You never really knew me at all.
That’s what I was singing in a dream I had nearly ten years ago. I suppose if I dug out my journals from the relevant time, I could relate the whole dream. It’s not like the dream I had the night of the opening reception for my first solo art exhibit, though. That I remember in its entirety.
I was at home — the house in which I was raised — with Sara and Katie. In the dream, they were about 10 and 6, and we were helping Mom clean the house, an impossibility both because Mom died more than six years before Sara was born and because Dad had sold the house by then. Specifically, we were working on the closet under the stairs which opened from Mom’s sewing room. As was Mom’s practice, we were taking everything out to sort through.
I found a treasure chest in the back of the closet, a small one with gold jewelry set with precious stones — sapphires and emeralds and rubies — and sent Sara to get Mom. In the dream, she came back and told me she couldn’t find her gramma. I knew Mom was cleaning one of the closets in my old room, so I dashed up the stairs, calling to her. When I got to my room, I remembered she had died. I woke up crying. The grief was as raw as if I had just lost her the day before.
I carried that ache in my heart for a long time. I don’t think you ever stop missing your mom if you lose her as I did, but usually it’s more like a healing bruise than a new injury. In the days immediately following the dream, I felt like I’d been beaten, and I journalled extensively, trying to make sense of the dream.
Eventually, I knew. I had found the treasure. In pursuing a career in art, I had found the gift which would enrich my life immeasurably. (Foolishly, I had not, at that stage in my life, learned the magic word — NO — and allowed myself to be the solution to someone else’s problem, which resulted in the forfeiture of that precious gift. I have not yet forgiven myself for that error in judgment.)
I remember only part of the dream in which I sang in a voice more lilting than mine has ever been, “You never really knew me at all.” I remember I was living with another girl in a building so dilapidated the floor was dotted with holes. A misstep could have caused a serious fall and injury, but the walls were adorned with beautiful banners.
I had that dream shortly after a longtime friendship began to crumble. I realized I had not been authentic in that friendship. I had been the person she expected me to be, which, of course, weakened the friendship, made it vulnerable. But, it also allowed the friendship to exist for as long as it did.
Today I find myself thinking about the contrast between those two dreams. In one, I find what is true and beautiful about myself. In the other, I give it up. How much are those dreams a reflection of my life? How often do I recognize the value of what is true about myself and how often do I hide what is true in order to have a place of some sort to belong?
As a Democrat — yes, we exist — in a primarily Republican state, I usually keep my mouth shut about politics. Few of us actually affect change in the political arena anyhow, so why engage in discussions which will do nothing more than cause hard feelings? I still feel the sting of having a priest who was obsessed with politics verbally abuse me in a restaurant because he didn’t like an editorial I wrote. That friendship was irrevocably damaged — unnecessarily, as far as I am concerned.
And, I while I make a point of trying to express appreciation to people whose words or actions are an inspiration to me, I usually keep my mouth shut when I notice inconsistencies in others’ belief systems. Recently, I was talking with a young woman who stands with the Catholic Church on fertility and reproduction issues, but not on the matter of war. I happen to be an advocate of nonviolence and therefore stand with the Church when it comes to war, but really wrestle with whether the Church should be engaged in efforts to completely overturn Roe v. Wade. I do not support abortion, advocate abortion or believe it’s the answer to an unwanted pregnancy, but I am old enough to remember when women died regularly from botched abortions.
While I could see the two of us as different parts of the same body, united in Christ, I definitely got the feeling she had come to the conclusion that she is a better Catholic than me — and she may be right. However, it’s altogether possible that it’s a case of the kettle calling the pot black. After all, she does not fully embrace the teachings of the Church anymore than I do. But, why argue about it? If this is an area in her life where God wants to work, he will open her eyes and her heart.
But, I think reticence in those ways may actually be authentic because it expresses a deeply held belief of mine — that we need to work to build up community, that we need to build bridges and be inclusive. I think of Christ’s penchant for inclusion — the woman at the well, the tax collectors and sinners with which he dined, the centurion’s servant he healed — and say to myself, “Me, too. Me, too. I want to do that, too.” Reticence is one way in which I think I do that.
But, are there times when reticence does more harm than good? I am still wrestling with that. I’ve held three different jobs in which my reputation was shredded because I didn’t say what needed to be said in order to cast a different light on a situation of concern to decision-makers. With one organization, I had no desire to tarnish the reputation of a predecessor who acted in ignorance rather than with criminal intent. With the other two, I believed the facts disputed the liars and I didn’t need to speak ill of the individuals maligning my character, that the decision-makers would figure out the truth. Whoops! I was wrong!
Well, I was wrong in the sense that the outcome wasn’t what I expected, but was there a right in there as well? One of the liars had a low self esteem, had lost two jobs in a row and was like the child on the playground who always needs attention. I could no more point the finger of blame at her than kick an injured dog. The other liar had a good heart, but lousy judgment. She, too, was like a child in that she’d try to cover up her mistakes instead of admitting them so matters could be resolved in a straightforward manner. Attempting to get the truth in most cases would simply have made matters worse.
So, in both of these cases — and in the case of the ignorant predecessor — harm to another would have resulted from speaking out to protect myself. Which life was more important in these situations? I suppose it depends upon one’s perspective. I tend to think that in some ways my reticence had, in the long run, win-win outcomes. Yes, I’ve lost some jobs, but does that matter as much as acting with charity?
Christ said, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:39). What I have found from acting with compassion and kindness in difficult situations is this: while my pride was hurt in each of those situations, I can live with the consequences of my choices. I have grown in self-knowledge as a result of dealing with adversity. I have grown in faith as I’ve come to depend more and more on the Lord. And, I’ve come to appreciate that the accoutrements that indicate worldly success aren’t the only measures by which our lives can be measured.
So in answer to the questions I’ve posed, the answer may actually be that authenticity and reticence are not mutually exclusive. At times, not fully revealing oneself may actually be an expression of one’s true self.
That being said, I have to admit, I do harbor the hope that when the Great Decision Maker sorts the sheep from the goats (cf. Matt. 25:31-46), he sees things differently than the aforementioned decision makers. I’d hate to find myself getting the boot at that point.