and support to face my own truths in the privacy of my head, let alone speak them to others. I allowed others to bully, manipulate and punish me for seeking objective facts. I allowed myself to be the target of gaslighting and projection.
I stumbled across a parenting advice column in the online publication Slate recently. It caught my eye because the columnist responds to the parent’s question with another question: Whose needs are we talking about here, yours (the parent’s) or the child’s?
The columnist describes this question as one of the best pieces of parenting advice she ever received. I’ll go further and say it’s one the best pieces of relationship advice I’ve come across.
I’m a parent, a sister and a daughter. All are difficult roles I feel I’ve failed to play adequately, although I consistently ignored my own needs in favor of what I understood as my family’s needs and expectations.
Ironically, I recognize now my greatest failure by far in life has been a failure to honor myself and my own needs. Whether or not we can please others in any consistent way is debatable, but I discover accepting responsibility for pleasing myself, though it feels odd and unaccustomed, fills me with joy and gratitude. My wants and needs are simple and few, and honoring them has been enormously healing.
This new behavior is also a source of anguish beyond words.
The anguish arises from a conflict many of us face at one time or another — a conflict of values. I value connection and being of service to others, which involves compassion, respect, tolerance and unconditional love. I also, for the first time, value myself. I’m stunned at the destruction that occurs when these values collide with the values of others.
Is it necessary to choose between meeting our own needs and meeting the needs of others? I suspect part of the answer to that question lies in the specific needs themselves and how we view them as a culture. Perhaps it’s just my bad luck that I’m a misfit. My need to not be tied to social media and a cellphone, for example, is just as important to me as the needs of others to be firmly embedded in social media and keep their cellphones in hand, but my need is not culturally supported. Fair enough. The fact that I’m slightly out of step from most other people in my culture is not a newsflash, nor is it something that requires fixing or changing. I view diversity and deviance from the social norm as strengths, not weaknesses.
As I’ve begun to stand up for my own needs, I’ve been told I’m cowardly, selfish, destructive and hurtful to those I love best, disappointing, stubborn and inadequate. I’ll own stubborn. I don’t take responsibility for being disappointing; it’s not my job to meet the expectations of others. As for the rest of those characterizations, they’re so far off the mark of who I am that I can’t take them seriously, although they cut me to the heart.
I don’t view managing needs as an exercise in all or nothing. I can usually come up with several ways to meet my own needs and support others in theirs. More often than not, however, I’m forced into an all-or-nothing framework, which feels like manipulation or intimidation, or both. That’s why the accusation of cowardice makes me shake my head. Refusing to give in to such tactics is not the act of a coward.
Why do we tolerate and support behavior that demands others be responsible for meeting our needs, but attack those who take responsibility for meeting their own? Talk about a sick society!
The hardest thing about being unsupported in meeting one’s needs is the lack of recourse. Trying to explain to those who aren’t interested or are committed to misunderstanding or taking our choices personally is a waste of time and energy. Our only power lies in the choice between bowing to external pressure and abandoning ourselves or living with authenticity and integrity and accepting the consequences. I know what my choice is, but sometimes I don’t know how to survive the pain of it.
I wonder how many people are in exactly this spot; how many people move through their days and nights trying desperately to manage a balance between their own needs and everyone else’s, or agonizing over the tension between caring for others and caring for themselves when needs are not in harmony.
As human beings, we lead complex emotional lives. Needs are not the only variable. Boundaries can be very difficult to negotiate. We’re frequently unaware of how important reciprocity is in our various relationships. Ideals such as unconditional love and always being present for someone, no matter what, are lovely in theory, but do we owe unconditional love and support to those who don’t give it to us? Is it our job, in any role, to consistently put the other’s needs first in order to prove our love or justify being alive, or an employee, or a family member?
As a woman, I can’t think about needs without considering emotional labor. In any given relationship, who is doing the emotional labor of listening, practicing authenticity, organizing, scheduling, thinking ahead, staying in touch, practicing absolute loyalty, providing unconditional love or other kinds of support and nurture, managing feelings, and balancing needs? If that work is not shared or reciprocal, relationships wither and die, or the one burdened with the emotional labor does. There it is again — that choice, that terrible choice. Do we take action to save ourselves, even from our most beloved, in such a case, or do we ignore our needs and keep going until there’s nothing left of us because we are women who love?
