Abstract: In this article, a practitioner reflects upon aspects of his own childhood that continue to influence his life. The article was originally written as an assignment for a summer institute course on relationships held at the University of Victoria, British Columbia.
This assignment would have been easier if you had given me more direction. If you had told me what to write about, I could have given you what you wanted, or at least what I thought you wanted. I have always been good at giving people what they wanted or what I imagined they wanted.
Iíve never been very good at this Ė at figuring out what I expect from myself Iíve spent most of my life trying to live up to what I thought others expected, trying to take care of their needs. This business of taking care of my self and setting my own expectations and making my own path is the tough part. It is this writing about what I choose that is the challenge.
So here I am. I am on my own this time. Now I have to make some decisions about what I think is important for me to write about. I have an opportunity here to take charge of my self. But wait, not so fast. If I could figure out who will read this, maybe I could guess what is important to them and write accordingly. If Gerry reads this, Iíd better run the grammar check more than once. If Judith reads it, maybe I should read Virginia Satir again. If I knew who was going to read this, I could get all tangled up inside trying to think how they think. I could create my paper accordingly. I could absolutely lose myself in my agency and get nothing out of it and neither would you, because you have no expectations about what I should write.
This introduction is becoming a reflection of my life: a life of trying to meet real and imagined expectations. I have performed and presented my false self to hundreds of people. You understand, of course, that a secret agent like me needs a clearly defined assignment Ė donít you? When you have agents like me writing papers, without giving clear expectations, I am reminded of the therapist who invites anorexics for supper. It is a challenging therapeutic process.
So what do I do now? Where do I look for direction and clues for my focus? Can I look within? I havenít trusted my self for such a long time. Can I trust my self now? Iíve never been good at trusting my own intuition. Not many people in my life have left me feeling so "out there" and alone or "in here" and searching for the information that comes from within.
Okay! I have to focus on me. No, wait! I want to focus on me. I want to find me again. You are invited to be with me in this, but this is still for me. I might forget, at times, that you are with me, but I will need to do that. I will need to forget about you in order to find myself in this reflection. The destination in this self-reflection? Me.
Hi! Iím Robbie and Iím four years old. Iím walking down a noisy wooden sidewalk. Iím by myself but I donít feel lonely. I feel great! The bright sun is shining warmly on my bare arms and the wind is blowing gently on my face. I can smell the earth and the grass beneath the bright blue sky. The boards are creaking with every step, and every step is carefully planned. Do you want to hear me sing? "Donít step on a crack, you'll break your motherís back. Donít step on a nail, you'll put your father in jail." I am here in this moment and place. I am complete in body, mind, spirit, and soul. I am Robbie. I am me and life doesnít get any better than this.
My preschool years seemed to last forever. Today they provide rich and wonderful memories. Home was a safe place. It was so safe and it protected me so well that I didnít feel ready for the outside world of school. I knew, though, that I was good at pleasing my parents and relatives and believed that as long as I could please other people and make them happy then I would be safe. My grade one teacher was my first exercise in "agency." I was ready to take care of her and in turn she would like me and take care of me. An agent was born.
Iím in grade one. My teacherís name is Mrs. McGrath. She has grey hair, always wears a dress, and I would do anything for her. She is telling us not to sharpen our wax crayons in the pencil sharpener. I hadnít thought of that before. What a great idea! If I have a sharper orange crayon I'll be able to colour better pictures for her.
Just as I shove the wax crayon into the pencil sharpener and am about to turn the handle, I hear Mrs. McGrathís voice booming at me from across the room. "Robbie Chubb! What are you doing?"
My body remembers every internal contortion and ache of that devastating moment. All I could say in response was, "Nothing."
Whether or not that moment scarred me psychologically or not would be anybodyís guess. I do know that the moment was etched indelibly in my mind and my body. I remember in the days and weeks that followed that I tried even harder to please her, to take care of her so she would take care of me.
As I grew up I continued to be good and do the right things. As I grew up I continued to create a more sophisticated false self, and my true inner essence withdrew deeper inside somewhere. I began feeling less real and out of touch with my true self.
The messages from my parents seemed positive at the time. I learned to be good, polite, respectful, generous, thoughtful, and so on. I know the values I learned were important but underlying all of those messages was the seductive driving force of agency.
