Just Be a Person

Growing up isn’t about growing older or wiser or more mature. It’s about growing into the awareness that we’re all in this together…

being human

Photo Credit: splorp via Compfight cc

I wonder if I’ll be sixteen years old forever?

I’m walking into my son’s new middle school. It’s the school I attended as a boy, in the town where I grew up—the town I left because I thought I needed something more and the town I returned to when I realized I already had everything worth having and always had. I’m delivering a cross-country uniform that was forgotten in the kitchen, when I open the main doors and almost bump into a woman about my age.

I don’t know if she recognizes me, but I recognize her.

And suddenly, my tongue is tied.

Back when I was a junior in high school, she was a senior and a cool kid—and I was decidedly not. Here we are, decades later, back in a school together, and instead of saying “hi” to her like she’s an actual human being—an ordinary person like myself, with kids and stress and a mortgage and hopes and dreams and fears—I lose the power of speech completely and we pass each other silently.

Sixteen years old forever.

And what exactly does that mean? It means some part of me—the part I think of as my ego—still looks at the whole world like it’s a ladder, with everyone contending for the higher rungs.

What the Ego Sees

Adolescence is brutal. You walk around all gangly, suddenly thrust into somebody else’s body. And that body comes with a bad case of acne. Some parts change shape. Other parts grow hair. And you have no control over any of it.

Anarchy at a cellular level.

Yet, far worse than the physical freak show you see in the mirror is the emotional wreck you see in your heart—insecure about who you are, uncertain who you belong to, and, if you’re honest with yourself, at a total loss as to why you’re on this big rock.

It’s chaos at a spiritual level.

So, every kid tries to make some sense of the confusion and find some stability within the pandemonium. The result is the human ego—our loyal psychic defender, the protector of our heart, our inner bodyguard. And almost every human ego will use a shortcut to achieve the sense of order we so badly desire.

The shortcut is hierarchy.

The ego sees the world as a ladder, and it thinks the people on the higher rungs are somehow better. It categorizes people and then strives for membership in the loftier categories. It sees tiers and levels everywhere, and it sees all of life as a competition. The ego is young, naïve, and ambitious. It thinks growing up is about moving up.

As if there’s anywhere to really move up to.

In the process, people cease to be people, and they become something less—they become a marker for our own progress. Are we ahead of them, behind them, or neck-and-neck? Above, below, or fighting for ground on the same tier of existence?

And we become something less, too.

Sometimes, we become tongue-tied.

What the Soul Sees

So, I walk by her in the hallway, rendered speechless because my adolescent ego keeps taking over when I’m not looking. I get in my car and I head for home and I wonder: if my heart untied my tongue and spoke to her with it, what would it say? What would it say to all the people I knew in those days and may come to know again in this town? I listen for its whisper, and I hear it say this:

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry for the times I thought you were better than me, so I acted like I was better than you. I’m sorry I tried to survive my own internal anarchy by making order out of it with hierarchies. I’m sorry for the times I put you on a non-existent level above me and hid from you or competed with you. And I’m sorry for the times I put you on a non-existent level below me and acted like I had won a game that never really existed, either. I’m sorry my made-up games and imaginary ladders led me to treat you as anything less than an ordinary person, just like myself.

It’s good to see you again. It’s good to be a human being with you. No pressure to be more. No fear of being less. It’s good to know we’re on the same level because in this fleeting life and in this fractured world, there is only one level to be on. It’s good to know we probably share some of the joys and pains of parenting. It’s good to know we share some of the aches and pains of aging. It’s good to know we’re both a little closer to the end, so we have less and less time for our silly little games.

It’s good to know we don’t grow up, we grow equal; or, rather, we grow into the awareness we were equal all along. It’s good to know we both have an ego to contend with but a soul we can see with. And it’s good to see you again.

Actually, it’s good to truly see you for the first time.

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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Note: The title for this post was inspired by my good friend and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates, David Clinton, who only half-jokingly suggested the tag line of our new therapy practice should be, “Where it’s okay to just be a person.”

You can visit our practice’s website by clicking here, and be sure to visit the Artisan blog. We’ve already republished several UnTangled posts there but, usually, we’ll be posting original content on the Artisan blog that you can’t read anywhere else. I hope it will be another space in this world where you feel like you can “just be a person.” After all, we’re all in this together.

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Next Post: Why We Should Stop Worrying About Our Kids and Worry About Ourselves

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Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

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.

  • Patrick Davis-Long

    This is beautiful. Thank you for communicating this experience of the mind comparing ourselves to others. I can relate to this experience having made a mid-life journey to live in my own hometown for several months. I too could see the ego and soul dance with re-visiting old relationships.

    • drkellyflanagan

      It really is a little trippy to feel time fold over onto itself, isn’t it? I hope your experience was challenging and enriching, Patrick!

  • Kathy Jack

    I can’t believe how timely this is…Lately my adolescent self that carries the insecurities has been on the move it seems in many areas … Taking over when I least expect and least want it to! Tongue tied for sure! The image of the ladder really helped and letting my adolescent self work on letting it go or seeing there aren’t any ladders or hierarchy is just what the soul needs. I am going to let the ladder come down and use it as a bridge instead for that part of me that needs it!
    Thanks for your words!

    • drkellyflanagan

      “Use it as a bridge.” Yes! That’s one of those wow-wish-I’d-have-thought-of-that-line-and-put-it-in-the-post moments. Thanks for YOUR words, Kathy. Miss you guys!

    • Beverley Croft

      Kathy, that feels great, to use it as a bridge, rather than a ladder. In our essence, we are absolutely all equal.

