We’re seeing people masked on the streets, in the stores and in workplaces. At the same time, I’m noticing how effectively coronavirus has stripped away the pseudo self of so many people.
Masks on. Masks off.
Pseudo self is a survival mask, often developed in childhood from the feeling that who we really are is unlovable. Others create a false persona for power and control. Think of the wolf pretending to be Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother.
We all have a pseudo self to some degree. Most of us can deal with difficult family members, coworkers and others with some degree of manners, tolerance and kindness most of the time. We can cooperate and collaborate when required. We can be professional. Hopefully, we also know how to be real with those we trust and love; how to be angry, how to be sad, how to let off steam.
The difficulty with pseudo self occurs when we lose touch with who we really are and our mask becomes permanent rather than something we choose to take off and put on. Creating a pseudo self and retreating behind it permanently means we’re never properly seen, never properly known, never properly connected.
Masks on. Masks off.
Coronavirus is stripping away pseudo selves and revealing the truth of who we are, how we operate, what our hidden agendas and priorities are, our paranoia, our fear, our anxiety and compulsivity, our rage, our unfinished business and our relationships with money and authority. We are distracted and distressed, and our nice, shiny, well-behaved and civilized pseudo selves are slipping, even as we don masks.
This reveal is fascinating, and it’s everywhere, in our homes and workplaces, in our communities and on social media and TV. Especially on TV. Blame games. Competition rather than cooperation. Gaslighting. Ignorance on display. Lies. Distortions. Conspiracy theories. Disinformation. Paranoia. Ill-concealed fear.
You just can’t fix stupid, and stupid is what I’m seeing
behind quite a few pseudo selves.
Masks on. Masks off.
Our leaders seem to feel we’ve reached a Y in the road. Are we more interested in political power and the economy, or are we more interested in saving lives? Some turn one way. Some turn another way. Right now, that stark (and false) choice is not hidden behind distractions and polished bombast. It’s right out there in front of us in every update and news conference.
Are we a global people who cooperate to save lives, or are we separate, competitive political entities who try to outbid one another for inadequate resources? Are we human beings concerned with dignity, quality of life and compassion, or are we robotic consumers addicted to a bloated, unsustainable capitalistic system? Do we care more about the lives of those around us or our own entitlements?
Do we share power, or do we grab all we can get during this
Masks on. Masks off.
I wonder if we’ll ever fully be able to grasp the ways in which this pandemic will reshuffle our personal decks. What are we learning about our families, friends, neighbors, coworkers and leaders? What are we learning about ourselves, the ways we deal with stress and anxiety, our resilience and adaptability, our priorities and concerns? What are we learning about what really matters to us and to those around us?
How will enforced working from home and non-traditional education change the way businesses and education work when the pandemic is over? How much bigger will we individually become as so many of us learn we are not our work? Coronavirus is giving us a crash course in being rather than doing or having. How many will graduate from this experience with a stronger, more peaceful sense of self? How many will fail to graduate?
Unexpected, stressful times like these bring out the real in us. We can’t prepare for such times or see them coming. We can’t pretend our way through them. Our choices and beliefs are visible to others. We are revealed. We are seen. And so are they.
Masks on. Masks off.
The masks we wear for protection against the coronavirus conceal much of the lovely expression of the face. As I interact with masked people, I feel bereft and disconnected, unable to fully communicate and connect. I miss seeing the faces of my friends, colleagues and the strangers around me. Something about masks feels dehumanizing and isolating.
Still, I think this is another gift of coronavirus, this stripping away of all the nice-nice pretty-pretty pretense. I’ve always loved real, my own and the real of others. I suppose pseudo self has a useful place in a social context, but only a limited useful place. The ability to be authentic, to my mind, is far more useful and productive. Coronavirus is a great leveler. It doesn’t care about our clothes, our hair, our makeup, our bank account, our title or position, or our presentation in general. It doesn’t care about our politics or whether or not we believe it’s real. It doesn’t give a damn about the economy. All we are is a potential place in which to thrive and multiply. Our pseudo selves cannot shield us, hide us or help us survive this virus.
This pandemic is a fact. It’s real. It’s happening. Masks on or masks off, our authentic selves are showing. I see you, and you can see me.
Nice to know you. Be well. Stay safe. Raincheck on a hug or
On Monday, I drove my old Subaru to work and parked. It was unusually warm, so I decided to leave my insulated winter gloves and parka in the car. I got out, used the key fob (as always) to lock the car, put the key in my right-hand pants pocket, and walked into the building.
