Today, as I dropped Lizzie off at kindergarten, I noticed that one of her classmate’s dads was sporting a tattoo on his neck. I’d be hard pressed to say precisely how, but it seemed to me that it had a kind of vaguely Asian flare to it. When I was a kid, body art like this was designed to brand a man as “a biker dude.” In those days, such a marking would indicate that this was someone not to be messed with. Its wearer would be far stockier than the lithe, hip dad who kissed his little girl goodbye, and made sure that she hadn’t forgotten her lunch. As she scurried off, he joined a small group of similarly hip moms and dads for a little young-adult-parent (YAP) banter. As they politely flashed me a group smile, I observed that there was no salt in any of the YAP’s salt and pepper hair. Nor were any of the YAP men sporting a dunlap (i.e. a middle-aged belly that “done lapped” over its owner’s belt). In that moment, it occurred to me, that to these YAPs, I was old, gray David Letterman bringing his kid to school-just not as funny… or as rich. In the course of the last six months, I have been having more and more moments like this one.
That’s because, tonight, at Midnight, the last few grains of brown sand will turn white, and drop through the neck of the hourglass, marking an end to the first five decades of my life. At that moment, I will officially cross over the threshold of antiquity into the “youth of my old age” (or is that the “old age of my youth?”). In a previous essay, I noted that this inevitable passage of time has been far more difficult than I would have expected.
The reason for this difficulty can be traced back to the earliest years of my life. By the time that I was ten, I had an experience that revealed the presence of a harsh inner-critic. The “inner critic” is an amalgam of all the significant negative voices of a person’s life that have been internalized over the years. One Fourth-Grade day, while brushing my teeth, it occurred to me that I was berating myself for something that I had done when I was five-years-old. Even then, the cognitive counselor in me was aware of the dysfunctional nature of such self-talk. But, as graduate school, and two decades of practice would reveal, knowledge of one’s dysfunction alone, rarely does anything to reduce it. As the pages have been inexorably stripped, one-by-one, from the calendar, I have been noticing that my inner-critic remains robust, and ageless.
In my psyche’s board-room, where the constituative parts of myself jockey for position, the dawning of a new decade has somehow elevated my inner-critic’s status. Some triggering event will conjure him up, and he will take control of the microphone that is my consciousness. As my fiftieth birthday looms on the horizon, the themes of my inner-critic’s soliloquies have more and more revolved around measuring myself against someone else’s accomplishments, or past goals that have yet to be fulfilled. The argumentation has been more hypnotic than sophisticated, but the allure of this nettlesome inner-voice has been hard to resist.
This Sunday’s letter from Paul (taken from 1 Corinthians 13) challenged the reader to “put aside childish things.” In that famous passage, Paul invited the mature Christian to quit “thinking as a child,” “reasoning as a child,” and “talking like a child.” Maturity, according to our Christian tradition, has to do with a life that is grounded in love. And that love, among other things, is patient, and kind, and forgiving. Here at fifty years old, I am learning that this love is not only meant to be poured out for others, but we are to treat ourselves with patience, kindness, self-forgiveness, and yes…love.
Here at fifty years old, I am hearing Paul inviting you and me into a form of sacred cognitive therapy. We are to listen to our self-talk, revealed in how we speak to ourselves in the privacy of our ongoing internal dialogue, and how we speak to others. We can detect the childish voice of the inner-critic when we catch ourselves saying unkind, impatient, or unforgiving things about ourselves. This work is so important, in part, because the way we treat ourselves will tend to bleed over into how we treat those who are closest to us.
It used to be that I would only become aware of my childish inner critic through the emotional footprints that would be left behind: sadness, negativity, anxiety. Lately, through a process of self-reflection, I am attempting to catch myself in the act of negative self-talk. In such moments, I try to talk back to that voice, and to engage in a little corrective self-nurturing.
If the past is any kind of prelude to the future, then I suspect that this work of becoming more loving to self and others will be completed about a half an hour after I’m dead. In the meantime, let’s challenge and support one another in this sacred work to see ourselves more distinctly. Know that as you attempt to live out a discipline of rigorous self-compassion, that you are drawing on a deeper ancient power that predated any wound or any negative voice that may have been internalized.