“Life is not a matter of creating a special name for ourselves, but of uncovering the name we have always had.”–Richard Rohr
Some of my favorite events as a child were those extended family events spent around a dinner table. Depending upon the size of the gathering, we kids might have been interspersed among the grown-ups, or seated at our own table, but regardless of assigned seat, we often listened in on the adults’ conversations. These beloved grown-ups were commanding narrators, needling out one anecdote after another. The combining effect of each account felt as if a patchwork quilt of life were being stitched together before our childhood eyes. Great guffaws of laughter flowed over and around us as each chronicler appeared to compete for the best speil. As a child, I yearned for that ability . . .
Perhaps it was the change of weather, the mostly cloudy days, filled with damp and chilly temperatures. Of course, it could also have been the rising daily count of COVID cases. Then again, it could have been the shifting job roles–depending upon those same numbers. Maybe it was the overwhelming loss of lives in 2020; the unemployment rate affecting many loved ones, friends, and acquaintances; the uncertain national, global, and political landscape; or maybe it is the fact that trying to find soft toilet paper and a safe cleaning products for home is still a never ending battle! Whatever the cause, this past week, I personally found that sleep was often elusive, and by Thursday and Friday, I was often given to weepiness and felt down right melancholy as my mind slid into “story mode.”
Depending upon the situation, the “Story of Steph,” if given permission to run out of control, can be quite tragic, valiant, humble, or any variation in between. This week it was a well-rehearsed, negative narrative that began to echo around in my head. By the week’s end, the volumes of these fables were fully crescendoed.
The week began with an appetizer of “you’re-not-good-enough,” followed up by a tossed salad of “you never-have-been” and “you never-will-be.” Next came the main-course of “you’re-a-failure,” along with sides of “you’re-never-right, not-smart, not-good, and not-worthy.” The mental construct of poor-pitiful-me was tantruming into a full frenzy.
I suppose as an adult, I should not admit to such mental theatrics. In fact, I suppose there is risk in sharing these stories. However, I choose to share, partly in the hope that it will foster my own compassion and understanding of the truth, and partly with the hope that my experience may help others who may also undergo similar stories of the mind.
Naturally, there are other stories that we all, myself included, prefer to show the world. Stories regarding our role in our family; our careers; our perceived social, political, and economic status; our relationships, friends, and associations/affiliations; the list could go on. The point is, the story-of-self is driven by the ego and our desire to survive, and perhaps fit-in (or not fit-in); and, 2020 has certainly made all of us feel threatened, insecure, and uncertain. Therefore, it is even more critical that we understand that our mental constructs are not necessarily reflective of reality and often not the truth. This is an especially important tool as we segue from one challenging year to another.
“Don’t laugh at a youth for his affectations; he is only trying on one face after another to find his own.” -Logan Pearsall Smith
Our self-prescribed stories change as we grow and develop depending upon influences, experiences, life-events, family status, career position and so forth. The role of these stories are not necessarily bad. Roles and expectations of one’s personal role develop even as a baby/toddler. If I behave this way, then a certain positive or negative thing happens, and we feel (or don’t feel) safe, secure, valued, and loved. As we grow, and hormones kick in, we begin to try out new roles, new ways of be-ing, from the way we behave, to the ways in which we choose to appear to others, as peers begin to gain influence in our desire to feel secure, safe, and valued. With each stage, new roles are tried on, and later tossed aside, in an attempt to find the role that brings us the greatest feelings of value, security and/or worth. As a whole, this is a natural part of human development.
Unfortunately, as humans, we tend to attach too much to roles and to the should-das, would-das, and could-das of life roles and fulfillment. The stories we tell ourselves often skew and mask reality. Social media adds to the distortion of who we should be, and often sends us to our proverbial closet of stories in an attempt to find the perceived right role, and soon another story is formed in an attempt to gain more self-perceived value. The more we judge and compare our stories to that of others, the more we create discomfort by reinforcing and habituating judgement and critical patterns of thinking of what we should be do-ing and how we should be be-ing. The compounding effect of all these stories is that we lose touch with what Fr. Richard Rohr refers to as “the face we had before we were born.”
“I have heard of your paintings too, well enough; God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another.” – William Shakespeare
The concept of, “the face we had before we were born,” is not original to Friar Rohr, but it was his words that reminded me of this notion in a recent reading. In fact, Rohr likes to remind readers that if God created everything, and people were designed in God’s image, then all of us are stamped with the blueprint of God’s DNA. Therefore, we are all infinitely and blessedly children of God.
Unfortunately, this week, I had become so attached to the image of who I should be, how I should be, what I should be do-ing, and how others view me, that I became far removed from my so-called, “original God-given face.” I began to believe my own false-narratives, creating my own pain and suffering. I suspect that I am not the only one who does this, especially in the year of 2020.
If we could learn to let go of our false survival based stories, drop the self-limiting beliefs, and quit taking negative events so personally, and allow ourselves to relax, trusting that the Divine is ever-present with us, then we can begin to free ourselves from the need to be reactive, judgmental, self-critical, controlling, combative, or confrontational. Yes, I know this sounds too idealistic, but what if it really is that simple?
My brother recently reminded me of what our Grandmother Helen would say, who often babysat us, if she thought one of my siblings or me was lying. Her classic start to this conversation began by stating our name, followed up with her unique query.
“Stethie,” (or whomever) “Are you storyin’? Are you telling me a story?”
At the time, my brother and I both had a good laugh at this fond remembrance. It was only after I wrote this reflection, that Grandmother’s phrase once more returned to mind. Not only did it put a smile on my face, but it also gave me even greater insight to my own negative self-talk, and it empowered me with a new phrase to use as a reminder when I have given “stories” permission to hide my “original face.”
Thank you, Grandmother Helen. You always had a way of succinctly getting to the point.