Sunday, November 10, 2013

When Inside and Outside Selves Don't Match

Whatever our ages at the moment, there's a young, able and frisky spirit within.

During a phone visit with my cousin Caron lately, she mentioned her current disability with more surprise than regret.

"I still feel so frisky," she said. "I've always been active. It's just recently that I've started to look old. When did this happen? And so sudden! It's frustrating that my spirit is so youthful and my body is so weak."

There is that struggle between inside and outside personas that exists within so many of us.

Sometimes reconciling this conflict means going with what is and letting go of life as you wish it could be.

Our neighbor Phyllis has loved travel all her life, even working as a travel agent for some years. But now her need for thrice weekly kidney dialysis keeps her tethered to home base.  It's something that she has come to accept most of the time, only occasionally thinking wistfully of places she has yet to see and often she is comforted by vivid memories of the wonderful adventures of her life.

There are times when outside reticence masks inner shyness or when outside arrogance masks a terrible fear and insecurity -- and make it sadly likely that the person will be misjudged by those who rush to accept face value as the ultimate truth.

Sometimes our inner selves learn to hide out of necessity.

Seeing a recent video that I recorded for Northwestern University, my dear friend Sister Rita McCormack, one of my two favorite nun teachers who has known me since I was 8 years old, exclaimed " That shy little girl I knew so many years ago is gone and it's a miracle!" It is a miracle that I have learned over the years to feel shy but still do what I need to do anyway. Somewhere inside, that shy little girl still lives, sometimes cringing with fear, but she steps aside when I need to look confident and outgoing.

At a block party yesterday, an attractive woman who appeared outgoing and confident sidled up to me and introduced herself, telling me how uncomfortable she was coming to the party alone. "Part of me has one foot in junior high and fears being a wallflower..." she said while I nodded with total understanding. A lot of us carry the insecurities and fears so rampant in junior high with us for decades. They stay dormant until a challenging social situation brings them insistently to the surface of our consciousness and we feel anxious once more. But our growing wisdom has taught us to triumph over these fears by going to a party or giving a speech anyway -- and not being embarrassed to admit that stage fright and social anxiety can, at least temporarily, nibble away at our outer confidence but will not keep us from doing what we want to do.

Sometimes the discrepancy between our inner selves and outer realities is rooted in wishful denial of the present.

During my most recent visit with my dear friend Mary and her husband John, who is increasingly disabled by dementia, heart disease and other medical conditions that make walking almost impossible for him, John turned to me and smiled brightly before retiring to bed the last night I was there.

"I'll ask Mary to set the alarm to get me up early tomorrow morning," he said. "I want to give you a proper send-off and carry your luggage to the car for you."

There is no disability in the soul.

Even as a body begins to shut down, the spirit can soar with the vigor and passions that defined our younger selves.

When she was 86, my beloved Aunt Molly struggled with a variety of physical ills that she tended to minimize in conversations with us but which started to overtake her as her steps slowed, her heart pain increased and her fears of dependence and disability far exceeded any fears she might have had about mortality, about not being.  And yet, she remained a powerful writer, her gift of observation and her facility with words unabated by her physical frailty.

After she died of a heart attack just after New Year's in 2004, we found her last poem on her desk and in her computer. It was written only a few days before she passed away, inspired by her last ever trip to her local beauty shop and the sight of a woman representing what she most feared becoming.



                                                           Elizabeth C. McCoy

Has dressed her as carefully
As a very favorite doll.
The white tennis and socks
Immaculately snowy.
The blue cotton pantsuit
On the frail twig of a body
Fresh as a good child's.
Hands quiet in her lap, she stares ahead
Oblivious of the bustle of other women
Being noisily translated to multiple dialects
Of beautiful.
Has brought her here to be collected
When the hair is washed and brushed
Into the proper soft, thin curls
With pink scalp showing through.
She sits self-contained as still water,
Patient as stone,
Withdrawn by time from sentience and
The irrelevancies of communication.
Before long
Someone who still loves what is left
Will come to get her
And then in some other place
She will wait.

We were comforted by the fact that, even as her body was shutting down, Aunt Molly's mind was still active, still creative, still facing her fears of death and decay in the poetry that she had written since childhood.

Even as we all face the challenges that aging inevitably brings, we can live life fully, mindfully and meaningfully by paying attention not just to our aches and pains, to ways that we are slowing down, but also to that ageless, feisty, life-affirming and vibrant spirit within.


