the self


I once knew a woman who was an echo chamber. She echoed things she’d heard other people say and pass it off as her own wisdom. I caught her at this several times (although I never confronted her with it). She once even echoed back something I’d said to her without remembering where she’d heard it from. She was also fond of spouting platitudes (another form of echo, really), and I took to calling her Platitude Woman to my friends. But this strategy worked, for the most part. She projected an image of competence and charm, even if it was only skin deep.

There had to be something more to her, I know there was something more to her, but she was so broken, so tragic-playing-at-I’m-fine, so holding herself together with bits of wire and cellophane tape, so wanting to be thought wise and whole and strong and charming that, it seems to me, she only had these echoes to sustain her.

Surely there had to be more.

Surely there were things in that years-long blank in her memory of her childhood that she sometimes talked to me about that made the hollow sound of other people’s thoughts and words preferable to anything genuine from her own psyche. She drove me crazy so much of the time with her terrifying need to talk about I-me-mine, turning every conversation no matter how far afield back to a discussion of herself and her family and the bad old days. She steadfastly refused therapy, saying she was scared of what she might find out.

I used to think it was my duty to listen to every person who needed to talk, to use my empathy in an attempt to rescue and to heal. This woman cured me (mostly) of that. I have, at least, learned that I have limits, that at a certain point I will damage myself if I persist in my savior complex. That, really, it is an insult to the needy person to think that I know best, that I can turn things around for them.

But it’s so easy to slip back into that fantasy of being able to fix people. I regularly wound up in the glide path of needy people who engaged my empathy. I was frequently told I was such a good listener. I suffered from the delusion that I could rescue people, help fix them. But it is a delusion. You can listen, you can help, point them in the direction of people who are trained to actually help, but ultimately people have to find the will to fix themselves. It’s not weakness of character that turns needy people away from that will to change. Some, like my echoing friend, are so broken it doesn’t even seem an option to them. Especially if that brokenness happened in childhood.

The echoing woman drained me dry—physically, emotionally, spiritually. I sat next to her at work every day for years and couldn’t escape those conversations. Some days as soon as my feet hit the door she started talking until finally I’d have to say, “I really need to get some work done” and turn my back on her. But I felt her staring at my back, willing me to turn around, needing me to listen. Some days I had to get up from my desk and take long walks around the building just to keep my sanity.

Then she injured her back, had surgery, followed by heavy duty pain medicines, developed a problem, was carried along at work by those of us who cared for until she was finally urged by management to consider retirement. Her job was an important part of her ego structure and it took a great deal of increasingly strong persuasion to get her to finally agree to it. The urging became another source of her victimization: she was doing a great job, anyone could see that, and the company was picking on her. Those of us who had actually been doing her work, even those of us who did not usually come down on the side of the company vs. the employee, tried to make it as easy as we could without feeding her sense of outraged victimization. It was not easy.

She had nothing left to anchor her at that point. I think, finally, she found relief from the echo chamber of trauma in her mind and soul by numbing them instead of dealing with them. I can’t judge her for that. What I heard of the parts of her childhood and young life that she did remember was pretty bad. Her mother was schizotypal in a time when that diagnosis wasn’t common, and, like my echoing friend, never got treatment. A brother and a sister were diagnosed, years later, and a third brother was frequently homeless and living on the margins. The burden of caring for them often fell on my echoing friend’s shoulders. Her brothers, who she’d fought so hard to take care of and shepherd through a heartless system, died within twenty-four hours of each other. The sister finally reconciled with her estranged son and he took over her care. Then came the drugs, and my echoing friend let go completely. She retreated into dreams, to a place where the harsh sounds were muted, where someone else could take over the burden of being wise and held together with wire and bits of cellophane. Where she could turn her face away from the world and slowly, peacefully slip into death.

Surely, there must have been something more. I still sometimes wish I could have fixed her, though she’s been gone years now. I hope she found healing on the other side of dreams, the other side of sweet oblivion.

But I’ll never know. Or, at least, not until I slip into the other side of my dreams.

 

 

 

 

I once wrote an essay about the mysteries of character. It involved someone I knew as a child, Dr. Raymond La Scola, who plummeted in a long, hard fall, and with my difficulty in reconciling the kind man I’d known with the man he became. His fall involved some notoriety and salacious bits so I occasionally hear from people who also knew him. People do periodic searches for him—which means, I guess, that I’m not the only person who is haunted, in a way, by Dr. La Scola. If you want to read those comments, both a mixture of positive and not at all positive, they can be found here.

Another one showed up yesterday and whenever one of these pops up it has me meditating all over again about the fragile fabric of memory and the frayed fabric of human character. I’ve lived long enough to know that nothing is black and white; there are far more than 50 shades of gray; that even the darkest of souls may show brief flashes of light; that no light is ever without specks of dark. But the mechanism controlling this remains the deepest mystery.

