In the ninth grade, I was nominated by a teacher to be one of five representatives on a task force created by the city of Denver. The task force was an initiative to help lessen the “generation gap” and to prepare youth for leadership roles in the future. I was not interested in any leadership role, but my parents thought the position would look nice on my high school transcript, and maybe help get me into college. I just liked the idea of winning and agreed to enter the race.
To become a full candidate one had to write a thousand-word essay on anything that mattered. That sounded cool. I enjoyed writing and hoped to be published one day. I also loved dance, so I wrote about how dance plays a central role in the rites-of-passage of most cultures and recommended that it replace gym class in the Denver Public Schools. I supported my ideas with the hypothesis that dance keeps kids out of trouble; keeps them happily engaged and off the streets; and anyways, nobody liked gym.
After some elimination process, the remaining candidates met for a brief interview with some official in the Governor’s cabinet – whose name I will tactfully omit. He was a large man with piercing eyes who, some years later, became the Mayor of Denver.
He said to me: “You plagiarized this, didn’t you?”
My heart skipped a beat. What did he say?
“No, sir,” I said. “I didn’t plagiarize anything.”
“I know kids sittin’ in Ivy League schools who paid professionals to write their college applications. You think they only cheated on those essays?”
“I know a kid sittin’ in Harvard who cheated on his SAT’s. You ought to feel happy I caught you now, while you’re still young. A person can spend all his life foolin’ others…”
“But…you really think that I…I mean…how…” I stumbled over my words. But more than offended or hurt I was completely overwhelmed…by flattery. Was my essay really that good? Maybe I’d make a decent writer after all. Maybe I’d even get something published.
In those moments, I didn’t care about the task force; I’d just received the greatest compliment of my fifteen years of life.
Last week a friend, who is writing a feature article about people who are falsely accused, asked if something like that ever happened to me. My ninth grade memory soon surfaced — and to my surprise, something else, too. My heart suddenly felt heavy and I sensed rumbling, hot energy in my stomach. I took some moments to really be in that place on the day that it occurred:
I see the precise look in his eyes, the assured face of a cat that just caught his mouse, and somewhere inside I shudder. Way back, in those few seconds before getting swept with my “compliment,” I am standing frozen in horror and shame, only this is the first time acknowledging it. This man thinks I’m a liar.
When feelings come in portions too big to swallow, the brain does something remarkable: It divides the too-big experience into something closer to bite-sized. Whatever can’t fit inside the psyche now gets tucked away for the future. In this way memories, or the feelings that accompanied them, are concealed from the brain; hidden from conscious thought or awareness until the day they can be metabolized. In psychology, this is known as dissociation.
While the brain may conceal the evidence for months or even years, the body possesses no such ability. In this way, the body is like a magnificent storage room containing all the sensations that accompanied all the events that have shaped our lives. But even a storage room can become stuffed to the limits. Stiff necks and achy shoulders; “bad” backs, constipation, depression, anxiety and even auto-immune diseases may be the “voice” of the body calling out: Don’t neglect me! I’m storing this stuff for you, but I can’t store it forever!
After meeting with my friend, I returned home and got comfortable on the couch. I closed my eyes and waited for an inner signal. What began as rumbling in my stomach spread to my arms and legs. I also sensed red-hot bubbling inside; I followed my own lead – stood up and moved to the balcony where I keep a Nachum Takum (the Israeli version of a punching bag). I gave it a few good whacks. One-two-three! And again.
That was all it took.
Think about……listening to your body, following its lead; experiencing today what was too frightening or uncomfortable or lonely to experience in real time. You may wish to do this with a trusted spouse or friend. If you are safe enough to be brave, and patient enough to tune-in, your body will show you the way.
Wishing you many brave moments.