  • Julie Larochelle Antis

    This brought me to tears because my children, a son, 13, and a daughter, 12, have begun their jr. high years (at home), but it still wrenches my gut to think of the war adolescence wages against the mind, and how it rules they way I “train up” my kids. It also comes at a time I am trying to overcome the years I lived in anger because of it, and not letting the anger rule of the process of just being human. Thanks.

  • Liz Mason

    Thank you for taking the time to write these posts and sharing them with the world, for free no less. When I see them in my email, I know I am going to enjoy reading them and will be able to relate them to my life. Life has taken me down many roads and I so wish I had had these to read when I was younger raising my children. Thank you, thank you…

    • drkellyflanagan

      You are very welcome, Liz. I’m glad to do this for free. It’s a blessing to me, too!

  • Shel Llee Flexman-Evans

    Thank you for making your vulnerabilities so clear that we can all see ours in your captured moments.
    “How wonderful it is to see you, really.” It’s amazing how much growing into ourselves we do so that it can be true when we say that into familiar faces that were outside our circles.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Yes, and the moment it actually feels true is a moment of real freedom. A weight comes off. Thanks, Shel.

  • Bridget Kaumeheiwa Velasco

    I am edging up to age 50 and seeing glimpses of that underlying thread of connective-ness running through not just humanity, but all life. But then my ego-mind or something starts questioning how could we be connected to rapists, child murderers, animal abusers…hard things to think about…..More and more I feel our perception of reality takes us to our own lessons in this life that we share, but on different planes? Thank you for putting into words some of what my mind is trying to understand and learn.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Bridget, it’s probably a good sign that your questioning has taken you all the way to the most difficult to feel a sense of unity with. Not sure what to do with that, except to say, stay there. Don’t leave the tension. And see what happens.

      • Beverley Croft

        Feels absolutely right to me too, don’t leave the tension, see where it takes one.

  • Beverley Croft

    A great sharing here, Dr. Kelly. Yes, it is incredible how we can shrink back to how we felt when we were adolescent, and I have over time found a number of occasions when I have felt as you described. Maybe we can break this ridiculous connection for our youngsters. What if we brought them up from the beginning to really be able to connect with their own innermost. (And as babies and toddlers and beyond, to celebrate and love them for WHO they are, rather what they do). From there, they can come to realise how wonderful they are themselves just for being themselves. Maybe then they will not be so inclined to compare themselves with others, and understand that where they are at is okay for the age that they are at the time. This could certainly increase their confidence in themselves. I have found a huge growth in confidence (no longer a youngster at 77) in myself since I have been connecting to my own innermost and to the best of my ability, living from that space. We all have our strengths and weaknesses and when we are willing to look at them and work on them, then maybe then we older ones can also stop comparing ourselves with others. And from all you have described re your family, I have a feeling you are doing much of what I have described.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Thanks for sharing this, Beverley. I hope to be able to break this for my kids, too, but sometimes I wonder if we have to go through it. Kind of like you have to climb to the top of the ladder to actually believe it doesn’t go anywhere. Why would you take dad’s word for it? : )

      • Beverley Croft

        I’m afraid we elders have to go through it, as we have not been brought up this way. But we can make it easier for the youngsters, they will have the confidence of being able to access that higher intelligence that is there within. Unfortunately I did not have any knowledge of this when I brought up my youngsters (now around 50), but look forward to the next time around when I will know so much more. But in the meantime we have to still work on ourselves and use what we learn to help them. One day in the very distant future we will all be living from that space, and will begin to learn to live in brotherhood. You are obviously on the way, with your sense of knowing.

  • enchanting…as always. We ARE all one and we do all make it by realizing this and lifting each other up.

  • Grace

    Good morning Kelly, Thank you. I’m sitting on the top stair with my empty coffee cup as our adolescent cat tries to bite me. He is in the same mood as the showering adolescent boy for whom I wait. This school year began relentlessly with four in different places and four homeschooled. The one for whom I wait is struggling and I need strength to help and love him well. I just found it in your words. God is good. You describe adolescence in ways that fill my weary mind with understanding and fuel these coming moments. You build community well and I am deeply thankful. God bless your household and words. 🙂
    Grace

  • Wy

    Why do you suppose “The ego sees the world as a ladder,…”?

  • Jože Slobodnik

    WOW!! Ive never looked at things this way, never checked on my ego.. Im 23 and struggling with the same problems (I would say late bloomer). I have been always very competitive, putting people in lower or higher ranks – so I could act accordingly with their “classification”. But I didnt realise this was my “ego” all along.
    Could you help me with some good books on this topic, this is really an enlightment and Im very thankful for that.
    Cheers from Slovenia!

  • Mike Gates

    …and if that person has any humanity at all, her response would be “You have nothing to be sorry for. I’m glad to see you too”
    My 30th high school reunion is coming up and I’m actually going. Even stranger, there are people I’m really looking forward to seeing. How weird is that? 😀 When I left 30 years ago, I was looking for excitement, and really never looked back. Well I found what I was looking for; too-much if I’m honest (excitement is a young persons’s game). Now I’m looking forward to hearing about everyone’s life. It should be intersting

  • Michelle

    Wow-This was excellent. It stirred something deep inside me. My 20th year reunion was a few weeks ago and I didn’t go because…. I couldn’t put my finger on why. I was too insecure to go, i knew that. But I knew there was more to it than just insecurity. You articulated my problem and how I can grow up, or rather grow equal with my peers now. This truly was one of your best posts. So, so good.