Thursday, June 5, 2014

Threadbare and lovin' it

"Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby."
Recently I was invited to join the faculty of an organization called the Institute for Conscious Being. At first I thought they had the wrong number. I found myself teaching a writing course and surrounded by an incredibly brilliant group of people. Faculty members include an Episcopal priest, a Catholic nun, an Harvard-trained clinical psychologist and a New York Times best-selling author. (Sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, right? As in, "A priest, a nun and a psychologist went into a bar...")  I have to say it's a dream come true. Four years ago, I was an unemployed editor struggling with divorce and some very difficult issues. How in the world did I end up here? I believe I arrived at this very wonderful destination by owning up to my true self.

The Institute uses the principles of the Enneagram as a method for discovering one’s true spiritual self And no, despite it's odd-sounding name, the Enneagram has nothing to do with witchcraft or the occult and it's not a parlor game. (Read more about it here—and take the free assessment.) 

The idea behind the Enneagram is that we all are born in divine perfection and over the years, we put on all sorts of armor to shield us from the crappy things that happen to us along the way. For example, I'm six years old, and my beloved cat runs away and I'm inconsolable. Boom! Up goes armor. My dad has to work and misses my performance in the school play. Armor up! My best friend puts a preying mantis in my Snoopy lunch box then makes fun of  me while I scream my head off in the lunchroom. Armor! After my first date, I make out with the boy and then he tells everyone that I'm the worst kisser in the world. You guessed it—up goes the armor! 

These are minor offenses, of course. You can imagine (or know) what happens when really terrible things happen, when family members die, or you're abused or abandoned by a parent. The armor goes up and we learn to respond to life in a manner than seems to relieve the pain. Of course, this armor is ego. And ego is not an all-together evil thing, but often in the process of trying to protect ourselves, we buy into the ego self and set aside healthy and true aspects of our personality. Then, at some point in our lives (a-hem! often around middle age) when the old, unhealthy responses no longer bring relief—and in fact may be causing more harm—we finally look for a better way to live.

Returning to my authentic self seemed scary at first. I mean, I looked sorta cool in my armor. What if I'm just a big nerd beneath it all? And yet, only when I remove that hardened shell can I know what it means to be truly alive.

Last night, I was reminded of a beautiful story that encapsulates the concept of finding one's true self. This wisdom comes from a beloved children's book, The Velveteen Rabbit. In this passage the story's hero, the Velveteen Rabbit, is chatting with the Skin Horse, another toy/resident of the nursery where they live. Rabbit asks Horse what it means to be real.

“'Real isn't how you are made,' said the Skin Horse. 'It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.'

'Does it hurt?' asked the Rabbit. 

'Sometimes,' said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. 'When you are Real you don't mind being hurt.' 

'Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,' he asked, 'or bit by bit?' 

'It doesn't happen all at once,' said the Skin Horse. 'You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand.'” 

In her book, Daring Greatly, author and researcher Brene Brown describes this passage from Margery Williams' classias "a beautiful reminder of how much easier it is to become real when we know we're loved." I respectfully submit the converse is also true: 

It's easier to be loved when we know we are real. 

Being real may not feel easier at first, but only when I'm my authentic, honest self am I truly lovable. Anything short of really real and you may love me, but your love will be on condition of my ability to keep up a facade. When I am 100% myself, I know I am loved unconditionally.

Maybe this is why people in mid-life (like me) tend to have identity crises. We are finally ready to get real. Certainly, at this point in my life, my hair is thinning, my eyes are getting weak (must get bifocals!), my joints creak and I'm a bit shabby, but my sharp edges have been worn smooth and I can no longer be broken quite so easily. 

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