Needs are not wrong, or a matter of shame. We all have them; we have a perfect right to get them well and truly met AND our needs are as important and not more important than the needs of others. We’re not all honest about our needs, however, especially needs to control and maintain power over others. Too often, we assume others have the same needs we do. Those of us who want to live and let live and assume others are after the same outcome are frequent targets for personality-disordered people looking for prey, power, fuel or other benefits.
Whose need is this? Answered honestly, the question opens a door to better parenting and better relationships in general. The question is an invitation to intimacy, respect, power-with, problem solving, tolerance and unconditional love. It also shines the bright and sometimes terrible light of clarity on our agendas for others and theirs for us, and the true quality and health of our relationships. If we can’t or won’t identify, respect and support our own needs alongwith the needs of others, we’ll surely extinguish ourselves as a species.
The seed for this post was a piece of writing by Dr. Sharon Blackie about the protective nature of thorny plants. This is a subject I’ve researched, not just as a gardener but also because of my fascination with folklore and tradition. I’ve written previously about brambles being a deterrent to vampires.
Reading Blackie’s musings on thorns reminded me of a honey locust tree I lived with in my old place in Colorado. It was covered with long, sharp thorns that punctured tires and easily passed through soft-soled shoes and sandals. It stood just off my porch, giving generous shade in the summer. I hung bird feeders in it, touched it, talked to it and moved respectfully and mindfully under and around it. The thorns contained some kind of irritant, and a scratch or stab from one of them resulted in several days of painful swelling.
The tree commanded attention, not only because of the fabulous covering of thorns and its harsh beauty, but also because it was the neighborhood tenement for birds. During the summer I often expected to see the whole tree rise into the air and fly away, powered by what seemed like hundreds of birds mating, nesting, hatching, quarreling, singing and living their lives among its thorny branches.
I loved that tree. It was one of the hardest things to leave when I came to Maine. Several people, including the people from whom I bought the house, advised me to cut it down. The thorns were destructive and dangerous. It was ugly, a nuisance.
I was fiercely protective of the tree, seeing in it what I wanted for myself, the ability to self-protect and still be beautiful and nurturing to others. Since I’ve left that place I’ve often thought of the locust and wondered if the new owners have cut it down. I hope not. If so, I don’t want to know.
I came to Maine and learned about needs. Then, in the course of writing my books, I researched thorny plants and learned thorns are in fact modified leaves, roots, stems or buds, and plants evolved them in order to protect themselves from being eaten.
Some plants evolved with thorns in order to protect themselves from being eaten. In order to survive. No plant evolved thorns in order to scratch, sting or pierce you or me specifically. The adaptation of thorns is about the needs of the living being we call a honey locust, a bramble, a hawthorn or a rose. Self-protection is about the life form employing it, not anyone else.
This seems to me an important distinction, and a metaphor for human choice and behavior. When I came to Maine I believed it was my job to protect everyone around me. Self-protection, however, was absolutely taboo. Any attempt to have boundaries, say no, speak my truth or move from the place the blow was going to land was severely punished. As I learned emotional intelligence and my priorities began to move from caring for and pleasing others to caring for and pleasing myself, I felt threatened and disliked from every side. I allowed myself to be made to feel destructive, dangerous and ugly.
Just like my beloved locust tree.
Sometimes it’s hard to understand why people make the choices they make. This is particularly difficult in the case of close relationships. In fact, it can be difficult to understand our own behavior and motivation. We humans are quick to make what others do about ourselves, to exercise our outrage, be critical and judgmental and disempower those who we feel threaten our beliefs, our position, our power to choose. Most of the time, though, the people around us are doing exactly what we’re doing ourselves. They’re simply trying to meet their own needs.
It always comes back to some kind of a need. When I became aware of my own needs, I quickly understood nearly every choice I’ve ever made had been motivated by trying to stay safe. For a long time I was trying to get loved in order to stay safe, but it didn’t work and I’ve shifted now to the true bottom line.
