Sometime ago, a friend said to me, “There is no recompense in not being yourself”. I forget the context of his comment but it struck me and remains with me. There is no recompense, no reward in being other than we are. We may try to trim ourselves, mold ourselves into being another sort of person—one we or others think is more desirable—but not only is this effort futile, it is a tragic failure to appreciate and nurture who we really are. In the end, we can only be ourselves. It is true that each of us has many “selves”—ways of being in different situations, relationships, and times of our lives. Yet, I think there is some felt-sense when we are in tune with ourselves—“comfortable in our own skin” as we say—and when we are misaligned with our natural identity. In common speech we say, “I am not feeing like myself”. The challenge of feeling disconnected from self may not be something everybody experiences, but it has been a struggle for me and some other people I know – – either in my personal relationships or my clinical work, and so I offer these reflections.
When I was 29 I had the following dream:
I am in a large Victorian house with a central winding staircase that goes up many flights. A skylight at the top of the stairs sheds a dim, filtered light down the many circling steps. In this shadowy light all I can see are room after room lining the stairs. The door of every roomed is closed. As I stand at the base of the stairs, I hear a muted cacophony coming from the many closed doors. I begin to ascend the darkened stairs. Under the first door I hear exuberant Dixieland; at the next, sedate Baroque. This musical variety continues as I climb higher. Seemingly infinite styles of music are leaking out for under the closed doors: blues, folk, Romantic, Medieval, a panoply of “world” music from different continents and era. Each room produced a distinct music unlike the rest. At each door, I stopped and listened and wondered, “Is this my kind of music?” Although I found each musical style compelling in its own way, I had an increasing sense that none of these musical styles was the music for me. I ascended floor after floor, room after room, music after music, until I reached the top floor where the skylight shed its light on a single room which was padlocked. On the door was scratched, in crude, uneven letters, “Here lives someone who makes his own music”.
As I finished recounting the dream, my psychoanalyst—a wise, older woman—looked out over her thick, owl-like glasses. She let a long silence settle, then she said slowly, “It is going to take you a long time to realize the full meaning of this dream.
I had entered therapy like many of us do—because of pain and suffering. As I embarked on my vocation, I felt the long shadow my father’s depressed and thwarted life begin to fall over my own life. I thought I had escaped his inner demons; that I had run as far away as I could from a family legacy of neurotic conflict and psychic suffering, that
I would escape unscathed. I decided to become the sun to his shadow. But as I entered my thirties I began to wonder whose life I was living. Confusion over my identity and fear of a family curse of self-thwarting defeat, I began seeing June Singer, a senior Jungian analyst, who listening patiently, discerningly to an anxious and confused young man. The dream of the winding stairs and the many kinds of music, has been for me what Jung calls a “Big Dream”. It stays with you all your life. It gets your attention.This Big Dream spoke of identity—of finding out who I was to become as an individual. The locked door at the top of the stairs was yet to be opened. It has taken me many years to unlock it and claim my own originality. Some of this has involved literal music. I am a singer-songwriter who began writing music in my teens. I was steeped in folk music movement of the 1960’s: Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Peter Seeger, Odetta, Peter, Paul and Mary—and many more. I got my first guitar—it was old and battered—at a rummage sale when I was 12. I spent hours and hours learning chords, singing lyrics from records. In time, I began to compose some songs of my own. My voice was untutored and natural—I wish I still had some tapes I made then so I could listen to my younger voice. When I got to college, I took voice lessons which helped me learn to project, to open up my voice, to make it richer and more nuanced. In some ways this was a good thing; I have never regretted my vocal studies. But in another way it separated me from my natural voice. Although I enjoyed some of the classical music I sang and liked the new power and resonance of my voice, I felt disconnected from earlier untutored but spontaneous singing. This was not helped by my voice teacher’s dogmatic proclamation that “popular” singing was incompatible with my vocal studies and could, in fact, “damage my voice”. Years later, I would find a voice teacher who understood my different vocal styles and how they each had their own integrity and palette. He supported what is now called “cross-over” in musical styles. It was a liberating experience—being heard and coached by someone who could hear my different voices as each having their own integrity and vitality. Out of this experience I wrote the following poem:
Before I studied singing
I really sang—
A boy of five
Out in a summer field,
Arms raised to the heavens,
Lungs full and flying.
The song inside me
Simply sang itself—
The song sang me.
Then came school
And shutting down the passion,
Turning the spigot
Tighter and tighter,
Until the flood of song in me
Was just a cautious trickle.
