Wisdom Wherever You Find It
It’s part of the cycle. You don’t want to tell anybody else, because if you tell anybody else, then you have to tell yourself, and that’s the last thing you want to do. Josh Bearman’s mother
I love listening to “This American Life,” just like a lot of America. It may not be the original podcast, but when the term “podcast” was invented, the radio show was already one. I have my favorites – the telephone booth on a cliff in Japan where people call their dead relatives, the two firefighters who almost burned down a house chasing a squirrel, the discussion of how racial and economic integration are the best ways to improve public schools. But the wisest insight I ever heard on the show was in a conversation between Joshuah Bearman and his alcoholic mother. And it was from her.
You can find the episode on the website (Episode 334, Duty Calls) and learn a lot about Bearman on Google (he is pretty famous). You won’t find his mother’s name, though. Most of her adult life right up to her death was a train wreck, and in a stunning act of respect, he has not identified her publicly, near as I can tell.
In the process of documenting his attempts to prevent her ultimate decline, he challenges his mother about why she did not call him in a moment of serious hardship. The back-and-forth concludes with her insight: admitting to someone else that you are in a state of need means admitting it to yourself. And sometimes the only survival mechanism a person has is denial…until that doesn’t work anymore. (Listen to the episode.)
This tactic is not just a strategy of an addict or someone with a compulsive behavior. Maybe it is an overstatement to say everyone has at least one thing in their life that fits this pattern, but if you know the one human being for whom this is not true, please introduce me. I would like to know how they do it.
Sometimes the denial is about a genuine physical problem, like substance abuse. Sometimes it is about a challenge to a person’s internal landscape, like depression. Sometimes it is about a fact of life that could provoke disapproval from a loved one, like sexual orientation. And sometimes it is about a sense of self that is likely false, one that a person believes about themselves, but hopes against hope that they can conceal it from others who might affirm it.
Most usual is what is popularly called “imposter syndrome.” Some successful people live into the arrogance of extreme self-confidence. More of them believe that they are frauds and that it is only a matter of time until other people find out. No matter what it is – profession, parenthood, personal conduct – late at night, when sleep won’t come, some version of “I am the great and powerful Oz” begins playing in the brain.
Of course, it is not true. But what an irony that the people most likely to help the person who cannot admit the obstacle to a better life through skill and caring will not allow themselves to be rescued from their own obstacle.
I know someone who is a bundle of insecurity, but unless you were up close you would never guess. The testimonials to this person are universal. They always seem to care, to know the right thing to say, to brighten a day. A social butterfly, this person has a remarkable memory for a detail or two about everyone they met and makes a point of recalling it at each subsequent meeting.
By pigeon-holing everyone else into a particular role, this individual can control every interaction and deflect conversation and concern away from themselves. The very thought of genuine self-disclosure is enough to throw this person into a panic and cause a redirection of the topic at hand. What a lonely way to live, without understanding how much caring can come your way.
Bearman’s mother’s observation was an answer to his persistent question, “Why didn’t you call me?” But it is an answer not only from her to him. In a lot of ways, it is the answer we each give to whomever proposes to help – family, friend, professional caregiver, clergy, even God. With few exceptions, really few, the offer of support is genuine. Perhaps it is not a solution, but it is a remedy for the loneliness of denial.
And I think that going through life lonely is the last thing you want to do.