I need to protect myself.
That’s pretty clear and simple. I am not confused or ashamed about it. The difficulty arises as I interact (or choose not to) with others. That simple, clear bottom line gets buried under emotion; my stories and assumptions about myself and others; my eagerness to be understood; my hope to be validated and supported; and my justification, explanation, shame and guilt as others react to my choices for self-protection.
I don’t think most of us have trouble understanding and recognizing the core drivers for human beings. We want to be loved, accepted and seen as we really are. We want healthy relationships. Some people want money and power. Some seek control. We want to protect ourselves and others, as well as maintain autonomy and freedom of choice. We may not agree with the priorities of those around us, but they’re not foreign to us.
The methods we use to meet our needs are where the trouble begins. I know from personal experience pleasing people and having no boundaries leads to neither love nor safety, but it took me decades to discover that, decades during which I strove desperately to earn love and achieve security using those methods without success. To an outside view, I can understand why now I seem like a different person, hard, uncaring, unloving, selfish and disloyal.
This is terribly ironic, as no one knows of our private anguish and suffering as we strive to grow, heal and change, unless we reveal it, and I work hard to never reveal mine, not necessarily because I want to shut people out or hide things, but because I am trying to stay safe, and bitter past experience has taught me revealing my soft underbelly is dangerous.
Because I realize my own methods for meeting my needs are frequently problematic and inefficient as well as inscrutable to others, I’m able to have more space for others and the choices they make. Life protects itself. Life wants to go on living. Sometimes the strategies we use to achieve those goals hurt others, and sometimes they hurt ourselves, but in a world so full of people it’s bound to be a confusing mess. This is a perfect frame for the current debate around vaccines. Both sides are trying to protect against perceived threats to self, others and freedom of choice. There isn’t going to be an easy answer.
I wish I could be like the locust tree that graced my old life. It hid nothing, apologized for nothing, stood tall and shapely and branching, and protected itself as well as sheltered all kinds of life. To my eyes it was beautiful beyond words, a powerful teacher, a being I reverenced. I accidentally trod and knelt on its thorns more than once, but I did not blame the tree. I would not have allowed it to be cut down.
Locust, bramble, rose, hawthorn, holly and blackthorn. Thorns and prickles and spines. Fruit, flower and healing herb. Haven and shelter for insects, birds, small rodents and reptiles.
Life that cannot protect itself will not survive. Yet sometimes the price of self-protection is so high I wonder if it’s worth survival. It’s not so very hard to cut down a tree, if its thorns offend us. It’s not so very hard to destroy a human being, either, if their efforts to meet their own needs offend us.
I never would have guessed at the pain involved in committing to protect myself. It never occurred to me I would feel forced to choose between my love and care for others and my own needs. I still don’t understand why that should be so, but it feels as though it is.
I hold in my heart the memory of my locust tree, and how the inability of some to appreciate its beauty made it seem even more precious and powerful. Fierce, unapologetic self-protection and abundant life. The memory comforts and inspires me. I want to grow up to be like that.
Identity is everywhere. Identity theft, identity politics, job applications, and social media profiles confront us at every turn. We are constantly being commanded to prove our identity, not only formally, as in logging on to our bank accounts, but socially, in order to justify our existence, our beliefs and our values.
Technology has created new challenges in the way we talk about, understand and shape our identity. AI is no longer a piece of science fiction, and evidence grows regarding websites, social media trolls and other online entities that successfully manipulate, divide and interfere with social discourse, information and opinion.
We are woefully easy targets.
Photo by Roderico Y. Díaz on Unsplash
Merriam-Webster online defines identity as “sameness in all that constitutes the objective reality of a thing; the distinguishing character or personality of an individual.” The online Free Dictionary says identity is “the set of characteristics by which a person or thing is definitively recognizable or known; the awareness that an individual or group has of being a distinct, persisting entity.”
