I don’t really like people knowing my age but with the Internet being what it is, anybody who wants to figure it out can do so. I emceed the TEDxMileHigh Reconnect show on August 6th, and the CEO of one of our sponsoring companies said, “I Googled you last night. I can’t believe you are that old! You look amazing.” Then he told the whole group standing around how old I was. (At least he didn’t do it in front of 2,000 attendees.) I thought about telling him that it’s okay to have an unexpressed thought, but he seemed like a sweet enough guy, so I let it go.
I also let it go because I too have a tendency to speak when remaining quiet would have been wiser. Uh, some of you, uh, know that. It’s one of the reasons I like Anne Lamott. She sometimes writes stuff, and you think, “Was it a good idea to actually put that in a book?” Anne Lamott seems good with it. She has learned to embrace herself as she is.
That is not a well-honed ability of mine – embracing myself as I am. The last year has been tough, because I’ve had more than one occasion in which I’ve needed to offer myself forgiveness, and it hasn’t come easily. I can be hard on myself. My genes and a giant fundamentalist dose of, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect,” are responsible for that. If only I’d known that word perfect meant, complete in all of its parts and for its intended purpose. Yeah! Understanding that would have been helpful. I could have spared myself a hell of a lot of agony over not being, well, perfect. Of course, there are still those self-critical genes – damn multi-generational transmission process.
Anyway, learning self-acceptance is hard work. But when you are able to extend grace to yourself, it is much easier to be curious about yourself and others. “Why did I behave that way? ” “I didn’t know I was capable of doing that.” “What brought that up from the basement?” Curiosity is so much more productive than self-flagellation. Curiosity can actually lead to growth, though it is a kind of growth that is likely to start as mourning. But don’t worry, it’s a good kind of mourning.
There was that time Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” That word “mourn” means to mourn the specific nature of your own weaknesses, the parts of yourself that try as you might, you just can’t get ahold of. The parts of yourself that curiosity, insight, and the will to grow, still cannot be purged from your being. The best your curiosity, insight, and will can do is recognize these tendencies when they show up, and do your best to inflict as little damage as possible. The Jungian analyst James Hollis calls this kind of painful self-knowledge, “existential guilt.” While the knowledge itself might be existential guilt, I call the specific weaknesses my “abiding shadows.”
Some people are aware of their abiding shadows. They have learned to accept their humanity and no longer beat themselves up for not being perfect. They have stopped being judgmental toward themselves and others and have learned to be curious. Their curiosity is a manifest attribute of their self-acceptance.
Others carry a heavy judgmental spirit that truncates curiosity. It is a sign they have not yet accepted themselves as they are, flaws and all. Their judgmentalism is a coat of armor. They are masters at justifying their own decisions and condemning yours. They are novices at looking at themselves in the mirror. They have great ego need and not a lot of ego strength. I have a lot of sympathy for them, because we all start there.
To be a good therapist you have to be curious and self-aware. Otherwise, you are doomed to commit the sin of countertransference, projecting your own unresolved issues onto your unsuspecting clients. Most of us know where our abiding shadows lie. We don’t treat clients that are going to pull those up from the basement. We refer those souls to another therapist.
I’m a little bummed it took me so long to get somewhere within the vicinity of self-acceptance. I mean, I’m older than dirt. (Remember, the CEO told a whole group of people that.) But then I must remember that while I’m not so good in the self-acceptance department, I’m quite accomplished in others. Like maybe even wise. That is how life works. Our blind spots persist. Our abiding shadows abide. But the goodness and wisdom that reside within us, cohabitating with those abiding shadows, somehow manages to heal others through a kind of holy alchemy.
Life is more fascinating, redemptive, and hopeful when you start with curiosity instead of judgment. As you travel with others, you can gently help them find the obstacles that are keeping them stuck short of finding their own curiosity, insight and will to grow. With your peculiar wisdom as a guide, they can find the strength to look into the depths and see their own abiding shadows. You experience joy watching them come into that deeper self-awareness, because you know it will eventually lead to self-acceptance and amazing grace.
I cried on Monday when I found out Frederick Buechner died. He was the first author to crack open the door of my own curiosity. This is what he wrote in his wonderful little book, Whistling in the Dark:
If you want to know what loving your neighbors is all about, look at them with more than just your eyes. The bag lady settling down for the night on the hat air grating. The two children chirping like birds in the sandbox. The bride as she walks down the aisle on her father’s arm. the old man staring into space in the nursing home TV room. Try to know them for who they are inside their skins. Hear not just the words they speak but the words they do not speak. Feel what it’s like to be who they are – chirping like a bird because for the moment you are a bird, trying not to wobble as you move slowly into the future with all eyes upon you.
When Jesus said, “All ye that labor and are heavy laden,” he was seeing the rich as well as the poor, the lucky as well as the unlucky, the idle as well as the industrious. He was seeing the bride on her wedding day. He was seeing the old man in front of the TV. He was seeing all of us. The highest work of the imagination is to have eyes like that.