My singing teacher
Poked my diaphragm
“Use more support!
Tighten your stomach,
Loosen your jaw!
In trying to make a voice
I lost my true voice,
Now, so many years later,
I find my voice again
The gateway of my throats
Has relaxed its sentinel grip
And the old, young
Music pours forth.
To learn to sing,
The throw throw away the book.
Surrender to the
Song inside you,
To flow free.
My most recent voice teacher—the most helpful one—does master classes around the world and gives out this poem to the attendees . He says he often gets intensely positive responses. I have gotten emails from around the globe from attendees from other singers who say the poem resonates strongly. I think it’s example of how there is nothing as universal as the personal. Our individual struggles are often not ours alone. When we share them we may get a “Me too!” which can be liberating.
Although, I’ve been talking about singing, I think this extends to all of us in terms of how much we can trust being our true selves and find our unique voice.
We get a lot of messages about how we should be and do, but unless we can trust our own unique way of being, we don’t ring true; our resonance is muffled. Sondheim: “Everything you do—let it come from you”.
This was made clear to me in another dream while I was with the same analyst:
I am with June, my analyst and another woman analyst. We are sitting in a circle around a large brass bowl—like those used in Tibetan meditation. I ask the two women, “What should I do with my life?” They don’t say anything. Instead, they strike the bowl and it rings with a rich tone that takes a long time to fade into silence.
On telling June the dream, she said, “You will know what to do because it will ring true”. Of course! Sometimes the unconscious is not so subtle!
Personal authenticity has nothing to do with narcissistic self-absorption. It is the opposite. When we can trust being ourselves, we don’t have to pretend by covering our insecurity with a false self. Narcissism arises from an insecure sense of self, no matter how strong the posturing. In fact, the shakier the sense of self, the more the obsession with strength and specialness. We are getting a ringside seat for this sad and dangerous show in our present political arena.
May Sarton has a poem that speaks beautifully to all this:
Now I become myself. It’s taken
Time, many years and places;
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces,
Run madly, as if Time were there,
Terribly old, crying a warning,
“Hurry, you will be dead before–”
(What? Before you reach the morning?
Or the end of the poem is clear?
Or love safe in the walled city?)
Now to stand still, to be here,
Feel my own weight and density!
The black shadow on the paper
Is my hand; the shadow of a word
As thought shapes the shaper
Falls heavy on the page, is heard.
All fuses now, falls into place
From wish to action, word to silence,
My work, my love, my time, my face
Gathered into one intense
Gesture of growing like a plant.
As slowly as the ripening fruit
Fertile, detached, and always spent,
Falls but does not exhaust the root,
So all the poem is, can give,
Grows in me to become the song,
Made so and rooted by love.
Now there is time and Time is young.
O, in this single hour I live
All of myself and do not move.
I, the pursued, who madly ran,
Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun!
The problem comes when we don’t like the self we are. We may have some ideal self that we would hope to become. Sometimes when people enter psychotherapy or some spiritual practice, there is an unconscious fantasy that they will leave parts of themselves behind – – the parts they don’t like – – and become the ideal image of what they hope to be. Of course there are ways in which we can and need to grow – – ways in which we can be healed and become stronger. But that’s different from trying to remake the essential person we are.
The phrase “becoming ourselves” may seem strange. Aren’t ourselves are ready? We are, and yet there is more to be lived into. There is always more life to be seized – – more vitality to be claimed. This vitality is always unfolding. We are not just a human being; we are a human becoming.
A friend of mine, a pianist, had this waking dream when his wife was dying of cancer. He had been in a despairing state and was even considering suicide. In his waking vision he saw the universe as a huge musical score stretching out beyond Andromeda. On this cosmic score every living thing that ever was or will be was orchestrated. Animals, rocks, plants, meteors, stars – – they all had their part to play with their starts, rests, and endings. He looked down and saw, on the bottom left of this cosmic score, his own small part. He saw how he had his own part to play and that if he took his own life he would diminish the whole cosmic symphony. My friend’s vision was symbolic – – we may not in fact have that much influence on the cosmos, but it speaks to the importance of being fully alive and contributing as much as we can. We have a small part to play in the cosmic endeavor, but it is important to contribute all that we can. Becoming ourselves is part of the becoming of the universe. It is our opportunity to contribute, each in our own small but very important way, to the unfolding of the mystery of life.
“Now I Become Myself” by May Sarton, from Collected Poems 1930-1993. © W.W. Norton, 1993.