My father, the minister, set example after good example of super-agency. I remember in particular how he would continually pick up hitchhikers on the highway as they headed home after a day at the local bar. These drunks, reeking of beer and wine, would slouch beside us kids in the back seat of the car. I felt invaded, angry, and helpless. In spite of our protests my father continued to pick them up, and the years continued with lessons about agency of all kinds.
My mother, a nurse before her marriage, was very kind and loving and would never hurt anyoneís feelings. Her efforts to keep from hurting others' feelings would have been admirable if not for the facade she created and the cost to her health. She rarely expressed anger, and expressions of anger from me were unacceptable as well. So I learned to present my own false self. These experiences with my parents were an ideal recipe for agency and I learned the lessons well. I learned my agency from two of the best.
My developing false self and accompanying agency was costly. I began to lose touch with my inner child as he continually withdrew. He became less accessible and much less able to be part of my life.
Iím nine years old and Iím walking with my dad down Main Street. Holding Dad's hand feels so natural that I donít even notice my grasp ... until I see a school mate heading my way. Suddenly I am embarrassed, and I pull my hand reluctantly from Dad's and wonder if Dad noticed. In the blink of an eye and the pull of a hand my inner child withdrew, just a little, but withdrew.
I hadnít thought of that moment for years until last summer, as I walked across the local Safeway parking lot, holding my nine-year-old son's hand, I felt a hauntingly familiar tug. I watched with stirring and mixed emotions as he eyed a couple of approaching friends. And I thought of my father that sunny afternoon on Main Street years ago ... and suddenly I was him ... and I noticed.
The shift from a genuine, spontaneous self to an awkward self-consciousness, at first unexpected, became predictable. Time after painful time the child in me withdrew to a lonely place somewhere inside. A little bit here and a little bit there. Slowly but absolutely for sure.
Now I canít remember the last time someone came to my door and asked if I could come out and play. It was probably Jimmy E. and I was about 12 years old. With tears in my eyes as I recall his squeaky voice, I can hear him asking, "Can Robbie come out and play?" My throat aches and a puzzling sadness builds deep within. A voice from somewhere reminds me to breathe and nurture the connection whatever it may be. Jimmyís invitation always struck a rich chord of harmony deep within me. It did then and I marvel about the intensity that it does now.
Playing with Jimmy was a complete experience. I was fully present in body. I ran, jumped, tumbled, threw, caught, biked, and hiked. I was fully present in the moment. There was no yesterday or tomorrow. The intensity of the experience could not be measured by time.
I loved who I was with him. We connected, accepted, and lived every moment. I was the richest kid on earth. I didnít worry about taking care of others then. I didnít even worry about taking care of myself. I didnít need taking care of. I was fine. I wasnít fragile and I wasnít strong, I just was. In the adventure of being me in those moments, I connected with others and they connected with me. Not because we tried to work on relationships but because we didnít try to be anything but what we were. We simply flowed with our full, natural, and real selves.
If Jimmy came to my door today and asked if Robbie could come out to play, what would I tell him? Iíd have to explain that he went away somewhere. I donít know where he might have gone. Iíd have to say I havenít heard from him for a long time Ė and that I miss him terribly and I want him back.
I tried really hard to grow up when I was a teen. At 13 years I said goodbye to Robbie, although I didnít realize it until now. At 13 I told everyone I wanted to be called Robert. I thought it sounded more grown up, and that seemed important then. People still called me Robbie until I moved from Williams Lake at the age of 14. Then I became Robert.
I just realized where I abandoned Robbie, my inner child. My inner child has a name now. I know what and who I am missing in my life now. Iím crying. I must be grieving. I miss him and I want him to come back. Can you still come out and play? Itís safe to come out and play now. Forgive me. I understand now that I left my inner child behind when I was 13 and his name is Robbie.
While preparing for my first assignment in this course I rummaged through an old cardboard box of long forgotten personal effects. Among the treasured cards, letters, pictures, and trinkets in this rag-tag time capsule I found an old diary of mine. As I flipped through the faded pages 1 came across a poem that I had written when I was 17. As I read it, memories of turmoil and crises came flooding back. At 17, struggling frantically with identity issues and feeling lonely and disconnected from myself, I had found comfort in writing poetry. As I read the poem I remembered my frustration with not being able to finish it. I included it in my first assignment because it helped me connect directly with my early childhood experiences.
There was a time and a place that I knew,
When I was very small.
When a town was a world where a small boy grew,
To the sound of a future call.
Backyards and sidestreets were more than enough,
To cradle a life begun.