Objective reality. The term objective means “(of a person or their judgment) not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts.” (Oxford Dictionary; emphasis mine.) This means a purple-polka-dotted snake cannot claim the identity of a green-striped zebra, no matter how indignantly and vociferously it insists it feels like one. Personality disorders are recognized as such because those who suffer from them are not always dealing with objective reality. A purple-polka-dotted snake who wants to be a green-striped zebra is divided tragically from itself and others, not only other purple-polka-dotted snakes, but all others, because it persists in trying to behave and be accepted as something it’s not, ultimately self-destructing.
Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash”
I’ve written before about labels, denial, arguing with what is and pseudo self, all of which ideas intersect with identity. Have you watched a potter at work with clay on a wheel? As they shape a vessel, one hand works inside and one outside. Identity is like that. The tribe we’re born into gives us our earliest sense of identity, and we take our cues from them. If our tribe is critical and we feel unaccepted and unloved, we internalize those voices and viewpoints and give them power in our psyche to mold our identity. At the same time, we go out into the world and our schools, jobs, communities, places of worship and other organizations identify us from the outside.
Years ago I worked with a group of gifted and talented middle and high school students as a school librarian. None of them fit in terribly well with their classmates. A young man I was very fond of was quite lonely, as well as being brilliant, and he said one day he was nothing but the “fat boy.” He was sixteen years old, and seemed resigned to carrying the identity of “fat boy” to the end of his life. I told him, entirely sincerely, that I never thought of him as the “fat boy.” He was obese. Obviously, I noticed. But to me he was a funny, interesting, curious, compassionate, vulnerable human being. His weight concerned me because of the social stigma and quality of his health, but I never thought of him as the “fat boy.”
He could see that I was telling him the truth. I haven’t any idea what happened to him or what he’s been doing all these years, but I’ve always hoped he remembered there was an adult in his life who saw beyond the limitations of “fat boy” and recognized other pieces of his identity and potential. I hope he learned at some point that he didn’t have to settle for a life defined by his weight.
Photo by Edu Lauton on Unsplash
Over the years of my lifetime, more and more people seem to never mature past teenage identity. We build websites, profiles and a social media presence, desperately trying to sell a successful identity for attention, true love, power or money. We are so compulsive about taking selfies that we die doing it. There’s an explosion of people seeking plastic surgery in order to match their digitally-altered pictures. We have the technology to alter hair color, eye color and physical characteristics, and we’re saturated with digitally-altered images on media that keep us firmly convinced we’re unattractive and imperfect as we are. At the same time, we socially reinforce and perpetuate ridiculous gender, racial and ethnic roles, limitations and expectations.
Perfect strangers insist on imposing labels on us, or try to bully us into choosing one label over another. It’s an either-or black-and-white world, and new labels proliferate like maggots in road kill, creating ever-increasing lines of division and arenas for conflict.
Photo by Chris Barbalis on Unsplash
We are in such a hurry, we’re so overstimulated and anxious to not be left behind and to be validated, we’ve forgotten the simplicity of identity, and we’ve forgotten we don’t owe the world a public explanation or justification of our identity. Having a Facebook or Tinder profile does not constitute an identity. Having feelings and opinions about who we are is not an identity. Our carefully constructed pseudo self is not an identity. Our identity is not maintained and created by what others think, feel or say about us. Identity is not an endpoint, but a journey. Healthy identity is flexible. It adapts and changes as we live our lives. We are not who we wish we were, who we are afraid we are or necessarily who we think we are. We are not exactly who we were yesterday or who we’ll be tomorrow. We’re certainly not necessarily what others tell us we are, or must be, although objective reality always trumps our internal fantasies.
Our identity, like our power, is ours alone. We need not sell it or give it away, and it cannot be stolen from us. On the other hand, we must take responsibility for our own self-sabotage and mental disorders if we seek a healthy identity.
Healthy identity is complex and multi-dimensional. I’ve been daughter, sister, wife and mother, and I’m much more than any of those single roles. I’ve worked several jobs over my lifetime, but I’m more than any of those jobs. I have a physical identity in terms of vital statistics, Caucasian skin, blue eyes and female biology, but none of those markers identify me as completely as the fact that I’m a human being. A healthy identity also accommodates shadows, scars, less-than-useful coping mechanisms and behavior patterns.
