Last night at a second grade parent meeting, the teacher talked about some of the changes in the children this spring. The girls in particular, she said, were experiencing a shift. In the Waldorf curriculum, teachers identify a developmental stage known as the Nine Year Change. Simply put, this is the period when children begin to realize that they are individuals, distinct from their parents and friends. The world is no longer a cozy dreamland. They begin to sense their own mortality and their own isolation.
This recognition of the self as an individual is extremely painful for many. As Sierra’s teacher put it, they begin to be aware of being outside of a group, and often they see themselves as being excluded where no exclusion exists. “I’m over here, and you are all over there, and you’re leaving me out, and I don’t like it.” Meanwhile, she said, the other children are saying, “No, we aren’t leaving you out; we want you to join us. Come play with us.” But, the child sees that she is on the outside, she is alone.
What kids of that age don’t yet realize, is that the exclusion comes from within.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that most of us never outgrow that Nine Year Change. We find ways to cope with and, more often, to mask our feelings of exclusion, of isolation, of loneliness. Yet, we rarely stare at the reality with acceptance. We are all alone, and our aloneness connects us – or, it could, if we would let it.
Yet, rather than acknowledging that we are all standing outside that magic circle, we scramble to create a culture of inclusion, of belonging. We pathologize our isolation. What’s the first thing that is usually published in a profile of anyone who snaps into an action of mass violence? “Well, he was always kind of a loner. He kept to himself.” We prize conformity. We bend, twist, pluck, and repress ourselves into constructed groups and unions that may in part meet our need for belonging, but ultimately deepen our loneliness.
Listen to the voices in your head sometimes. We all have them – the anxieties that we can’t name, the anger that wells up suddenly at seemingly trivial causes, the refusal to look behind our own dogma. What are those voices saying?
“I’m over here. Everybody else is over there. I want to be over there, but they won’t let me in. I’m not good enough, pretty enough, strong enough, smart enough. I don’t make enough money. I’m not fit enough. I can’t talk to strangers. I don’t know how to connect. I don’t know how to connect. I’ll always be alone.”
So, what do we do with those voices? We fight them, we bury them, we hide from them. We dress ourselves to fit in. We diet. We buy the “right” foods. We scramble for more money, bigger cars, bigger TVs. We lock ourselves into rules – politics, religion, cultural traditions. We structure relationships within rigid boundaries that will “guarantee” that we are not excluded – if no one else is allowed in, we can’t be left out. And we lash out at those who threaten the safety of our belonging.
I’m a veterinarian. I grew up with horses – big animals with a strong flight response. I learned as a child that you can’t fight a horse to make it do what you want. The horse is too big, too strong, and you will always lose the tug-o-war.
Our individuality is a horse. The harder we pull on the rope, the harder it pulls back. The more we scramble for acceptance and certainty, the more we push others away, and the stronger the isolation grows.
My kids have a book called Three Samurai Cats. This picture book is based on a Japanese tale of a warlord, a daimyo, whose palace is taken over by a giant rat. The rat sets up camp in the hall of the palace, eats all of the daimyo’s food, terrorizes the servants, and generally trashes the place.
The daimyo goes to the local samurai training house and asks the master to send a samurai, a warrior, to rid his palace of the rat. The first samurai, a big, strapping cat warrior, goes to the palace, confronts the rat, engages in battle, and gets his ass handed to him. The daimyo returns to the palace, and tells the master he needs a stronger warrior, one who is better armed, more fully trained. A second samurai goes to the palace. This warrior is even bigger than the first, with impressive armor and weapons. He fights the rat even more fiercely. And once again, the samurai is defeated by the laughing rat.
The poor daimyo has had it by this time. But now the training house sends a third samurai. Let’s just say that this particular samurai cat is less than impressive. In the pictures, he looks like a hyperthyroid, elderly street cat with scraggly fur covering protruding bones, a notched ear, and a loincloth. Hardly warrior material.
The daimyo is furious and humiliated. The rat laughs openly and calls for more food. The third samurai acknowledges the rat, watches the rice balls rolled out to the rat, and sits down on a mat to wait. At this point, the daimyo can barely stand it. When is this supposed warrior going to do something? Why isn’t he even trying to fight the rat? Is he just too old, too tired, too weak?
The rat eats every last grain of rice in the palace while the cat waits.
Eventually, the rat grows so rotund that his legs can no longer reach the ground. The cat stretches, stands up, and rolls the rat out of the palace and down the hill.
Our isolation and the voices that arise from it are like the rat. When we fight them, when we armor ourselves against exclusion with shields of labels, conformity, and arbitrary rules and spears of jealousy and anger, we get our asses handed to us.
What happens instead if we welcome the rat, hand it a comfortable seat in the corner, and give it a rice ball? What if we say to those voices, “Yes, okay, I see you. Sit over there for a while will you? I’ll get to you when I have time, but right now I have parts of myself to share with someone over here.”? What happens when we stop fighting the universal human truth – that we are all alone, and that it is that loneliness that unites us.