And in those years of growing up,
I learned a song to be sun.
In retrospect I can see that this poem was not written by a confused 17-year-old teen. This was written by an inner child seeking expression. An inner child with wisdom and understanding that effectively reassured that teen. This was not written by Robert the confused teenager. Robbie wrote this.
As I drove back to Edmonton from the week-long institute in Victoria, I reflected on the week-long experience and its personal meaning in my life. I was sensing a deep inner connection that I hadnít experienced for a long time. North of Kamloops, on a long isolated stretch of the Yellowhead Highway, I was compelled to read the poem again. I had an overwhelming impulse to write an additional verse. Within minutes I had written, with a full sense of completion, the following words.
The years have past, the boy is gone
He knew he couldnít stay
So he left his gift of song
and I sing it today.
It took a child to set me free
To remind me now Ė and then
I am the child
The child is me
Iím Robbie, my best friend
Robbie just wouldnít grow up, and that wasnít good enough for Robert. Robert left him behind. After all, Robbie still wanted to hold Dad's hand and who needed that embarrassment? Robert was ready for bigger and better things. With ambitious thoughts of adulthood and all the agency that he could muster, Robert set off alone. The transition into adulthood simply had to be made without Robbie, and a playful child was left behind.
I didnít feel ready for the adult world. My parents' style of loving and caring felt like a liability. I had created, within myself, the perception that I needed to be taken care of. With all the tenderness and caring I had been given with the best of intentions, I saw myself as fragile and needing to be cared for. My response was to take care of others so they would value me and take care of me.
When a butterfly emerges from its cocoon as it prepares for a new stage of life, it must struggle considerably to break free. Scientists studying this process found that when they tried to make this struggle easier, by carefully peeling back the cocoon, the butterfly emerged and died. Apparently the struggle to break free is, in itself, an important part of the process. The butterfly cannot survive unless it is left to break free in its own struggle. It must establish its own identity in this world.
Through the years I struggled and continued to grow. I learned that growing up was not the answer. Growing inside and nurturing my inner experience has been the key.
Some years ago I became interested in and began presenting humour, laughter, and play workshops for caregivers. This pursuit came from my desire to reclaim some of the joy I had lost over the years. As I develop and present these sessions today, I am continually amazed at how many adults also lost the joy and spontaneity of childhood. I continue to nurture my inner playfulness.
I have enjoyed Victor Borgeís observation that laughter is the shortest distance between two people. In Victoria I came to appreciate also that laughter is the shortest distance to my inner self. During hearty laughter the entire mind, body, soul, and spirit are joined in ha, ha, harmony. It is interesting to note that both hearty laughter and a good cry are capable of producing tears. Not only has laughter helped me connect with positive emotions, but I am much better connected with sadness and grief. A rainbow of emotions now colours my life.
Earlier this spring my daughterís Brownie group had a bug night. All the lucky dads were invited to help the girls build bughouses. The simple design required little interference from me. With hammer in hand Brittany whacked away, nail by nail, and created a leaning tower of Pisa with a bug screen carefully scrunched around it. The next day I sat quietly beside her in the garden and watched her collect her "lada-bugs." As I enjoyed her moment, I quietly treasured my own childhood memories of gathering bumblebees in jars from the caragana hedges. In spring the yellow caragana blossoms burst forth, and my friends and I, armed with glass jars and lids punched with breathing holes, would trap the bees between the lid and the jar. Sometimes we could get as many as five or six bees in one jar, and we felt bad if we accidentally pinched off a beeís leg in the process. The bees bumbled, and my life was filled with the moment, the sound, and the colour. As the sun set and the day began to fade ... the glorious finale! We lined up our jars in a row and in a last proclamation of their freedom and ours, we took off the lids and ran squealing from the swarm of ungrateful, bumbling bees.
As Brittany coaxed the last "lada-bug" into the bughouse, I knew that I had quietly shared a very special moment with her. And maybe some day I'll tell her about the bumblebees and maybe I wonít. Today the "lada-bugs" are her treasured memory, and I was with her. I didnít have a need to help her. I didnít have the need to fix anything. No need to exaggerate the experience for her. Her experience is her treasure. My experience is mine to treasure. Both of us connected by our unique experiences is our relationship. It doesnít get any better than that.
This feature: Chubb R. (1994) Personal reflections on an emerging self. Journal of Child and Youth Care. 9(4), pp 95-101