Growing up in our house on East 9th Street in Brooklyn, we had a desk that fit in the corner of our dining room – a caddy corner desk of white oak that I enjoyed sitting under. I often set up my family of dolls under the desk. One day I was fascinated by an old broken rotary phone, probably made from Bakelite. I looked at the shiny black shell and wondered how it made the phone work. As any curious kid would do, I pried it off. Underneath were gears, bells and whistles. I realized that the outer shell wasn’t what made the phone work, there were so many other parts hidden inside. The outer shell was simply protection.
As I got older, the image of that phone stuck with me. I began to notice that human beings are like that old telephone — we have our outer shell, our bodies that we adorn with fashionable clothes, and our hair and make-up that we spend countless hours protecting, as if we were the dolls we played with as little children. But the reality is, like the phone, the outer shell is only the casing. The protection. Underneath are our own gears, bells and whistles that make up who we truly are, and what drives us. Our feelings, goals, needs, and desires. Everything that makes up our authentic selves.
I have always thought of myself as an introspective person with an outer shell that I enjoyed adorning with nice hair styles and colorful outfits, but I also strived for a peaceful existence. I educated myself, attempting to be self aware, to understand my feelings and how they affect the way I live. Helping others both in my personal and professional life has always been important to me. I thought my life was leading in the right direction. I learned about Eastern philosophy and Buddhism and began to practice meditation. I was aware of how my unresolved childhood issues affected my self esteem and how that limited my ability to go beyond my self imposed limits. Even though I believed I was self aware, I still buried my unpleasantness under a blanket of niceness. On the outside I appeared to be wise, fashionable, and mild mannered while on the inside I was self critical, judgmental and envious. I felt I was reasonably successful at hiding that dark side even from myself — and i was confident that no one knew how sharp those edges really were.
Unpleasant feelings can eat away at us. In order to cope, some of us focus on our physical appearance, excessively shopping and exercising, while others try to eat away their fears. Alcohol or drugs can also hide what we feel inside. We blame others for making us feel bad, we become envious when someone does something great. We put people on pedestals and then look for ways to knock them back down. We’re intimidated by someone’s greatness making us feel terribly inadequate. We can fool ourselves into believing that something is true or false, ignoring reality and insisting that what we believe is The Truth. In that way, we don’t have to look any further, specifically within ourselves. We resist doing this because knowledge of what’s inside requires responsibility and action. It turns out that understanding these ways of hiding our feelings is a starting point to growth because the question that eventually comes to mind is, “What are these defensive behaviors trying to hide anyway?”
The answer started becoming more clear to me when I was diagnosed and treated for lymphoma. Having a life threatening illness tore all those defenses apart. During the diagnosing stage I was anxious, during the treatment stage I was scared, and the end result is that having cancer, and simultaneously trying to protect myself from covid left me feeling fragile and vulnerable. Being faced with the real possibility that I could die made my every-day neurotic worrying about my perceived inadequacies a minor issue. I still feel raw and exposed, my outer shell cracked like Humpty Dumpty.
Thinking about the end of life takes precedence over everything. Am I ready for life to be over? What did I accomplish? Was it enough? Do I want more? While part of me didn’t want the struggle and discomfort of treatment, another part of me, an instinctual force, moved forward anyway and I realized that is what resistance is. Both desire and dread existed at the same time inside me, a push/pull emotional conflict of wanting to move forward while simultaneously fearing the unknown. It was paralyzing. This conflict of opposites helped me to see that this also occurs in other parts of my life: wanting more but not feeling good enough. This little war within myself, the resistance, was illuminated in my life/death situation. Feeling inadequate is where my sadness comes from and there is no amount of fancy clothes, good jobs, great vacations, or new skills that can cover up these dark feelings. We can look good on the outside but the inner workings of our own bells gears and whistles can still be out of order, just like the broken telephone I played with as a child.
With treatment completed, I was left to rebuild both my outer shell and my inner gears. I had to regain my physical strength and understand a whole new set of emotions, needs and desires. My old life and way of being no longer existed, I was left face to face with what I saw as my inadequacies. The heaviness from unresolved issues left me feeling too scared to move on, but after facing cancer, I had new resilience. Low self esteem, jealousy, and shame are now easier to examine. They are not nearly as daunting as they used to be, but I’m still working at finding my way forward. That old expression, “You can’t go home again” rings true because my old path no longer fit. Being 60 pounds lighter and having totally different hair makes me feel like more new beginnings are also in order and seeing resistance more clearly gives me the insight that enables me to make more choices.
I don’t want to hide any part of who I am. I remember an essay in “All I Really Need to Know, I learned in Kindergarten” by Robert Flulghum where the author watched neighborhood kids playing hide and seek. A child hid under a pile of leaves near his window and while everyone was enjoying the excitement of finding and seeking, he remained hidden. The essay ended with the author advising this child, “Get found, kid.” This has resonated with me for a long time because I see how my pride has kept my sadness and feelings of inadequacy hidden, so in keeping with my need to be more authentic I need to identify this dark side.I need to acknowledge its presence. It’s certainly not all of who I am, because as sad as I feel at times, I also feel love, joy and a desire for greatness.
I am learning that my resistance is working when I feel like “I can’t” — that fear disguises my desire, and brings on sadness. Sometimes I don’t even know what I want because my desire is so overwhelmed by my defenses. They put up a facade of, “Well, it’s not important.” It’s like the shiny red apple that looks delicious but the inside is rotten.
I am learning, therefore, that the idea is not to hide but to get to know more about my darkness. My childhood wounds left me scarred. When I grew up, and evolved into a beautiful capable being, my scars remained buried, holding me back and affecting how I feel about myself. I am learning.
I acknowledge my resistance by asking that part of myself questions, as if I’m trying to get to know a stranger. It helps me create balance. I have learned that we can lovingly embrace our wounded inner child and show him or her that we are capable adults now and combine the authenticity of our childhood with the wisdom of adulthood, so we can move forward in life with joy instead of trepidation.
The road to an honest look at myself is ongoing — my goal is to know all of me, inside and out so I can celebrate my wholeness with the knowledge that I am perfectly imperfect.