  1. I think we are forever young in mind and spirit, which keeps us going. Another thing that I have found in my life as I age is that I no longer am afraid to become involved. In youth I would just watch things happen and not participate. Now I stand up for what is right and don't let injustices go by. There are many benefits to getting older because you also get stronger in facing the world.

    1. Isn't it wonderful to grow stronger as you grow older? Thanks so much for sharing your evolution!

  2. Whatever age we are, life presents us with a challenge of living up to our potential -- or what we perceive our potential to be! I've never found it to be what I thought it would be -- but that 'inner' me, sometimes a friend and sometimes a foe!

    1. Well, yes, that inner self is sometimes friend or foe. But as we age and mellow, the inner and outer selves often more peacefully co-exist.

  3. I often think my inside doesn't match my outside, but that's probably a good thing, because people tell me I appear so confident and articulate when I speak in front of people, and I'm usually quivering like shy Jello on the inside. I so loved your Aunt Molly's poem. Thank you for sharing it with us. And this line, "There is no disability in the soul," is huge. Just huge.

    1. Thanks so much, Shelly. I'm with you on the public speaking thing -- dread it, but do it well and like having done it! Thanks, too, for your kind words about Aunt Molly's poem. She was a professional writer and an award-winning poet who was and is my hero.

  4. Beautifully said! Your last paragraph needs to be posted on our mirrors, first thing we see in the morning when we reach for our pills.

    1. Thanks so much, Rosaria! I keep having to remind myself, too!

  5. Your aunt Molly's poem is just powerful. I was very touched by it.
    My 35 year old mind is shocked repeatedly when my 74 year old body is unable to live up to the younger's wishes.

    1. Thanks so much. I consider it her last gift -- of many -- to us.

  6. My elderly father, who is in a nursing home, is paralyzed on one side from a severe stroke a number of years ago. He has been having a fair bit of confusion lately, but the thing that still shines through, over and over, is his wish to help people. That's what he did all his life, and he's still doing it, offering his jacket to keep you warm, the use of his telephone, his support and encouragement. It is heartbreaking and heartwarming, all at the same time. It's who he is inside - his younger self - still rising to the surface. Your mention of your friend's husband with dementia reminded me how often I am seeing this in my dad.

    Your aunt's poem is touching and respectful and honest. I really like the line "someone who still loves what is left" ... that hits home for me.

    1. Oh, Jenny, that's so hard, isn't it, to see a loved one struggle with such difficulties, seeing how they are still so much themselves and yet changing, still giving so much but now needing more as well. Thanks so much for your kind words about my aunt's poem. She was going through so much herself -- facing a death that came sooner than any of us had imagined -- when she wrote that.

  7. It's very clear, my friend, that you aren't the only fine writer in your family -- Aunt Molly has a wonderful turn of phrase. And the story of Mary's husband and the luggage. Yes, that feisty spirit will get us by many a bad day. You nailed it perfectly and offer terrific examples for us all to remember.

    1. Thanks so much, Jeanie! Aunt Molly was the best -- my mentor and inspiration!

  8. This super post took me back to my 14year-old self as I asked my grandmother on her birthday what it was like to turn 70. She completely amazed me by saying that she didn't feel 70 inside - more like 35 - and this from a woman already suffering her last illness. I've never forgotten that and now at 67 know exactly what she meant. :-)

    1. And isn't it amazing how quickly we got to this point? When did all this happen??

  9. Hi There, OH YES…. You hit the nail on the head, for me in two different ways. First, I have had a terrific weight problem most of my Adult Life. I hated the fat body which kept me from doing so many things in life. I would lose weight ---but then gain it back PLUS some… It was always such a struggle…. Finally, after meeting and marrying George, I began to fall in love with myself since he LOVED me regardless…. I have lost the weight and am working like crazy to keep it under control now. It's working --but it's MUCH harder than the actual disciplined diets I have been on many times… Oh how much better I feel in EVERY respect. I am healthier; I have much more energy; I can hike and do things which were so hard for me… I'm truly like a new person on the OUTSIDE ---and probably on the INSIDE also…

    Secondly, I still feel the aches and pains of getting old (since I'm 71).. I have arthritis in my thumbs and just the basic aches and pains… NO FUN… My heart and mind are telling me that I'm still a teen---but this old body says otherwise…. ha


    1. I'm so happy for you that you found love for yourself in loving George and that you were able to do such good things for yourself. Winning a lifelong weight battle is so impressive and wonderful! You're an inspiration!