I am a good mother.
I will find my passion.
I will play a piano concerto with a major city orchestra.
My son will overcome his anxieties to become a great expressive artist one day.
I will open a café.
My facial freckles are lightening as the years go on.
I have become a more interesting person after having left the law.
I am fine with being middle-aged.
These are the kinds of stories I tell myself. Daily, weekly, monthly, yearly. A former boyfriend used to pat me on the head and say mockingly, “Keep telling yourself that!” whenever he thought I was being delusional. Are these delusions, though? Maybe part delusion, denial, hope, aspiration, blind faith, or some combination thereof. These – and thousands of other – thoughts snake around me like a trellis: they pop up, unbidden at times; they prop me up; they decorate me when I feel bland. They grow and feed upon themselves, taking on a life of their own, all the while disguising my fear, resistance, conflict avoidance, or simple lack of motivation.
On a good day, these thoughts represent an apple at the top of the tree – not the proverbial low-hanging fruit, but fruit that is – can be – within my reach. I stretch myself, contort my body, climb, angle and twist into poses I didn’t know I was capable of, to reach that fruit.
In my social work class, we studied cognitive behavioral therapy, where one is trained to have positive thoughts, because behavior follows thoughts (and vice versa). We also learned about denial – a coping mechanism that, in small amounts, can be healthy, but in large doses, can do you harm.
Take my dad, for example. He thinks he can hear fine. His staunch belief that his hearing is normal, in my opinion, is massive denial on his part, aptly illustrated by a telephone exchange between him and my daughter on her fifth birthday:
Dad: “Happy birthday! How was your birthday?”
Lila: “I broke my arm at school today.”
Dad (jovially): “Great! That’s great!”
She looked at me, perplexed. I pointed to my ear and mouthed, he can’t hear you.
Lila (louder): “I said, I broke my arm at school today.”
Dad (less jovially, with uncertainty in his voice): “Oh-h-h-h….okay.”
We have had enough of these types of conversations that he knows he didn’t get the message when something is said louder (and often with annoyance), but pride and perhaps other things often bar him from seeking clarity. My mother screamed with laughter when I recounted this conversation to her. She probably felt vindicated. I suppose one way to look at it is that my dad’s belief that he hears fine is working for him, even if for no one else. He can tune out things he doesn’t really want to hear (especially from my mom), and our collective annoyance at the strained conversations is apparently just a minor consequence that doesn’t cause him to lose sleep at night.
When I was younger, I was a stickler for the truth. The unvarnished truth. I could always smell when someone was in denial, avoiding the truth, or putting on rose-colored glasses – telling me something that just. wasn’t. true. As I have gotten older (and hopefully more compassionate), I have come to understand the need for some gloss (personally, I prefer the drizzle of icing on a glazed donut to the thick fondant or buttercream frosting on wedding cakes). I have come to realize that the stories we tell ourselves rarely represent either end of the spectrum, whether delusions of grandeur or major denial – but more often embody a complex web ranging from our deepest, darkest fears (“I will never find my calling”) to the highest of aspirations, the places to which we push ourselves to excel or dream outside of the box (here, insert visions of myself onstage at the Kennedy Center performing the Mendelssohn piano concerto I learned when I was 18) – and everything in between.
We are plagued, haunted, inspired, motivated, tempted, ignited, sustained, liberated – saved – by the stories we tell ourselves. They are what get us through this rich, tangled blessing called life.