What Do They Know?

In Columns, Features, Pieces to Peter's Puzzling World by Peter Webster

For years, my most unforgettable moments were ones where I made errors — blunders, screw-ups, super embarrassing moments.

Actions that provoked major shame attacks, either then or later. Sort of like going out in public with my fly open, or getting into a particularly stupid argument with someone I really cared about.

If I sit down and sift through my memory, I can find, still, a few times I really wish hadn’t happened. Not too many: when I find one that still gives me a shame-shudder, I try to rectify the past. It isn’t always possible, but I can try.

In AA or other 12-step groups, people are instructed—well, it’s “suggested,” but it’s closer to a requirement—to take a “fearless moral inventory” of themselves. This is a good thing to do. But, it almost always focuses on the negative side of the personality.

Things like siphoned gas, stolen money, illicit affairs, lies told to important people, bad scenes that have been engaged in, cheating. Once the group member has finished writing the inventory it’s then shared “with God and another human being,” and the person then asks that God remove the character faults that caused the behavior.

Confession really is good for the soul. When I did it, a big chunk of shameful memories lifted off my shoulders.

Unfortunately, it also provided me with a chance to dig back into all that dark stuff, and remind myself what a schmuck I’d been and might still be. I’ve seen people get into loops, where they just kept digging up all that past history.

I asked a local pastor to listen to my inventory. She told me to also provide a list of my strengths and good things I’d done.

Good things? There were a few—but I had to work to remember them.

Later, a friend in AA suggested I make a list of all the good things people had told me about myself. As I made the list I was to visualize the person actually speaking to me.

“Listen,” my friend said, “If you’re anything like me, you remember most all of the bad stuff about yourself, but forget the good stuff people see in you.”

He was right. I had—and yet have, but to a lesser degree—incredible skills at dissing myself. I’ve written about how it’s still a struggle to do affirmations.

Affirmations go against the way I was raised. I was taught we’re basically sinners before anything else.

There was some reason, on some level, that I deserved to be born with brittle bones and later get polio. It was a variant of the concept of Original Sin.

I was “tarred with the same brush” as my father, “penny- wise, pound-foolish,” and dozens of other things. Thinking about my good points would lead to self-pride. I had to always be on guard against my dark side. I would need to constantly practice self-

The problem was this: the more energy I put into guarding against my dark side, the stronger that squashed-down part got. And it always broke through: always.

Talking with people, I learned a lot of us heard—and believed—this sort of junk. Maybe thinking good of oneself does cause self-pride in some people, but considering I started from deep down in a pit of self-loathing, anything that got my head up to ground-level was a major help.

Why smash an ego— which is really self-confidence—that only half-exists?

By seeing myself as a very flawed person, I needed outside help. Authorities. That, in my family, was D. Arch, my maternal grandfather. He had the answers I needed. In truth, though, he had the answers he wanted me to need, because it would be to his greater glory.

My situation wasn’t unique. Like I said I’ve talked to dozens of people who had childhoods that were a long long way from what’s considered “normal.” They also had the same kind of messed-up bossy parent figures. And after growing up they found a lot of replacement authority figures.

When we think of ourselves as seriously flawed people, we can’t trust ourselves: we have to rely on outside authorities. You can see it on a daily basis: TV is stuffed with stuffed-up experts and psychological gurus overflowing with solutions for other people.

Preachers hand us old-time stories as laws on how everybody should think and act. In dictatorships, Big Bosses tell the people how they should view reality, behave, and, again, what they should think.

Almost none of the authorities tell us the truth about themselves.

The last thing they want to do is reveal their own fears and flaws, problems, unanswered questions. If they did, then we might not trust them as all-knowing. Experts are supposed to know everything about their field of knowledge.

Here I am, though, not too many years from
turning seventy, and I’m still learning about so many things: relationships, politics, spirituality, history, even myself.

Every day is one of discovery. What I thought I knew five years ago isn’ t necessarily wha

t I know today. If I depended on authorities, I wouldn’t have to worry: they’d tell me if I was right or wrong. Don’t worry and just follow directions.

Living, though, is such an on-going education that the lessons—for me, anyhow—have never stopped. Neither have the questions, right. I’m never absolutely certain, so there are always questions. I have to make choices about the questions: are they worth asking? Are they important? And what seem to be the answers—do they match or resonate with my experiences and knowledge?

I have to trust myself, and I have to look back on my own life in order to discern the answers. There are always more questions than answers. That’s what the journey is all about, when I get right down to it: trusting in my self.

Not authorities or books or other people laying down who I am or should be.