My wish simply is to live my life as fully as I can. In both our work and our leisure, I think, we should be so employed. And in our time this means that we must save ourselves from the products that we are asked to buy in order, ultimately, to replace ourselves.” Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays
Tech allows us to create superficial fantasies of bright colors and pleasurable images, but those worlds are empty and brittle, like an enticing piece of candy that melts in a minute on our tongue and leaves nothing but the taste of sugar and artificial flavor. We cannot judge identity by houses, gardens, cars, vacations, pets, children, selfies, clothing, jobs or partners. Our possessions, our pictures and our memorabilia are not our identity. Somewhere, under all that stuff, behind all those pictures of success and happiness, apart from our fear and unwillingness to come to terms with our objective reality and our denial, lies the powerful, complex, fascinating, valuable person we really are, and that person longs to be identified and welcomed into life. That person longs to give and receive love, make a valued contribution and live authentically.
I’m interested in the way people self-define and introduce themselves. It always points to either what we ourselves feel is the largest part of our identity or what we think others will value or connect with most readily. This is what lies beneath every dating profile. What do we imagine prospective partners will be most attracted to? What’s the perfect thing to say which will limit unwanted matches and encourage those we imagine might provide whatever we’re looking for? How can we optimize the algorithm and make it work for us?
Sometimes I walk away from meeting a new person feeling overwhelmed and deafened by all the ways they labeled themselves but with no sense of the real human being I just interacted with. Instead of an easy, exploratory, getting-to-know-one-another conversation, I was bludgeoned with political jargon and identifiers, patronized and gratuitously instructed out of some kind of claimed expertise. It feels aggressive, weak and demanding. This is who I am and you will recognize my status, authority and identity! If you don’t apply one of my proud labels to yourself, you should. All the best people do. In any event, my labels are better than yours.
Our identity is not for others, but for ourselves. We’re the ones who need to know who we are, experience our feelings and monitor our thoughts. We’re the ones in charge of our dignity, our sexuality and our choices. We’re the ones responsible for our own integrity. As my hair greys and my fertility wanes, I become more and more physically invisible in the world. At the same time, I’ve never been as strong, as resilient, as wise and as compassionate as I am now. I’ve never loved so well. I’ve never felt so whole or comfortable in my own skin. I have no social media accounts and no cell phone. I don’t use any kind of apps, dating or otherwise. My identity is strong and dynamic, and it’s not for sale or on display. In fact, I’ve always felt being invisible is a great advantage. People who attract no attention are invariably underestimated and overlooked, especially aging female people.
At the end of the day, a life well lived is about being who we are, objective reality included, because everyone else is taken. Fantasy is fun, but real life is where all the juice is.
My daily crime.
“I look like vanilla pudding so nobody knows that on the inside I am spider soup.” Andrea Portes, Anatomy of a Misfit
It occurred to me this morning that, in general, I’m still confused about what I want.
I’ve had a tumultuous history with my own wants. At some point, very early, as I was learning to be a people pleaser, I gave up wanting anything because I thought it was bad. What I understood was that everyone else’s wants were far more important, and it was my more-than-full-time job to provide those wants rather than selfishly have my own. With rare exceptions, that’s been my modus operandi my whole life.
When I went through a life coaching and emotional intelligence program, my coach suggested I had a perfect right to get my needs met, and he defined some of my “wants” as needs, for example my longing for community and connection. I was enraged. Nobody had ever before made such an outrageous proposal. He clearly didn’t understand the terrible vulnerability of needing or wanting anything from anyone. Having the right to get needs and wants met was the most ludicrous, dangerous piece of heresy I’d ever heard.
That was four years ago, and I’m as angry about it now as I was the first time I heard it.
I also can’t leave the idea alone. I think about it all the time.
Photo by John Salvino on Unsplash
I picture my needs and wants as a snarling chained wolf with blazing eyes, nothing but matted grey hair over bones, backed into a tight corner, determined to go down fighting.
I grieve, literally, to admit I chained it there myself. I chained it without food, water or shelter, and walked away — for decades. During those years of neglect, it starved and thirsted. It suffered alone with no help, no hope, a solitary prisoner.
