When Autumn Shows Us How to Die and How to Truly Live

I died a little more this month. I resisted it at first. Then I invited someone into the dying. As she stood next to me, I filled the garbage can and I heard the whisper coming off the tongue of autumn…

death and resurrection

Photo Credit: John from Canberra via Compfight cc

Autumn is visiting again. The world around me is dying. And the beauty of the death steals my breath. The grief of autumn draws us in, doesn’t it? The October sky is a cloudless ocean of blue—you feel like you could fall upward into it and be washed clean. In the evening, the long rays of a sun tilting toward the winter solstice cut the atmosphere in such a way that the world glows in high definition.

The autumn afternoon is my only companion as I perform my annual fall cleaning of the garage. The detritus of summer is flung about, a visual representation of the chaotic fun—life vests dangle from a dust-covered snow blower, and the bikes and scooters look like they mated and multiplied while we were busy with pools and sprinklers and backyard barbecues.

As I clear away the debris, I see an old box full of forgotten contents. I pull it down off the shelf and open the lid. I’m startled by what I find.

In autumn, the leaves in the canopy above rustle together, like the dry-chapped hands of an old man whose life has been hard but good. Trees prepare for slumber, and foliage everywhere dies in a brilliant show of oranges and yellows and reds. It’s like someone spilled paint on the world and the colors are getting better as they dry.

Inside the box is a tangled collection of my childhood trophies—surviving artifacts of my youth. I’ve tried to throw them away on several occasions, but I’ve never been able to pull the trigger.

Why?

Because the formula for our lifelong battle is actually pretty simple:

First, we enter the world with a self that is created for us—it is good and beautiful and knitted together with love. Then, our good and beautiful self rubs up against a wounded world and we get the message drilled into us, “Who you are isn’t good enough. You have to do better.” And finally, believing our original self isn’t good enough, we hide it and we scramble to create a false self—one we hope is good enough for the world.

Because shame clutches at our hearts, we clutch at trophies like a box full of proof: “See, everyone,” they proclaim, “I’m the most improved, I’m the most valuable, I have proven I’m good enough, I have proven I belong!”

In October, the school year is still a promise and not yet a curse, so kids skip to school and tumble home, tossing book bags on front steps and soaking up the hours of dwindling light before dinner. They frolic in the grief of the dying year. Heaps of rust-colored leaves dot the neighborhood and kids pile on the leaf-heaps like they are trampolines by God.     

I pick through the glittering bricks with which I built my false self, and I’m grateful for them. A kid needs accomplishment. He needs to learn his abilities and his strengths and what he is capable of. And I’m glad these trophies happened to me, because you have to hold a trophy in order to discover it is hollow—worth isn’t something anyone can win, worth is something everyone is born with.

So the part of me these trophies now represent—my false self and the need to constantly prove my worthiness—needs to die. I need to make sure these trophies don’t get packed away again. But I don’t want to do it alone. So, I call my wife to the garage, because the death of our false selves begins to lose a bit of its sting when we are joined in it.

In the Fall, the pristine lawns of summer give way to leaf-strewn yards. The superficial beauty we tried to create during the summer months with mowers and pruning shears and weed killer now replaced by a sacred beauty we can’t control. The smell on the air is sweet, and how is it that the scent of a dying world is getting better by the day?

As I grab the first trophy, I see the autumn day all around me and I think:

The dying of the world is not ugly. No, this dying is beauty etched right into the DNA of the earth. Maybe the earth knows something we don’t. Maybe the dying world is submerging us in the truth of death and resurrection: when autumn anticipates a springtime, when death is always a trigger for resurrection, then the dying need not be ugly.

Maybe the anticipation of a resurrection works its way back into the death itself and makes it a thing of beauty.

Maybe the earth knows this and maybe we all need to know it. Maybe we all need to know the death of our false selves anticipates the resurrection of our original selves—the flimsy self we have created traded in for the beautiful true self that was created for us.

As autumn explodes and winter approaches, cider is getting pressed and vegetables are getting canned and firewood is getting stacked and machinery is getting covered and the world is winding down. But the winding down feels sacred and sublime and tinged with an immutable joy. The grief of autumn draws me in.

