When I was a teenager, my mother — an enthusiastic Catholic who also happened to enjoy gifting her children with literature — gave me a book by Thomas Merton. I don’t remember the title of the book, or even what it was about. But one sentence had such a deep impact on me that I remember it to this day.
The book was a Swedish translation, so I hope mr Merton will forgive my possibly inadequate counter-translation. It went something like: We reject love because it somehow, in our own obdurate imagination, implies some vague form of humiliation. That man knew what he was talking about. And moreover, from what it sounded like, he knew me.
Because wasn’t that the truth. When I felt shitty, when my need for sympathy and love was the strongest, my interest in opening up was non-existent. And it sounded so reasonable, the way the ego said it: “No, not now — this is too messy, too ugly. I’m no fun to hang out with today. I’ll meet people later, when I’m feeling like myself again.” I didn’t want anyone else witnessing my pain, because it felt like defeat. And it stayed that way for a large part of my life, with one blessed exception: my husband Per.
It feels private, doesn’t it?
I suspect many people subscribe to the same position. It feels private, doesn’t it, that which I so often think is ugly, messy and embarrassing. That was not something I wanted to show off. When one such emotional abscess is threatening to burst open, I think many people prefer to be in solitude. Perhaps we hide it under a fancy cover — ”integrity”, for instance, or “not wanting to be a burden”. Something is being revealed, and I know for sure it ain’t going to be pretty. It reminded me of how I felt about throwing up when I was in my late teens and hungover: it promised real improvement of the situation, but I was not looking forward to it, and I resisted it for as long as humanly possible. And it definitely was not something I wanted an audience for (especially not people I appreciated and hoped to meet again). It’s the same with the deepest, rawest insecurities of fears — they just feel too private. At the same time, though, it gets lonely.
When I started writing this post, I googled Thomas Merton in the hopes of finding the original quote. I did not find it; however, I came across another one, from the book The Seven Storey Mountain. This one was about pride: “Indeed, it is a kind of quintessence of pride to hate and fear even the kind and legitimate approval of those who love us! I mean, to resent it as a humiliating patronage.” When he puts it like that, it does sound rather obtuse. And still, scarily to the point. Surely I didn’t need anything? Surely I was fine on my own? Surely I was no … victim? Who would want to show off their vulnerability and inadequacy?
Shutting down: it goes both ways
Moreover, my position on empathy from others had a side-effect: It strongly hampered my ability to reach out to others when they were hurting. Since I shunned others when I was in pain, I assumed that others would greet my approaches with equal enthusiasm when they were in pain. I thought they would perceive me as an invasive busybody, pushing my way into their business, sensationalist fashion. And that, I did not want. So mostly, I “respectfully”, stayed away. It took quite a few years of inner work to realise that most normal people appreciated others — including me — reaching out to them when they were hurting.
And then, it took a few more years before I would actually invite an outsider, someone besides my husband, into my own inner world. Eventually, though, I did. “When the student is ready”, they say, “the master appears”, they say. And it’s always so interesting what form this “master” takes — as it is never one that we could have guessed. For me, it was a human mirror who reflected my fears and my vulnerability with such love and utter lack of judgement that it was impossible to turn it away. And I ended up making a friend — one of a calibre I could never have dreamed of.
Do you, too, prefer to withdraw when you are hurting? And are there actually such mirrors available in your life? If you can find one, in the form of either a therapist or a friend, the next step on your evolutionary path could well be to start sharing more of yourself with this person. When we can meet someone else this way, it shines light on our own issues and fears so that we can invite them in, explore them and befriend them, too. I’d even go so far as to say that some of them will never be explored any other way❤️️