Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Life beyond the mirror

Raised as an only child by a neurotic, controlling mother and a largely absentee father, I grew up with a self that performed largely as a mirror, reflecting whatever those around me needed me to be: a set of expectations that often included invisibility.

As a result, when I hit my 20's, I realized to my horror that I had no clue who I was or what I wanted out of life. Married at 21, I simply transferred my reflecting abilities into yet another relationship, but functioned in many ways as a cipher. Those were the early days of feminism, so I began to explore myself from that perspective, but the more defined I became the weaker the fabric of the marriage appeared.

It wasn't until I began clambering out of that marriage that I began to pay attention to who I was and what I wanted out of life. And the gift given by my second husband, who loved me unconditionally, was the opportunity to make choices, to get angry, to argue and discuss without fear of accusation or retribution; a first for me.

So when we had children, I knew I had two goals for myself as a mother: to give them a grounding in unconditional love and acceptance, and to help them understand themselves as beings separate from their father and me. As they were growing up, we tried to help them observe their own behaviors and ours, to see how they were like each of us, and how they differed; which of their parents' characteristics were reflected in them, like the clouds on the water, and which, like the waves, were unique to them.

We learned to laugh together and celebrate our complexities and our differences. We tried to point out their strengths and weaknesses so that they could better understand the particular challenges they faced. And we did our best to help them understand that even when we disagreed with their choices we loved them. In the words of my favorite child-rearing book of the time: "I love you, but I don't like it when you do that."

And then, last night, as I was showering, it occurred to me that much of my reading and understanding these last few years has been about the difference between the egoic self that lies at the surface of consciousness and the universal self that lies deep within us; about learning to set aside the notions -- particularly in this american culture -- of uniqueness and individuality, in order to understand and feel compassion for our connectedness to all of creation.

I found myself wondering if the reason I am so drawn to this way of thinking is precisely because of my own early LACK of self-definition; is it easier to comprehend that universal connectedness because my own self-image was weak for so long? Had I done my children a disservice by encouraging them to develop an awareness of their own unique individuality?

I raised the issue with my husband, and he pointed out that this self-determination thing is a rather uniquely American phenomenon; in many other cultures people are far more identified with their family units, and are far less likely to define themselves as separate from that.

But then this morning, in Jack Kornfield's book, The Wise Heart, I read that we cannot cultivate the universal self at the expense of the personal self any more than we should cultivate the personal self at the expense of the universal. In order to fully realize either, we need to balance both.

I confess I feel greatly reassured by this. On a personal level, I suspect that the gift of faith that has accompanied me since childhood may well have been triggered by a desperate need to believe that someone or something out there saw me as unique and precious. But the time it took to begin to comprehend exactly who and what I am and have to offer seems rather unnecessarily long, though all the struggles to get to this place inform who I am and how I give back.

As a parent, I see that my children are slower than I was to become aware of the Divine connection within and around them, though I see that awareness emerging as a result of the challenges they've had to face. But it is my hope that they will become aware of their gifts and passions, their call in life, whatever that may be, BEFORE the ripe old age of 50.

In the end, it is what it is; we each travel our own paths, struggle with our own issues, suffer our own setbacks and hopefully find our own true callings. And I have to believe that everything we experience, good parenting and bad, opportunities, gifts and losses -- all contribute to the journey.

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