Anna Freud is one of my favorite writers about authenticity and the human mind. She wrote once that panic attacks occur when we lie to ourselves, and the subconscious rises up in protest. This observation changed my life.
She also wrote that a benchmark of authenticity is when people look deeply into themselves and face the truth about who they are. So often, that is not who they think they are. The unconscious self demands truth, even if we can’t face it.
We have had Gus for several weeks now, and it has been an emotional as well as an animal, experience. Maria and I are always telling one another that the other is over the moon about this dog, and we each always say the same thing:
No, not us, we are not one of those people, we are not weird and strange about dogs.
Yet I see her face every time she trains or sees Gus – here, she is teaching him to sit, and she sees mine whenever he covers my chin with kisses and wriggles and love.
We each can see the truth in one another, but not in ourselves. We both are too guarded, wary and protected sometimes to know who we really are. Authenticity comes when we face the truth about ourselves, whatever it is. We are often telling ourselves what we are not, but almost never what we are.
Our work can’t lie, the truth shows up in her art, and once in awhile, in my writing.
This morning, I raised this subject with Maria. I said on some level, I see that we needed Gus. It isn’t because we aren’t close, but because we are. We need to nurture together, we hid this for years in order to protect ourselves from the people who ridicule and jeer others about feelings and emotion. We put up shields to fend off the abuse that raged through our homes and lives.
When there is no place to hide, we find the hiding places inside of ourselves, and one of the many things I love about dogs is that they reveal who we are, even if we run from it.
“I was always looking outside myself for strength and confidence,” wrote Anna Freud, “but it comes from within. It is there all the time.”
When I asked Maria if she knew how nurturing she was, she almost jumped out of her shoes. She refuses to acknowledge that she is a profoundly nurturing person, she is struggling to know and accept who she is.
I can’t acknowledge it either, and for the same reason. The people I lived with would have thought me weak and insane to talk about nurture. It would have actually been dangerous.
In her life, such an acknowledgement would have dangerous, and in a part of her mind it still is, even though she lives the truth every day. It is literally right there under her nose. And mine. I did this and still do this,I am not one of those people, but I am older and have been at this a bit longer.
I am coming to see who I am and know who I am, and the dividends to that are enormous. It quells some of the fires that rage inside of us.
Maria didn’t want to talk about this, of course.
She ran to the kitchen, said it was too early to talk about heavy things, started cleaning up the kitchen – every sign of avoidance there is. But I persisted, there is no hiding ourselves from one another, I see the truth in her eyes, and she sees it in mine.
But our relationship is wonderful, she said, we didn’t really need Gus. But that is the point, I pressed. It is because our relationship is so strong that we needed to do this. We needed to nurture, to share the profound experience of bringing a living thing into our lives, loving it, caring for it, training it.
We do this all the time. On the farm, with the donkeys, with Red and Fate, the chickens, the barn cats, on our blogs, with refugee kids and things for Mansion residents. We are always trying to nurture, and satisfy this broken and yearning parts of ourselves.
I had a daughter and lost two children, and I know too well that a dog and a baby are not the same thing. But puppies and dogs do trigger some of these same emotions. Look how well we work together with Gus, I said, we have had no quarrels about him, we are in the same place, on the same page, feeling the same way. We both smile at him all day.
We become authentic, I think, by seeing the truth about ourselves, even if it is painful, even if we have hidden and protected it from the outside world. Sometimes, dogs have the key to that unlocking, as do children. They mirror us, we can see ourselves in them if we look hard and open our eyes.
A few minutes before I wrote this, Maria found a dead baby barn swallow on the floor of the barn. He had fallen out of his nest, and Maria put him back in yesterday. His brother or sister was still by his side, he flew away when Maria approached. I saw the sadness in her eyes, the death of a baby barn swallow is not considered news in our world, but there was so much sorrow and feeling in her face.
Nurturing is such an important part of her, and yes, of me also. Perhaps it’s time to own up to that. Maybe that is why Gus came, to help us know who we are.
There is no peace if we cannot know who we are, and own up to it. It is not a bad thing to be a nurturing soul, I told Maria, it is the most beautiful thing in the world. I am so ill at ease and uncomfortable – almost panicking – to show intense feeling. It still evokes a feeling of dread and fear in me, and great menace.
My dogs have always chipped away at this moat, this barrier to authenticity. Here comes another one, and the truth becomes harder to deny.
I was always looking outside myself for strength and confidence but it comes from within. It is there all the time.
One of the things I am learning about myself is that I have a powerful and interrupted need to nurture. I am coming to see that we needed Gus, I am glad that he is here.
Sometimes, wrote Anna Freud, the most beautiful thing is precisely the one that comes unexpectedly and unearned, hence something given truly as a present.