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  • Writer's pictureNancy Willbern, PhD

The Crack: Disaster or Doorway

I have three figurines that sit in a row on my bookcase. Although they look as if they have always been together, they did not originally come to me as a set. In fact, two were given to me over a period of years as gifts by a close friend and the third by my daughter. One day, out of the blue, I saw them as connected, metaphorically representing a developmental progression of the self. The process goes like this:

This little Humpty is the first in the series. He represents the self in Stage 1, the self we are most identified with most of the time. By around age 7, we have adopted him as our favorite sense of self. In psychology we call this identity the ego or the programmed self. (I always call it the Egg-O.) This is the self -image that we unconsciously created when we were little in order to bring us the experience of safety and security, some sense of power and control, and to win us affection and esteem. Assuming that our authentic self, the one we were born to be must be unseemly or unacceptable in some way, it's as if we fashion a little papier-mache facade, paint a happy face on it and then step inside to hide our truer nature. Over time, we forget all about that original self and just toddle around as the imposter. This false identity usually works for us pretty well through the first half of life, although the timing on this can vary greatly. But for many of us, at about mid-life we begin to feel as if our favorite forms of coping aren’t, in truth, really bringing us safety or control or affection, after all. This is usually experienced as very disturbing.

         Sometimes this is a gradual dawning, as if waking up from a deep sleep. This feels really uncomfortable. Other times, this waking-up is abrupt and extremely painful. Either something disastrous has happened on the outside– like losing a job, a romantic break-up, being brought down by addictions, contracting a life-threatening illness or the loss of someone we are close to – OR – Something inside of us begins to feel suffocated, boxed in, completely out of synch with ourselves. This shocking disruption comes in a myriad of forms, but what they all have in common is that we can’t hold ourselves in the wrapper anymore. We lose all of our cherished touchstones that in the past gave us a sense of a consistent, familiar place on the planet. And when this happens, that childhood plan for safety and control and happiness cracks wide open. We are left in a no-man’s-land, neither here nor there. A crack in our shell is what we had been guarding against our whole lives. It leaves us feeling shocked, confused and all alone, untethered. In the midst of all this confusion, the one thing we know for sure is that this terribly disturbing thing that has catapulted us out into the great unknown should never have happened – OR – Some wonderful thing that we always assumed would happen, should have happened by now has not.

Not realizing that all eggshells are always only meant to be temporary containers, this disaster launches us into Stage 2 of the progression – the identity crisis. It is right about here I might add, when clients come in to see someone like me. In this transitional phase of the process, we are caught between clinging to our old identity which is falling apart, and feeling the urge to breathe in new air. Unseen forces are pulling at us in two directions at once. This is very disorienting. To the part of us that is still identified with the outer covering, nothing could be worse than a splintering crack. But to the more authentic-self cocooned inside, the rupture can feel like freedom. This is what I call the choice-point.

It is at this very juncture that the Life Force lets us decide where we go from here. We can either continue to kick and scream in the face of this very-unwanted-thing that has happened while scrambling to tape ourselves back together. Or, we can admit we don’t really know anything about who we are, what Truth is, what Love is or for that matter, anything about the essence of Reality. And then, very importantly we can call upon a deeper Wisdom to emerge into our awareness, even if we don't have any idea what or who that deeper Wisdom is.

Our capacity to decide how to respond to this very-unwanted-thing in our lives is an extremely vital part of the progression. This choice-point in fact is the height of both the privilege and the responsibility of what it means to be human. For out of all living creatures, we are the only ones who get to consciously participate in our own continued evolution. We can join it through deep humility and let it have its way with us or we can continue to fool ourselves in believing that we are in control.

If we ultimately surrender into the acceptance of what is, as painful and heartbreaking as it may be, we will be taken into a whole new universe that is governed by completely different laws -- a universe that we could never in a million years have imagined -- one that greatly values the capacity of our analytic mind, but no longer holds it as sovereign. And although we may continue to feel the loss of that something we greatly valued, although we may always wish it had never happened, ultimately we can grow into the experience of both greater freedom and greater connection just past the boundary of all we have ever known.


And that, my fellow travelers is what makes me love my job.


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