Updated: Jan 20, 2021
Living on the surface.
We live our lives on the surface. ‘You alright?’ If we get a response, it’s often, ‘Yeah, OK. You?’. And we expect a similar response. Anything deeper is a little bewildering.
If we do report anything more, maybe if someone persists in asking, we keep to what is visible, above surface. We talk about our activities, our achievements, our plans. If we share problems, it’s practical issues, logistics, or physical ailments.
At the same time, we’re obsessed with ladders: the career ladder, the car ladder, the property ladder, the sporting ladder, the religious ladder, the image ladder. We live our lives trying to get higher, trying to reach the heavens, as if real life and meaning must be up there, or, at least, definitely not down in the dirt.
But to live solely on the surface means we live dodging the inner holes littering the surface of our lives. We cover them with achievements; stuff them with doughnuts; busy ourselves to distract from them; numb ourselves to them with alcohol, drugs, sex; or compensate for them by climbing our ladders.
Not only this, we must also stop others from stepping into those holes - or even seeing them. We push others away; we get angry; we point the finger at their holes. We ask how they are, intellectualise, or shift the focus to other topics. We withdraw into our minds, our work, the pub, or our man caves - refuges from the spying eyes of others.
Yet, these holes become traps. Something happens and suddenly I fall through. I trip. And I’m knee deep - or perhaps head first - in the dirt. Or maybe someone else pushes me in. Maybe I simply see others ahead of me on the ladder and then slip in. There is, after all, only one step on a ladder - at the very toprun - where we don’t feel less than. I feel, again, inadequate, unwanted, unimportant. I feel, again, a grief or loss I’d stuffed up. I feel again overlooked, unheard, unseen. I feel again fear, guilt, regret, sadness, loneliness or emptiness.
We quickly get back up again. We feel it, but we won’t make a noise, or at least not anything that hints of a whimper. We maintain the unwritten contract we made in early childhood with our parents, friends and society: I will be strong; I will not cry; I will not burden others with my problems. And then I can find a place here and climb some ladders.
But underneath the unvoiced cries ring out. Underneath we are struggling. We secretly long to be fully seen and fully accepted, while believing the best we can hope for is to cover our dirt and be tolerable. We secretly long for meaning, while believing we must stick to the ladders prescribed for us.
We may be so committed to the contract that we will keep getting up, climbing our ladders, and being OK. Until everything falls down. And we finally, almost inevitably, are lying in the dirt. At this point, we can give up, exhausted.
Sitting in the dirt
When we do muster the courage to be vulnerable, we can find out that we are ‘just normal’ after all. Not because we’re making it at last, but because many others have holes that resemble yours. There are group holes. There are similar personal holes. There are human holes. There is a great sense of relief here. We can put down some ladders. We can relax our defences. We find we truly belong here.
More than that, we can discover that we’re not just tolerable but are wanted by - and even lovable - to others. Dirt and all. We discover friends: people who can support and help us. Not because we’re needy and they are strong, but because we need each other. We’re not on ladders competing with banter. We’re both in the dirt, laughing or weeping together.
So, our holes start to fill up a bit. Not that they will be filled completely. We keep falling into them, but they become a little shallower, a little less mirky, a little less slippery. They stop being such a trap.
They also become places of renewal. These are the places where we connect most fully with others. These are the places where we unearth valuable stones that have been discarded, forgotten or denied. Stones that can give new meaning, new dreams, new sides to us and new hope.
Sitting beside or in our holes with another trusted person, we can put the ladders away and stop our preoccupation (or even addiction) with maintaining our defences. We can connect with another. And we can discover - in among the pain, the mirkyness, the fear - life.