One by one, I drop the trophies in the garbage can, disposing of these shiny little pieces of my false self. And the dying is hard but it isn’t ugly. It feels just right. It feels like an autumn day. And like a springtime resurrection of the soul, it frees me just a little more to reclaim my original, good-enough self.

No trophies required.

Question: What “trophies” have you relinquished in order to reclaim your original, good-enough self? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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Click here to read my guest post this week at Disney Dads. It made it to the front page of Disney’s parenting website, Babble.com! Find out why our kids act out at bedtime, and what we can do about it. The answer might surprise you…

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Preview: Next Wednesday’s post is tentatively entitled, “How We Celebrate Halloween Every Day in My Neighborhood”

Disclaimer: This post is not professional advice. It should be read as you would read a “self-help” book. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor, who can become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Counselors can be located through your insurance network or through your state psychological association.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Colleen Shields

    bbbb

    • Nancy Norbeck

      Yes–this post is as gorgeous in its execution as it is in its content. Just stunning.

      • drkellyflanagan

        Colleen, your comment makes me feel “seen,” and for that I’m grateful. I told my wife I wanted to write a post in which I get to be a writer more than a therapist, even if it wasn’t a terribly popular post. So, Colleen and Nancy, your affirmation of my writing is especially appreciated. Are there any ways I could enjoy some of your writing, Colleen?

        • Colleen Shields

          I will ‘dig through’ some previously penned poems and see if anything is an appropriate response to one of your posts, and if so, will be sure to share it!
          Writing – a viable medium for healing hearts, as well as an artistic expression, and representation, of one’s true Self.

  • Interested in Life

    Thank you for this. Last night I chaired a fellowship meeting and the overall topic/question was, “Do you love yourself?” Are we not on this journey to refind our true selves again? I really like this particular writing.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you, and you’re welcome! I love the question and wish I could have been at that meeting!

  • Echo Roberts

    I get the same feeling going through old photo albums or reading old journals. I remember my younger self. I think old trophies for me are less important as self validating artifacts than as mile markers on the journey.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Good point, Echo. For me, it was trophies. For someone else, they may simply be mile markers. We each have to find our own particular “self-validating artifacts” and decide what to do with them. Thanks for adding this.

  • Danette

    I wish you’d posted this before you threw the trophies away! 🙂 Retrieve them if it’s not too late. Trophies can also be resurrected when donated to organizations that work with children. Just change the name plate and shazam, another happy child! Congratulations on your progress back to self, and thank you for sharing such well-written and eloquent thoughts. A pleasure to read.

    • drkellyflanagan

      I do, too, Danette! I came home and checked, but they were hauled away with last week’s garbage. However, it looks like you may have salvaged someone else’s trophies with your comment (see Peter’s comment)!

  • Lama Tassabihji

    What a nice comparision. An amazing read again!!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thank you, Lama!

  • Peter Walhout

    Great post, Kelly! I love autumn for the same sublime reasons. And I have a box full of trophies in my basement that I will NEVER throw away haha. But, I suppose I don’t need ALL of them because there’s so many….;) You make a good point about throwing them away. I think it might make sense to keep 1 or 2 trophies to serve as milestones in my life and memories of what I used to do, but not as testimonies to how great I am (because someone always has won a bigger trophy, anyway). Getting rid of most of them would make an important statement to myself. (And I’ll try to donate them, too, as someone above mentioned)

    • drkellyflanagan

      Just make me a promise, Peter: if you decide to do so, tell me. I’ll come over and you can tell me the story associated with each trophy before you throw it away/donate it!

  • karen eisele

    This is the first time I have read one of your posts. I was touched by your succulent blend of the external experience of everday life with the internal terrian of self. You helped me reflect on the fact that I have a lot of “boxes” of emotional collections that inhibit me from having the room to exam and expand on those things that I need for the next definitation of my life(I am turning 60 in Dec.one always tends to reflect more with birthdays).The Roman Emperior Marcus Aurelius once said “The Happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” I find your post guide towards improving the quality of ones thoughts. You truly are an encourager and I thank you for sharing your gift

    • drkellyflanagan

      Karen, To paraphrase Colleen’s comment, the encourager in me recognizes the encourager in you. Thank you for such affirming words. I’m glad you found the blog and I hope you can hang out with us for awhile!