Finding Relief In Accepting Who I Am Not

Finding Relief In Accepting Who I Am Not – AND then Daring To Become More of Who I Really Am in my Essence – AND then dropping into the Abyss of the Unknown and unfamiliar…

I have been reading a very challenging and heartbreaking book: Far From The Tree by Andrew Solomon.  In this long book written over a period of ten years (this National Book Award author’s previous book was Noonday Demon – an Atlas of Depression published in 2002) Solomon speaks of the challenges parents face in raising special needs kids. The central issue he says is finding one’s identity – both the child finding his or her identity and the parents finding theirs – in the midst of extreme diversity and in a society that does not seem to value diversity, especially diversity that includes what is considered a disability or limitation. So far I have gone through chapters on the deaf, dwarfism, Down syndrome, gifted children, and currently I am working my way through autism, including Asberger Syndrome.

Solomon cites extreme cases of autism, but in his descriptions of the challenges in a person with autism he names symptoms that I have wrestled with, though not nearly to the same degree, my entire life: 1) socialization challenges, 2) emotional connection challenges, and 3) body awareness challenges (perhaps technically named Sensory Processing Disorder elsewhere and not really included per se by Solomon).  I was stunned in this recognition of my own life experiences revealed in this chapter on autism. If I dare to accept that I have at least a bit if not more of autism (or perhaps the strain of autism called Asberger Syndrome) I could better understand some of my life-long struggles and strategies (defenses) to overcome them. Sure, my symptoms are not to the degree of the cases Solomon sketches, but yet these symptoms are certainly there in me and certainly are issues with which I have had to deal as I live out this life.

For example, perhaps my life-long discomfort with socialization explains my playing by myself at recess in grade school, not knowing how to enter into activities with the other kids. In junior high I was in a gifted student’s class of some sort. One time the counselor of this program came to the house to discuss my behavior, gifts, and personality with Mom and Dad. I remember their sharing with me his remarks that my challenges in socialization (of course not recognized by me – I seemed “normal” to me – but seemingly easily recognized by my dad in particular and of concern to him) would become less important as I grew older and my other skills would blossom, compensate for socialization challenges, and give me a successful life in our culture. And of course this modicum of success in life played out for me, but certainly not in a balanced way. I am becoming increasingly aware of just how much is missed when one is not balanced socially, emotionally, and physically, but until the past five years or so I did not recognize my deficiencies per se and rather just accepted my struggles in socialization, emotional intimacy, and body awareness, and avoided these challenges in favor of individual endeavors that I enjoyed and felt competent in.

Perhaps later in college my socialization and athletic deficits explain my sitting in my room at the fraternity house studying diligently rather than shooting hoops, playing bridge, or participating in campus government. I did very well in academics, and I remember that because of this doing well a psych major wanted to interview me for a project he was doing. I would be representing a “bright kid” in his survey. After our interview he shared that he was dismayed – I was of only very ordinary intellectual intelligence and not the “bright kid” he had expected. I pondered his observation. Why could I do well in school without having the “brightness” usually associated with doing well in school.  It seemed to me that I had certain learning styles (ways of organizing things in my head) that compensated for any lack of brightness in the conventional sense, and also an untiring commitment to hard study to get good grades. Systematizing and ordering, male qualities as opposed to empathy and emotional connection, female qualities, Solomon says are some of the characteristics of autism/Asberger, plus my discomfort with socialization led me to willingly study hard so as to avoid the stress of socialization. So in college, while not balanced, life was fine by my standards. I knew I was uncomfortable in social situations, but I did not know I was missing a key dimension of life by having this dysfunction of missing socialization, emotional intimacy, and body awareness experiences. I did not miss them.

Perhaps my issues with emotional connection explain my dysfunctional dating life and inability to connect with women or men emotionally. Oh intellectual intimacy, sure, but I mean emotional connection. Later in my career, I see why I would stay in my office and do PowerPoint presentations on a Saturday afternoon in order to have an excuse not to play golf or drink beer with my office colleagues. I compensated for my stress in social situations with hard work in the privacy of my office or home.

And after retirement I became a massage therapist. Yikes! But for whatever reason I did. Yes, having benefited from massage for a few years I had the sense that I needed more connection with my body, but how does that translate into becoming a massage therapist? And yes, I loved the strong anatomy course that went with the curriculum – my first real study of the human body. But too late I found out that being a massage therapist is not about intellectual knowledge of the body! It requires empathic connection with you client, and further, having no real connection with my own body, how on earth would I give massage to a client? No wonder this career was short-lived. Today I receive massage regularly, and that is exactly where I need to be with massage. Something in me knows there is more to me than thinking and perhaps massage is a way to connect with myself physically.

And what about today as a Pathworker? While I really enjoy applying Pathwork to my own life and thereby foster my own growth, and while, as with massage, I took all the training required to be a Pathwork Helper, I freeze at the thought of teaching Pathwork principles to a class.  Although in my thirties I “taught” many a bible class, and did so successfully, I would not have called what I did “teaching.” Rather, I was “facilitating conversation on various bible readings, helping participants to apply the biblical wisdom to their respective lives via exploration and sharing.”  There is a huge difference between “teaching” and “facilitating conversation.”  When I tried to teach Pathwork Lectures at Sevenoaks I would get carried away with elaborate PowerPoint presentations (welcome Asberger?). This seemed to work for some of the students some of the time, but was exhausting for me – I would take days to prepare to teach a lecture – and in the end my 30-50-slide presentation was way too much for the students to take in and really apply to their lives.

