Seeing our true selves: all that matters is what we do next
Noticing one’s own life was a core theme of the American poet E.E. Cummings’ work. In his poem ‘pity this busy monster, manunkind’ (not a typo) Cummings describes humans as “busy monsters” who find it difficult to see what is really going on in their interior lives, and around them. You can hear him recite his poem here.
I think that, for many of us, COVID-19 has forced us to see the busy monsters in ourselves and how our societies have learned to fail to properly connect. It has stripped back the veneer from our lives — those things that we believed, thought, said, did and wore to keep us in our “comfortable disease” of progress.
Death and life are no longer “safely beyond”: many of us have had to learn to see that they are right here in front of us — and that they have been all along.
Ironically, we have needed to become physically disconnected from each other to reveal more of ourselves and to see facets of others that were hidden from us. This may be particularly alarming when it concerns people we previously have not warmed to. Now we are confronted with the truth that those whom we were easily able to label as annoying or different, onto whom we could project our own inadequacies, might now be seen as, well, human beings. They are people who are dealing with their own daily struggles, just as we are.
For those of us who are able to work from our home, we are now given a regular peek into the private spaces of our colleagues. I can now see the décor of your house, what you liked to wear when you weren’t at the office, even how you interact with your children and your pets.
Our veneers formed little by little over time. They grew because we needed them to protect us. They helped us spend large periods of time in organisations where it was easier to fit in with expectations of others, or to block out sensations or feelings that felt uncomfortable.
Then, as time went on, these veneers became thicker, and developed into something rather like a callous. Callouses naturally form to protect the skin from damage and pain. They allow us to play the guitar, shovel dirt or garden. And because they protect us from pain, they make it harder for us to feel what we are really experiencing. It can therefore be difficult to gauge whether what we are doing is still worthwhile, effective and even right.
Covid-19 has exposed our “world of made” (as Cummings puts it) as fragile. Our economies, our systems, our habits, our “hypermagical ultraomnipotence” has also been exposed. This great shedding has created pain from all sources. It has also allowed some of us (perhaps those of us who are in many ways privileged) to rethink where we put our energy. Some people I know have reassessed personal relationships because they have truly been able to see what shape they are in and where they need to give their attention. Colleagues have quit their jobs realising that they no longer want to be contribute to a particular industry or organisation.
Like the child in the Hans Christian Andersen story The Emporer’s New Clothes, what are we noticing, uncovering and calling out — for ourselves and how we relate to the world? What are you uncovering about yourself? What gives you joy and meaning? When do you feel authentic? What has been laid bare? What have you found? What is missing? With these insights, what action can you take? What will now be born? All that matters is what you do next.