I am continually awed and inspired by the stories of those who have transformed themselves while confined behind prison walls; people who, justly or unjustly, have been stripped of the basic freedoms that the rest of us take for granted. Despite living in the direst of circumstances, some prisoners manage to find a sense of strength, even spaciousness, in their hearts and minds that many of us who consider ourselves free have never experienced.
Thankfully, most people will never know the cold gray walls and iron bars of prison cells. However, many of us unknowingly live our lives trapped inside prisons of our own making. Whether mental or emotional in origin, we erect structures around our hearts and minds that protect us from the exquisite rawness of life; that keep the memories, pains, fears and regrets of the past locked inside, along with the possibility of present-day joy and heartfelt connection. We are often unaware of these walls until some outside force causes the structures to collapse and we are left facing the “demons” and the rawness that we had been trying so desperately to hold at bay.
As a certified member of the human race, I know these haunted beings and places all too well. As a young girl, I had a desperate, insatiable need to be seen and heard. Somewhere along the way, I unwittingly realized that the acknowledgment I received from intellectual accomplishments could serve as a substitute for these unmet primal emotional needs. That, along with the temporary surge of satisfaction that resulted from winning arguments and being right, became the foundational building blocks of my identity. Over the years, I fed this burgeoning structure as it grew and solidified into an impressive ego tower. What I didn’t realize, however, was that, in doing so, I was shutting out any possibility of having my real needs met, as well as shutting in (and shutting up) the part of me that so desperately needed to be seen and heard. Unsurprisingly, I gravitated toward law school and a legal career, which only served to solidify my identity as an independent, intellectual, knowledgeable, competent woman.
My life and identity started unraveling, my structure began collapsing, when I was going through a divorce. As I started losing my grip on reality as I had known it, as I began to lose control, I began to soften, to open. I would often find myself in uncontrollable fits of tears, something I hadn’t experienced in years, perhaps even decades. I also began to realize that my life didn’t depend on being right. It was, in fact, due largely to the strength of my ego structure and my need to be right, that the walls of my marriage, and hence my identity, were collapsing around me. I began to place less value on the battle of right-versus-wrong and more value on human connection. I even, at times, found myself apologizing in a heartfelt manner, something that would have been anathema to the old me.
In the ensuing years, I have done a lot of conscious, painful, but necessary inner “work” in an attempt to further dismantle the ego structure I had worked so hard to build. Ironically, however, at the same time, my ego has been subversively working behind the scenes to keep itself in charge, holding me hostage to the notion that I was not worthy unless I continually accumulated a never-ending number of professional degrees, certifications, designations and accolades. My once-insatiable need to be seen and heard had now become an insatiable need for external validation through professional accomplishments. Today, I am licensed as an attorney in two states. In addition, I hold the following designations: certified financial planner; master analyst in financial forensics; and certified divorce financial analyst. Ego food is quite costly, indeed.
On a recent dreary morning drive, a stark and sobering image flashed across my mind’s eye: A gravestone inscribed with the words, “Here lies Lori. She was right.” I recalled the scene in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol where Ebenezer Scrooge came face to face with a gravestone bearing his own name. Dickens’s protagonist was “secret and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features.… External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he . . . .” On Christmas Eve, three spirits paid Scrooge a nighttime visit. First, the Ghost of Christmas Past escorted Scrooge back through time to witness first-hand the intense loneliness, pain and heartache—the unmet needs—that had caused Scrooge to wall off his heart. Next, the Ghost of Christmas Present escorted Scrooge on a present-day journey where Scrooge bore witness to the poisonous effect his bitterness and closed-hearted coldness had on others. Finally, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come accompanied Scrooge into the dark and dismal future that lay before him should he continue along his current loveless, lifeless path. As the pair floated ethereally in and out of homes and offices, they heard townspeople talking about the “wretched man” who had just died. When the Ghost took Scrooge to the man’s burial site, Scrooge fell to his knees in tears as he saw his name inscribed on the tombstone. Scrooge jolted awake on Christmas morning awed to find himself alive and in his own, familiar bed. Forever transformed by his nighttime journeys, the walls that had once imprisoned his heart fell away, the icy cold within him melted, and Scrooge was reborn, a warm, loving, joyous, generous, child-like human.
Scrooge’s journey is a powerful metaphor for the process of letting go. And, while letting go is not always as difficult as it was for Scrooge, like birth and death, it certainly never comes easily. As did Scrooge, we often have to come face-to-face with our darkest shadows before realizing that we hold the key to our own prison cells and that we alone have the choice of whether to use the key to set ourselves free.
So where does this all leave me? At the moment, I am simply relieved to be able to say these freeing words: I don’t know. Just this morning, standing amidst the rubble of my collapsed ego, I found myself face to face with a tender young girl. She has been waiting for decades to be seen and heard. After years behind prison walls, she is finally breathing fresh air and taking in the sunlight. She laughs freely, cries freely, and certainly isn’t impressed by my intellectual accomplishments. When it comes to what is truly important in life, she knows!