And there is another challenge for me in teaching Pathwork. At Sevenoaks a central role of the Pathwork teacher involves leading a physical Core Class or emotional processing work scenes where we are stretching, pounding, and moving to get in touch with the energy in our bodies.  Again, as with massage, this physical side is NOT ME. For me leading core or an emotional processing scene in Pathwork is simply not in my capacity as a human being. So why would I consider Pathwork Teaching as my Call in life? As I increasingly felt this misfit I would judge myself as inadequate as a teacher and it would not take long to extend that to being an inadequate human being. Eventually I came to be able not to judge myself to be somehow deficient as a human being simply because I cannot “teach” Pathwork or “lead” core class or an emotional processing work scene. I feel relief in this acceptance, and Solomon’s book was helpful here (along with hundreds of Pathwork lectures of course). The worthwhileness of my life as a human being on Earth does not depend upon my being a Pathwork Teacher or Class Leader.  It seems that increasingly, though slowly, I can let go of being what I am not.

With all of this on my mind I went to my session with Ed Gutfreund, my psychosomatic counselor, on Tuesday. I shared with Ed all of these insights that were floating up in me. I shared how even working with him is a struggle for me. “You try to get me to feel nuanced energies, tensions, feelings, and moods, and integrate these sensations and then you go on and ask me to connect these sensations with thoughts. Ed, this is like trying to get a colorblind person to distinguish among subtle differences in two hues of mauve!  I try, and you remind me that we are making progress, but it is just not something I am equipped to do naturally.” Ed could smile with me.  What a relief both to realize this AND to be OK with my limited capacity for body awareness.

As we talked Ed was quite interested in Far From The Tree, and also he had some books on diversity that he was aware of that he thought I would enjoy. The first was Seven Kinds of Smart: Identifying and Developing Your Multiple Intelligences by Thomas Armstrong. Armstrong also wrote a book on Neurodiversity (Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Strength-Based Strategies to Help Students with Special Needs Succeed in School and Life). I previewed the preface of this latter book on Amazon and felt encouraged. Yes, I need to be me, not somebody who is not me. I need to play life to my own intelligences and not all seven (later nine) that Armstrong identifies.

Talking this all through with Ed was helpful. I could relax into this being who I am, mild dysfunctions and all.  AND be more understanding of others. What Ed and I then talked about is that we ALL are on differing points of these various diversity spectra, there is no “normal.” It’s just that some of us are more extreme than others along some of the axes – positive in some, and negative in others, and sometimes very positive in some and most assuredly very negative in others. It was very relaxing to see all this.

These authors note that too often society does not do well with diversity or extremes (especially negative ones) AND focuses on only two intelligences: verbal ability and mathematics!  Before I left Ed’s office he could not help but ask, “So Gary, how are you feeling now? What is your mood? How is your body, what are you sensing?” As I paused I found that I could actually answer some of his somatic questions! “Ed, I feel a softness in my body, a release of tension, and expansion, and a deep peace.”

So the lesson here is as follows: 1) Do what I can do and have pleasure doing it (even if I am the only one on the planet that enjoys this activity), 2) accept what I can not do and cannot at present have pleasure doing, and 3) enrich my life by developing those undeveloped areas in my life. So for me, the latter would mean to be open to the possibility that my life could be so much richer if I took more pleasure in who I am now, accepted who I am not now, and opened myself to my deeper but as yet hidden capacities for socialization, emotional connection, and body awareness.

So to recapitulate, the idea is to find what you really enjoy and where your natural gifts lie and commit yourself to those things while at the same time building capacities in areas that you are not so gifted in so as to have a more balanced and much more joyful life.

As I told Ed as I was leaving his office, I am beginning to feel the invitation to freedom – freedom to do what I like to do for no other reason than I like to do it! I do not need to force myself to lead work scenes in a workshop setting or teach Pathwork lectures. What would bring me joy? I can do my inner work (via my spiritual practices, working with the Pathwork Lectures, having regular sessions with Moira and Ed, participating in the graduate program, having spiritual buddies, etc.) and share what I learn and experience in my blog and in my many one-to-one conversations, starting with Pat. I can build other Pathwork helps and put them on my website. I can record the Pathwork Lectures. I can enjoy spiritually deep one-to-one conversations and even offer helper sessions to others. These are all things that bring me joy and fulfillment.

And as far as personal development and spiritual growth are concerned, here is where I want to commit myself to growing in my capacity for intimacy with Pat. While I say this is what I want, however, not having experienced such intimacy I am hesitant to jump into the abyss of that unknown territory. But when I do this may also bring the socialization and body awareness with it.

But it is increasingly clear that to grow in this most challenging areas does not leave time for a lot of administrative work at Sevenoaks. AND though I have had a lifetime of identity in the administration and leadership side of organizations and can do these activities fairly competently, at 70 I do not have to hold down offices within the Mid-Atlantic Pathwork organization (jobs that require a modicum of social skills to say the least, skills I do not yet possess). Nor do I have to develop my skills to teach, lead Core sessions, lead work scenes, etc. These activities are just not me, at least not me yet. Yea! Free to be me.

So can I really do this backing off? How can I pull back from the Mid-Atlantic Pathwork organization, gracefully? Perhaps the organization is more than ready for me to back off!  We’ll see.  I have already delegated many aspects of these roles I am in and have not volunteered to jump more into teaching. No, my next years on this planet need to be focused on balancing out my heretofore intellectual avocations and vocations with a rich socialized, emotionally connected, and embodied way of being on the planet! There will just not be time for what I have done all my life up until now. It feels good to be clear about this.

Shared in love, Gary