I went down the stairs and entered the pool, met by the bright light and lovely (to me) smell of a clean and well-maintained indoor pool. I exchanged greetings with my coworkers, set my bag down on a chair (a bag with a couple of handy outside pockets the hospital gave to every employee), removed my jewelry and put it in a small pouch, and took off my boots and socks while chatting with my friends.
I went into our small “break room,” which consists of a towel rack, a handful of lockers, a sink, a fridge, and a microwave, and set my bag on the floor between a plastic chair and a crate in which we collect bottles for recycling. I fingered the key fob and key in my pocket. I usually keep that key in my coat pocket, but I hadn’t brought my coat in. We only have one key to the Subaru, so I’m careful with it. I could leave it in my pants pocket, but things frequently slide out of my pockets as I change in and out of my clothes at work, so that didn’t seem safe. I decided to put the key in an outside pocket of my bag. I tossed it into the pocket, stripped off my clothes, folded them hastily, and dropped them onto my bag. I put on my lifeguard shirt and shorts, got my gear out of my locker, and went to work.
During the following five hours, I taught a private lesson,
contributed money towards buying flowers for a recently bereaved colleague,
lesson planned for my group swim lesson later in the week, lifeguarded, worked
at the desk, did some cleaning, and checked chemicals.
It was a good day.
We had a couple of late families come in, so closing was a
little chaotic. We went through closing procedures, put on our street clothes,
clocked out … and I couldn’t find my key.
I couldn’t find my key.
Where was my key?
I emptied everything out of my bag (not much). No key. It
wasn’t in my pants. It wasn’t in my coat, because my coat was in the car. It
wasn’t on the floor.
Where was my key?
I remembered tossing it into the outside pocket of my bag, which I hadn’t moved all shift. Nobody but staff had been in the break room. I know with absolute certainty none of my colleagues would ever deliberately take anything that didn’t belong to them. However, most of us do use the same bag, although we’ve personalized them in small ways with pins, colored carabiners, etc.
My colleague checked his bag, which hadn’t been near mine.
It was late. I was tired. We wanted to go home. My coworker has a long commute and had worked a much longer shift than I had. He offered to take me home, but it would have added miles and time to his already lengthy drive, which I was unwilling to do.
There was nothing for it but to call my partner and ask him
to come and get me.
What, you’re asking, is the point of this long, rambling,
boring story? We’ve all lost keys.
The point is that losing the key sent me right over the edge so completely and so quickly that it wasn’t until hours later that I realized losing the key was a trigger for a much deeper upset.
For much of my life I’ve doubted my own perceptions and experience. I’ve internalized a lot of gaslighting and projection. I’ve accepted that I’m hypersensitive, dramatic, attention-seeking, too intense, too curious, too imaginative, too sensual and too passionate.
My second husband (not the father of my children) was abusive. During that marriage, when I was in my 30s and the kids were pre-teens, I reached a point of despair and desperation that led me to find a therapist, ostensibly for marriage counseling. My deeper, more honest agenda was that I wanted a professional assessment of my parenting.
My husband had me convinced that I was bad with money, I
fantasized and made up stories about things that never happened (like being
abused), I was frigid and/or a nymphomaniac (he could never make up his mind),
and I was impossibly difficult to live with. I got a lot of the “you’re an unfit
parent” routine from the boys’ father and his family, too.
My own experience of myself was quite different, but it
didn’t matter, because I’d given up trusting my own experience in childhood.
In spite of being an “unfit parent,” I loved my children
more than anyone or anything, and I was willing to give their father full
custody if that was best for them.
I didn’t think that was best for them.
But I couldn’t trust what I thought, or felt, or remembered.
I knew that.
So, I thought I would get an objective, professional
We went to the therapist. We went. Once. My husband spent 50 minutes telling the therapist how difficult and crazy I was. I said I wanted an evaluation of my parenting and some guidance in healing our troubled marriage.
The therapist told my husband he need not return, (implying that I was clearly the problem), and rescheduled with me. I spent the week steeling myself, finding a lawyer to draw up paperwork to transfer custody, and otherwise trying to wrap my head around losing my boys and whether it was worth it to try to help myself. Could I be healed? Was I worth fixing? Did anything matter anymore? What would I say to the boys? How in God’s name could I go on without them?
