Archives for March, 2011
“Home is in the circle of your arms.” I have a feeling that this message, written along the side of a nearby house, is meant to be about someone else’s arms. (As in, home is in the arms of somebody else). Yet what struck me when I read it was how each of us are also our own homes – emotionally, intellectually, existentially. So, in a very real sense, home is in the circle of our arms… We are our own permanent address (while ever we’re – impermanently – on this planet). Almost snail-like, we carry these homes – our habitual thoughts, our reflex responses, our ways of seeing ourselves and the world – around with us. It reminds me of what Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote: “Wherever you go, there you are.” So what’s yours like, your internal ‘home’? How long is it since you’ve actually stood back and taken a real look at it? And how might it be influencing your experience of the rest of the world?
How well do you know yourself? Not just the bits that are easy to see in the light… but the parts that lurk in the shadows, too. The more hidden, darker undersides. The parts that might be harder to catch a glimpse of. That you’re less comfortable with – or even unconscious of. Or maybe you don’t believe you have any of those… Carl Jung believed that you do. A luminary of the psychological realm, and founder of analytical psychology, Jung pioneered a whole new outlook on the way we tick. He peered into our darker spaces and our dim, forgotten corners. And there he saw the shadow play that he felt we all engage in. Jung thought each of us (even you) harbour both constructive and destructive forces – the good and the bad – the yin and the yang. And our shadow self is simply part of that rich mix. It’s just that it happens to be the darker side. The less socially acceptable one. The dangerous. “…The side of ourselves that we would prefer not to recognise.”  So it’s the bits you’d rather disown. Or deny. The stuff that might unconsciously drive you in directions that your more public self could feel embarrassed about, shocked over, or even ashamed of. The secret self… Do you feel like you might have one of those?
Have you heard of ‘tall poppy syndrome’? It’s that social tendency which sees high achievers – ‘tall poppies’ – as standing ‘above the crowd’ somehow; and it cuts them down to size. And if it’s taken root in your patch, it can make it tricky for you to strive. To grow. To dare to put yourself out there in the world and try your best at what you’re passionate about. For it can be a pretty potent motivator to stay small…safe…(silent, even). Once it’s put like that, tall poppy syndrome starts to sound a bit like fear of judgment. Or maybe even fear of success. Do any of these things sound familiar to you? If so, what is it, exactly, that you might fear if you stuck your head up above the parapet? (It might be worth getting to know that stuff a little better, for, often, we can carry around fairly nebulous worries that can actually draw strength from remaining indistinct… Getting clearer about them sometimes brings them into sharper focus; makes them more known to you. Maybe even more manageable).
What’s your relationship with perfectionism like? Does it sometimes storm in wielding a red pen? Does it make it hard for you to even begin things sometimes, knowing that it’s waiting to judge you? Or have you learned to negotiate with it? There’s something that’s always struck me as a little strange about perfectionism. It assumes completion – that a thing can be finished. Whole. Over. Done. So in a world where it seems that ‘the only constant is change’, perfectionism demands a static ending. It wants the destination over the journey… That’s so different from this little handwritten note on an otherwise blank noticeboard in a stiflingly, clinically (‘perfectly’) refurbished waiting room: “I’m a work in progress” So how do you want to approach your life?
So much seems caught in this handful of words (on another strangely insightful billboard*): “One day could change your life.” For, existentially, all of our lives seem certain to change one day – changed forever from the life we know into something we can only understand as an ending; as death. One day, life; one day, not. Yet how easy it is to forget this. To, instead, get caught up in the other kind of ‘one day’ – as in: “One day, I’ll get around to fixing that broken step/heart/relationship”. Or, “One day I’ll finally have the courage to test out my dream of …” Or, “One day, I’ll eventually let myself be the kind of person I secretly feel myself to be.” One day… (Just not today).
I wonder how many ethical choices you’ll face today. How many dilemmas. Decisions, big and small, about how to respond; what to do; who to be… And what will guide you in those choices? Will you consult your moral compass? (And what might that compass actually look like?) In fact, is your moral compass even actually yours to begin with? Or have you just inherited the standard model that society or your family or your community might like to push into your hands? Have you ever questioned the validity of it – how reliable it is in certain conditions or whether it has any limitations – or do you just follow it blindly?
In Part 1 of this post, we looked at the concept of safety in relationships, and drawing a boundary around the damaging behaviour in them (the axe in the forest). So what about your relationship with your self? Are there parts of that relationship that are potentially damaging to you, too? Parts where you’re sharpening your own blade against yourself? Are there thoughts you catch yourself thinking that seem to do more harm than good? That leave you feeling depleted? Cut down? Maybe there’s a harsh sense of self-judgment? Maybe there’s self-doubt? Maybe there’s just an overwhelming sense of not being any good? Feeling defective somehow. If so, then could it be possible to draw a boundary around that stuff as well? To protect your inner forest from the blades of those axes.
I took this photo many years ago, in Germany, where the woodpiles are stacked high in preparation for long, cold winters. This particular scene was in a forest, with the cut, dead wood being framed by the living. It reminded me of a powerful saying: When the axe came into the forest, the trees said, ‘The handle is one of us’. It’s pretty chilling… And it seems to outline the dangers of putting loyalty before safety; putting the relationship before the self. Have you ever done that? Is it possible you might be doing it now? Maybe even in small ways that just chip quietly away at you. That slowly whittle you away…
There’s an old broken piano keyboard in someone’s pile of junk out in my street, waiting for the garbage truck. Most of the keys are bent and some have broken off. It’s looking pretty forlorn… Have you ever felt a bit like that sometimes? Like some of your keys have gone missing somehow. Or some of your strings have been busted. Or you’re just generally out-of-tune; neglected; broken. Maybe at times like those it’s been tempting to just give up and wait for the truck… But maybe there’s another option, too?
This chalk drawing on the pavement made me smile as I wandered past it yesterday. And then I noticed the bits of chalk laying alongside it, like an invitation. A chance to add to the picture; to build on what’s already there; to join the dots anew... And it struck me how easy it can be sometimes to do exactly the opposite in life… Instead, to sort of stand before the image you’re faced with (the image of your life), and just wish it was different. Or to compare it to some idealized picture of how life ‘should’ be, or ‘could have been.’ Just standing there and willing it to simply change somehow. To be ‘better’ somehow; different somehow. A funny thing about this kind of wishful thinking is that a lot of it seems to happen in your mind and not so much on the canvas of your life. So getting swept up in reveries of how things would look if they were as they ‘should be’ or ‘might have been’ may actually stop you from clearly seeing what’s actually there right in front of you. And it might even stop you picking up the chalk…