Group sessions in the jail start with each inmate’s putting a name to how she’s feeling. “Fine” and “ok” don’t actually describe feelings and usually invite further questioning. Often inmates feel anxious, in which case a little conversation ensues to make provision for the inmate to get the support she might need with a particular issue. Inmates also often feel angry or frustrated, and that generally leads to conversation about the emotions underlying anger and their origin not in the present circumstance but in some past experience.
Recently an inmate responded that she felt herself, and that it had been a long time since she felt like herself. She had struggled with drug addiction since adolescence, and on one level she was referring to the feeling of a clear head. She meant more than that, though. She turned to drugs to escape herself. She believed the lie that she deserved the child sexual abuse perpetrated against her, and she hated herself for being that child. And then she hated herself for all the things she did to become someone different. Two months in jail was the first time in her adult life that she stopped running from who she was. As she shed the various pretenses she had donned like armor, she became acquainted with the vulnerable, wounded, sweet person she really was. It was a little frightening but also a relief.
Maybe I’m thinking of her story because I am feeling relieved to feel myself again. I had a close encounter with poison ivy 26 days ago, and I have been a histamine disaster area since then. The histamines drop my already low blood pressure even lower and mess with gastric acids, so I’ve felt light headed and queasy most of the month. The histamine tidal wave started to recede yesterday, and even though my skin is still crawling off me and I look like a burn victim, I am relieved to start feeling myself again.
Or maybe I’m thinking of her story because a friend loaned me Richard Rohr’s Immortal Diamond. In it Rohr talks about casting off elements of our assumed identity to encounter what Rohr calls the True Self, our divinely created essence. Lawrence Kushner might call it our Holy Spark. There’s a divine, good and true impetus motivating all our actions, even if some of our deeds turn out to be very poorly executed, hampered by badly impaired responses or encrusted with, in AA lingo, character defects. Using either the Christian or Jewish construct, the spiritual work is to surrender those ideas or behaviors that hold one back from recognizing oneself as the dearly loved child of God that one truly is.
It seems like we spend half our lives figuring out who we are or who we want to be and trying to live out that vision for our lives. And then we spend the other half of our lives unlearning a lot of what we thought we learned about ourselves. While it might be painful or frightening to surrender a part of one’s identity, it can also be an unburdening and something of a relief.
Join the conversation. What have you unlearned that helped you find your True Self?
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