I’ve done a lot of animal rescue work in my time, and I know sometimes an animal is just too far gone to rehabilitate. Sometimes you can save their bodies, but the abuse and neglect they’ve suffered has damaged their will to live and their ability to trust and connect, and rescue comes too late. Sometimes, against all odds, some strength of heart or spirit survives and an animal accepts affection and care, but its body is too starved or broken to heal.
Part of what I’ve been doing since I’ve come to Maine is to try to rescue my chained wolf, this piece of self I rejected, denied and tried to destroy.
It’s a long process, filled with grief, shame and anger. It takes determination, patience, and the willingness to own my history, my pain and my choices, as well as consenting to my responsibility for my own self-healing. Overcoming internal taboos is desperately hard work, and Wanting is one of my oldest taboos.
Sometime last year I wrote a list titled “Things to Want.” It was short and consisted of necessities, mostly. After a lot of hesitation, I added two things that were not necessary but I just … wanted. It felt wrong. It felt shameful. I left the list on my desk and over the following days and weeks I looked at it as I went about my life. About eight months later I bought one of the unnecessary things, a perfumed body oil I love. It cost about $25.
It was like offering a little bit of bland food to my starving wolf, pushing it near with a stick so as to avoid getting mauled. Not so much food as to make it sick, but a place to start.
Photo by Arun Kuchibhotla on Unsplash
This morning, in the pause of winter and our first big snowstorm, my partner and I talked about our plans, our dreams, and our progress. Later, I went out to walk in the snow and I suddenly saw another layer to wanting, another step closer to making amends to my chained wolf.
Wanting is just the beginning. Making a Christmas list is only the top step. What’s the list under the Christmas list, and the list under that? What is it I really want, independent of anyone else? What about the dreams I hold in common with no one, that are just about and for me? If I was free — If my wolf could bound through the snowy landscape and disappear into the Yule forest — what would I want? If we could escape judgement, our own and others’; escape for a moment our stories and labels and self-definitions; escape family, social and tribalexpectations; escape our ideology (most imprisoning of all) and want, honestly, nakedly, with all our hearts, what would that Christmas list look like?
In other words, it’s not about the perfumed body oil (Aphrodisian Fire, by the way, from Kate’s Magik). It’s about touch, scent and caring for my thinning skin. It’s about deliberately honoring my own feminine sensuality.
I don’t need any particular product, cosmetic, clothing, gizmo or piece of technology in order to honor my own feminine sensuality, although there are plenty of things to buy that might support that want, including Aphrodisian Fire, but I see now those are really just symbols. I have the power to honor my sensuality in the way I live — in the choices I make about who I connect with and how, and how I treat myself.
Photo by Caley Dimmock on Unsplash
Santa hasn’t got my choices in his sleigh.
I’m very attached to the dreams my partner and I hold in common. I love our vision, and I’m invested in it. It’s going to take a lot of money, and we don’t have that right now.
Maybe we won’t ever have it.
Maybe I was a damn fool (again) and I should never, never, have listened to someone who says it’s okay to have needs and want them met. Maybe I should walk away from my wolf again, and this time never come back. Let it starve to death.
But maybe our grand vision and plans are only the top layers of what I really want. Maybe the plan is the wrapping paper around the real treasures of self-reliance; living as part of a complex, self-sustaining system; building independence from the energy grid and a culture I largely can’t support; fostering community and trusting in my greatest joy … writing.
I don’t have to wait for the plan to happen to have those things. I don’t need money. I don’t need to wait for someone else. I don’t need to brutally imprison or eliminate my wants and needs. I can be learning, building and transforming my life right now, today, from the inside out. I can, day by day, draw a step closer to my wolf with food, with water, with a gentle hand and with compassion, and maybe, one day, come close enough to remove the chain and let the poor creature go free and wild into the world, wanting and needing as it will.
So, I’m making a list and checking it twice. Or three times. I’m peering underneath the items, things, objects, stuff on that list. What is it I really want? What am I really longing for? And if I look under that, what do I find? What are the deepest wants and needs?