When I walked into the second session, the therapist was angry. I deserved it. People were frequently angry with me. He pointed to a chair, sat knee-to-knee with me, and demanded to know why I was with a man who was destroying me.
I was blinded by the realization that he wasn’t angry with me. He was angry for me. He actually cared. About me!
“Do you want to live or die?” he asked brutally.
“I want to live,” I said without thinking, the warrior in me
suddenly coming to life. I hadn’t known until then that it was true.
We spent the next six weeks planning an exit strategy from my marriage, and then he cut me loose. He told me I was fine; I didn’t need his services. What I needed was to get away from my abuser.
From the moment I lost that key at work, I went obsessively
over every move I’d made from pulling into the parking lot to the realization
the key was gone. I thought I knew exactly what I’d done. I could remember it,
see it in my mind’s eye. I’m a creature of habit. There was nothing new or
different about that day and my routine. I wasn’t tired, sick, or distressed.
Yet the key was gone.
I was at once plunged back into that old feeling of madness, that I live in some kind of sick alternate reality that others don’t inhabit. I remembered every mocking or contemptuous comment I’d ever heard about my sensitivity, my intuition, my imagination, and my drama. I thought about how disconnected and isolated I’ve often felt; crazy people are, after all, impossibly difficult to deal with. I remembered the terrible confusion of having a clear memory but being told it never happened, I made it up. And what kind of a monster would make up such disloyal, ugly lies?
All the work I’ve done in the last decade; my creative life; the processing, healing, and reclaiming of myself and my power, were swept away as if they’d never happened. I was not to be trusted, and I couldn’t trust myself. In fairness to my coworkers, students, pool patrons and patients, and most of all my partner, I should crawl away, institutionalize myself, disappear.
Because I lost my car key.
While all this emotional chaos was going on, my partner and I made complicated plans to get a new key programmed for the Subaru (towing the car to the nearest dealership an hour away, dealing with the $100 cost for said programmed key, etc.), and my teammates scoured the office and break room at work looking for the key. Meanwhile, a major winter storm is looming on the horizon, adding more pressure around timing, scheduling, and the necessity for winter driving.
All the while I watched myself, wondering if my memory is to be trusted, if my intention is to be trusted, if any of my perceptions are to be trusted. How could I remember every step of what I did, and yet the key was not there? What did it mean? What had I done? Do I have black holes in my memory and don’t even know it? Did I make up a story about what I did that had nothing to do with reality? Was the key still in the car after all? Had I not locked it, though I remembered doing so?
Had all those voices in the past been right, and I’ve been
living in a fantasy for the last few years, believing myself to be rational,
sane, even well-balanced and intelligent?
Maybe I should have given up the kids, after all? Maybe I
was (am?) an unfit mother. Perhaps I shouldn’t be working with children.
Yesterday afternoon, my partner drove me to work. I went to
the Subaru and stood by the locked driver’s door. The key was not in the car.
My partner verified it, as I no longer trusted the evidence of my own senses.
The car was locked, just as I remembered. My parka and insulated gloves were on
the passenger seat, just as I remembered. My partner and I walked across the parking
lot, exactly as I’ve done hundreds of times before, with me reciting each
action along the way. We went in the building, down the steps and into the
No one had found the key. Everyone was concerned. Nobody
seemed to understand that I was crazy; no longer to be trusted. We talked about
where we’d looked. People asked questions. We looked in various places again.
Wearily, I said that I’d thought I’d thrown the key into the outside pocket of
my work bag. Everyone rummaged in the outside pockets of their work bags
without much hope.
A shriek from one of my colleagues. Unbelievably, she held
out the key on its fob in her palm.
For a moment, I had an intense sense of vertigo. It seemed unreal. What was real? Was that my key? Was I really seeing it? Or was I making this up, too? But every face around me was filled with relief. They were all smiling. They saw it, too. I took it, held its small, familiar weight in my hand. The key was there. It was found. It was real.
So, maybe, I thought dazedly, I’m not crazy? I’m okay?
We realized that my coworker’s bag had been sitting on a chair in the break room. I had tossed my bag onto the floor next to the chair. In a moment of non-crazy but very normal human inattention, I tossed the key into the outside pocket of her bag rather than mine. The bags, as I said before, are identical. I got in the pool for a private lesson, my coworker went home with her bag, and that was that.
