Change

This piece was a draft for Healing, but it stands well on its own:

Why is it so hard to change some things about ourselves?

I think the answer is that some things are surface habits, and are only incidental bits of our lives. Other things we don't like about ourselves go deep into our foundations. They are a significant part of who we are, a part of our skeleton rather than something on the surface of our being.

When I was six years old, three big girls at the school bus stop began teasing me.  Two things happened. I was devastated. My world caved in. I suspect they were gratified by my response, and I became a target for others, and spent the remainder of my school years always somewhat on the outer. Fifty and sixty years later, I have been able to recover other memories of school and see that it was not so bad as I remembered. There were good times, friends, and fun.

But my response very quickly deposited layers of being me that became bedrock as impenetrable as the sheet limestone our farmhouse stood upon. I needed to survive. I had to go back to school the next day, and all the days after that. I called on what I had. I knew we were farmers. We were not army brats or jailer's kids, or from the poor families on the east side of the railway line. In short, although I had no name for it, I knew I was a class above those kids. We were Methodists. Even at six, I knew we were better than other people—God forgive us. So I went back to school, devastated and afraid and lonely, but determined to be better than those other kids because… well, I simply was. It helped that I was smart and related well to adults, which meant I liked most of my teachers.

Without knowing it I took on the role of the hero, the one who had been victimised and wrongly accused, but who was righteous and would be found so at the end. I despised those who did not measure up to my standards. I knew none of these words or concepts.  I didn't know other kids could sense my feeling of superiority—I doubt they had much conscious awareness of it, but their inevitable instinctive hostile response to my attitudes reinforced my feelings.  And then, not having known that such a thing even existed, I was top of the class in Year 2. It was like mainlining drugs. I was addicted to being the good boy, to being right, to being a better person than you. All at the same time as being lonely, on the outer, and often miserable. But there was always enough verification of my hero-status for the model to work.

It made me. It scarred me and damaged me, and it also saved me from being destroyed. In my twenties, my mentor pointed out that the way of being that had saved me was no longer serving me well. It was undermining my life. He was right. We can't live as a hero. Being a hero is exhausting. Most of us are ordinary people who sometimes show heroic moments of courage. Those who must live as a hero for years at a time pay an enormous cost.

And I was not really a hero. I was a construction self-built—imagined— to shore myself up against pain and fear.  When we live by imagining ourselves to be the Wronged Hero, we can only be that "hero" by making sure we are wronged. This is especially so for smart, white, middle class men. We mostly don't get wronged. We have to imagine our persecution. And, if it turns out there are things for which we are being called out, such as our sexism or racism, we have to justify them and make them into persecution rather than being a call to being a more human being.  Because we need to be wronged. If we are not wronged, then who are we? This is our being.

At twenty six I didn't see it as clearly as this, but I knew I had a serious problem. I did not try to pretend otherwise. But I could see no way through it. And that's because there was only one way around it. I had to stop being me, and become a completely different person. I had to dig out the sheet limestone of my being and soul. That's the work of a lifetime.

Andrew Prior (2022)


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