There is a “New Yorker” cartoon on my bulletin board. We see the interior of a shoe store with shoes arrayed on the back wall. On the left is a clerk kneeling, helping a customer try on a shoe. On the right are two things… on a pedestal, an elaborately ornate knee-high boot with gigantic platform heel and sole, and a friar in a robe pointing at the boot while asking the clerk: “Do you have this in a flat brown sandal?” What is entertaining about this is that the viewer knows it is absolutely impossible what the friar is asking for be what he is pointing at! We recognize the absurdity of the scene because we have all had just such a moment when we suddenly recognize that we too, like the friar, just don’t get it! It can even be as innocuous an occasion as when someone tells a joke that causes everyone to laugh but which leaves us mystified, feeling stupid as well as anxious that there is something about ourselves that we don’t understand.
There can be many things in life that mystify us, even frighten us, but most of all are those moments when we know that we just don’t understand. The presence of the uncertain, the unpredictable and the uncontrollable all pretty much automatically provoke some degree of anxiety in most people, which is a sign that something is being perceived as a threat. The anxiety of threat is why a difference of opinion escalates into uncontrollable shouting. The older we are the more we feel anxiety as we see the goth-garbed teen walking towards us who we perceive as another life-form, possibly one capable of unimaginable violence! And then there is anxiety brought on by the dish of a never-before-eaten food being placed before us, especially if part of it is still moving! It can be unnerving to experience one’s adult sense of competence suddenly evaporate, leaving us anxious and somehow robbed of a sense of ourselves.
Understanding ourselves, however, does not happen all in one fell swoop! It grows incrementally, in much the same way that we grow from first understanding that “cat” is the same thing as our pet Fluffy, but later that it is not the same as thing as “catastrophe”… although dog-lovers would disagree! Understanding builds upon itself, always starting small, so if we are trying to understand what it is about something that makes us feel anxious, rather than to try and figure out the big picture of when, where and how this fear started, it would be more profitable to just try to name only one aspect of our fear. When we begin to name a component of our inner life it then somehow becomes strangely familiar, and in becoming familiar it begins to lose its ability to terrify us. But first we have to become willing to understand!
We are, often, our own boogieman. Sometimes we insist that reality be what we want it to be, our inner reality included… and in that insistence lies the source of much of our unhappiness. Not accepting reality can take many forms: running away from something or someone, outright rejection, or even insisting that a boot be the sandal that it cannot be without its ceasing to be a boot!