The key wasn’t there because the key wasn’t, in fact, there. I didn’t make anything up. My memory was true. My reality was real. I simply tossed the key into the wrong bag.
Today I feel exhausted, vaguely embarrassed, and relieved
beyond words. I’m not crazy. I can trust myself. My perceptions and experience
are real. I’m rational (most of the time—but I recognize my own irrationality
when it’s happening!). I know the difference between reality and fantasy.
I’m okay. Again. Still.
On the other hand, it didn’t take much to knock me
over—hard. It’s difficult to overestimate the power of our old wounds. My confidence
is not as strong as I’d like it to be. I don’t know if it ever will be.
My partner was the first person who ever told me to trust myself. It sounded cruel the first time I heard it. Any number of people could have told him I’m not to be trusted. I certainly didn’t trust me. I could speak in detail about my perceptions and experience, but I didn’t, because to do so resulted in an emotional beating, and I believed the people around me could see ugliness and abnormalities that I was too (stupid? crazy? arrogant? confused? cowardly? mean? selfish? disloyal?) to identify. Yet my partner (fool that he is) stubbornly persists in trusting me, even after living with me for five years.
In his eyes, all I misplaced was a car key. I felt as though I’d permanently lost myself.
In the old tales, young women are sent on dangerous quests that involve learning to sort one thing from another. One such teacher is Baba Yaga, about whom I’ve written previously. Baba Yaga is a crone, and when she can be bothered, she teaches too-sweet maidens how to sort poppy seeds from dirt, how to cleanse, and how to cook.
This is to be understood metaphorically, rather than as a statement of appropriate gender roles. Take a deep breath, all you feminists!
The idea of discernment, or the ability to tell one thing from another, is essential to living effectively, and, much like restraint, we are losing touch with it in today’s world.
Sorting poppy seeds from dirt, or wheat from chaff, or mildewed kernels from wholesome corn, is not something technology can help us do. It doesn’t require equipment, money, strength, or a college education.
It’s a hopeless task, of course, to sort poppy seeds from a
pile of dirt in one night with no light and no help, but in stories it’s a task
that must be done if the maiden wants to live. Usually a magical animal or some
other helper arrives; symbols of the maiden’s intuition, kindness or
compassion. Interestingly, the maiden often sleeps while the helper(s)
accomplish the task.
Metaphorically, this indicates that our civilized, rational, logical intellect must step out of the way and allow creativity, faith and intuition to guide us. Fairytales and oral tradition map our subconscious, our shadow, our deepest and oldest foundations, the places where our primal wisdom lies. Sorting one thing from another takes time and close examination. Discernment involves our senses and our feelings as well as our intellect. It demands our consent to peer closely, and accept what we see. It can’t be done in the presence of denial. Fear clouds discernment, as do distraction, an unwillingness to be wrong, ideology, and an inability to think critically. Gaslighting, projection, distortion and deflection all work actively against our ability to see things clearly. Those who are unwilling to venture into terra incognita are unable to practice discernment, which involves learning and adaptation.
Modern life doesn’t require us to sort poppy seeds from
dirt, but here are some places in which discernment is vital:
Differentiating between truth and lies
Distinguishing between friends and not-friends
Recognizing the difference between power-with and power-over
Realizing the difference between our beliefs and needs and those of others
Differentiating between love and abuse, or love and control
Distinguishing between kindness and enabling
Realizing the difference between useless and useful
Knowing the difference between what makes life easier and what makes it harder (simplicity and complication)
Understanding where our power is and where it is not
Noticing differences between words and actions (major red flag)
Differentiating between our own ghosts, struggles and wounds and those of others; in other words, do we take it all personally or blame it all on others?
Knowing the difference between our authentic selves and our pseudo selves
Recognizing the difference between what truly makes us happy and what the culture insists should make us happy
Discernment is not prejudice, hate or bigotry. The ability to tell one thing from another is a basic skill. I remember watching Sesame Street in the 60s when I was a child: “One of these things is not like the others. One of these things doesn’t belong.“
In this era of “alternative facts” and postmodernism, our ability to discern is taking a beating, and those of us who persist in attempting to clearly see and understand our world, ourselves, and others are often targeted on social media. Interesting, that a skill four and five-year-olds can learn is becoming demonized.
Practicing discernment. My daily crime.
(Go to my Hanged Man page for a story about sorting poppy seeds from dirt. Scroll down to Baba Yaga and Vasilisa.)