I also know that if we look deep enough, and with enough truth, into our own hearts and souls we will see the ragged ends of our stitchery. None of us are composed of wholecloth. We are a patchwork of influences and neuroses, beliefs and prejudices, of imagination and reality. Whatever the hell reality is supposed to be. We are shells containing the many ghosts of our selves.

And some of us have very leaky shells indeed.

Which is not to say we can’t work on ourselves, reinforce the stitching where needed, put brightly colored patches on to fill the gaps. But there will always be more gaps and more frays and more need to look deep to find them and do the necessary work. That is the mission of our lives. Not everyone is willing to take up this calling, not everyone even recognizes that the work must be done. Many are content to just buffer the shell and hope it fools enough people. Mostly themselves.

And that’s all I’ve got today. Time to get back to work.

Random quote of the day:

“Without self-compassion or some kind of loving-kindness toward oneself, nothing is ever going to happen on the spiritual path. It will never get off the ground.”

—Pema Chödrön, The Lion’s Roar, October 15, 2017

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this random quote of the day do not necessarily reflect the views of the poster, her immediate family, Desus and Mero, Beyoncé, or the Marine Corps Marching Band. They do, however, sometimes reflect the views of the Cottingley Fairies.

Random quote of the day:

“All you have is what you are, and what you give.”

—Ursula K. LeGuin, The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this random quote of the day do not necessarily reflect the views of the poster, her immediate family, Desus and Mero, Beyoncé, or the Marine Corps Marching Band. They do, however, sometimes reflect the views of the Cottingley Fairies.

Random quote of the day:

“Treat yourself as though you’re raising a child. Imagine you are a child that you are raising and that you love very dearly. You know you need to give the child a lot of love and nurturing, but the child also needs some boundaries. You’re not going to let yourself eat all the candy and run out into traffic. In your heart, you know what is going to help you grow.”

—Pema Chödrön, The Lion’s Roar, October 15, 2017

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this random quote of the day do not necessarily reflect the views of the poster, her immediate family, Desus and Mero, Beyoncé, or the Marine Corps Marching Band. They do, however, sometimes reflect the views of the Cottingley Fairies.

Random quote of the day:

“We are, I know not how, double in ourselves, so that what we believe we disbelieve, and cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn.”

—Michel de Montaigne, Complete Works of Michel de Montaigne, ed. William Carew Hazlitt

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this random quote of the day do not necessarily reflect the views of the poster, her immediate family, Key and Peele, Celine Dion, or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. They do, however, sometimes reflect the views of the Cottingley Fairies.

 

Random quote of the day:

“Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth.”

—Alan Watts, quoted in Life magazine, April 21, 1961

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this random quote of the day do not necessarily reflect the views of the poster, her immediate family, Key and Peele, Celine Dion, or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. They do, however, sometimes reflect the views of the Cottingley Fairies.

As of today, I have been retired one year.

It was the best decision I ever made, although it was actually my body that made the decision. It had been rebelling against me for some time—arthritis caught up to me much earlier than it does to most—and it had become increasingly difficult physically get in to work and do my job. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted to retire, it would just have been better for me financially if I could have waited longer. But it wasn’t in the cards.

As it turned out, as things often do with the Universe, what I thought of as a negative turned into a positive. If I hadn’t retired when I did, in the month following my actual retirement date a large portion of my funding would have dried up and I would have been scrambling, with diminishing energy, to find new funding. Not only that, my colleagues who have continued to work at my former place of employment have seen changes that have left them deeply distressed. Everyone I’ve spoken to has told me I got out just in time.

I had thought to accomplish more in the year passed. But in reckoning up the score I realize I have accomplished quite a lot. It’s just that most of it has been internal. I am not the same person I was one year ago, and the changes have been mostly positive. Oh sure, there are things that could be better, and in some ways I’ve backslid, but this has been a year of finding myself, of redefining myself. I’ve spoken of this before: I never knew retirement would be so much like adolescence.

So here I am again at the time of the Autumn Equinox, seeking balance and rectification and redefinition. But none of that scares me particularly. It’s part of the ongoing journey, a lifelong process. In the fairy stories, journeys and geas and curses and whatnot always last a year and a day. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? But I’m good to go.

Random quote of the day:

“Your fate is to be yourself, both punishment and crime.”

—Jane Hirshfield, “Envy: An Assay”

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this random quote of the day do not necessarily reflect the views of the poster, her immediate family, Key and Peele, Celine Dion, or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. They do, however, sometimes reflect the views of the Cottingley Fairies.

Random quote of the day:

“If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.”

—Jack Kornfield, Buddha’s Little Instruction Book

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this random quote of the day do not necessarily reflect the views of the poster, her immediate family, Key and Peele, Celine Dion, or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. They do, however, sometimes reflect the views of the Cottingley Fairies.

 

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