I want to express profound gratitude to two individuals whose writing and insights have given me enormous comfort and courage as I proceed with the examination of my life story. They are not alone in the pantheon of the wise and kind, but they are stellar. Thank you, Brené Brown and Eckhart Tolle.
I will begin with this quote from Brené Brown:
“Our stories of worthiness – of being enough – begin in our first families. The narrative certainly doesn’t end there, but what we learn about ourselves and how we learn to engage with the world as children sets a course that [may] require us to spend a significant part of our life fighting to reclaim our self-worth… (Brené Brown, Daring Greatly, p 216-217)
Here’s one of the first memories that comes to mind. I’m a preteen, visiting my paternal grandparents. We spend an evening at the home of their long time friends, people who have known my siblings and I since we were born. After supper we play a game of Scrabble. I’m enjoying the experience; not exactly a ‘grownup evening’, but special nonetheless. When there is a debate about the Scrabble acceptability of a word, I am sent to the next room to fetch the dictionary.
The moment I am out of sight (but not ear shot), Mr. G pronounces “It’s a shame Cathy takes after her mother; she could be a very attractive girl.” My grandfather concurs, deriding my mother’s body size and agreeing that I am not likely to marry well. At the time, I didn’t even notice that their wives did not speak up; I shut down completely and didn’t hear another word all evening.
How or why has this ‘minor’ incident continued to be so charged? Well, I’ve answered this question before: I have given it power for years. I enhanced its strength because I never spoke about it. I never even imagined telling my parents what I overheard. Never. Why? Did I believe that they agreed? Was I already so convinced that I was unworthy and therefore had no reason to complain, since they were just speaking the truth? Was I scared of what my parents might say?
* * *
Owning my story does not mean making it my life story – creating my reality by perpetuating the story line. So, I’ve made a museum. Actually I think I made it long ago, enshrining the incidents and people who caused me to feel pain and shame; those who shamed me. The central gallery has contained larger-than-life-size images of my father and his father. That has been the core, the heart of the collection: Childhood. There is also an Adolescent wing.
For many years I’ve wandered these halls, having locked myself in; I was trapped inside. While there, I regularly re-lived these events and the figures of these men grew with each replay, like characters in a tale by the Brothers Grimm. In silent action clips, I fed their looming shadows, swelling their images for decades.
As I’ve begun sharing these stories, owning them and sharing them, owning them by sharing them, I realize I’m no longer alone in the halls of my museum. As I stand in and walk through these halls of shame with others, I see the images I’d created of these men are beginning to shrink into insignificance. They no longer dominate my life story. Powerful shame-loss.
The tightly sealed doors, now open from the outside, have allowed others to enter and join me in the museum. As the enshrined figures shrink, the storybook power that had sustained them is broken, triggering the release of the interior locks. I am able to leave, to exit these galleries built of my stories. I own them and now I can leave them. With the shattering of the spell, I awaken, seeing where I have been trapped and discover that I can walk away! As I take each step, with each bit of distance, my vision clears. The museum shrinks and I begin to see so many other elements of my life: things that are also and now my life.