Archives for category: Baggage

I do not photograph well. This is not false modesty. I am reasonably happy with my looks. There is just something about having my picture taken that feels like torture, and it shows in the finished product. I look awkward and self-conscious, every time.

This was not always the case. I have pictures of myself as a young child, and that girl is smiling, wide open to the world. Pardon me for saying that I was adorable then. Back when I had my baby teeth.

Then I hit the stage of teeth too big for my face, compounded by the fact that curly hair was not in style at the moment. Between trying to hide the teeth and contain the hair, I lost the joy of hamming it up for the camera.

Photography used to be more of an investment, when pictures required film and processing. There was more pressure to look good. I knew the silent reproach of a drawer full of school photos, unworthy of sharing or trading. Just stacks of little rectangles on a page, all big teeth, lumpy hair, and eyes pleading for approval.

Over the years, I have seen a few good photos of myself, mainly taken when I was completely unaware of the photographer, or when I was just too caught up in the fun of the moment to remember to worry. So I know I can take a decent picture, I just don’t feel I can.

Things might have been different for me if I’d had grown up with digital photography. Don’t like that snapshot? Delete and try again. And again. Hey wait, I can do that now. To overcome my “photo phobia” I have set a challenge for myself: at least one photo of myself daily, until I can get comfortable with the process and/or have a picture suitable for my LinkedIn profile.

It starts today. Cheese.

Long ago, in a kindergarten room far away, a good little girl sat at her table. She was thrilled to finally be in school, and eager to learn. The teacher passed papers to children. She read the instructions on the sheet to her students, “Color the cat red.”

The good little girl dutifully picked a red crayon from the table and went to work. Carefully, she stayed in the lines, covering every bit of the cat with red. Satisfied that she had made her best effort, she scanned the other crayons on the table, and selected a green one to use on the bow tied around the cat’s neck. Back to work she went, quietly and diligently.

The teacher collected the children’s papers.

“Well, now, here’s somebody who just can’t follow instructions”  The little girl sat still, secure in the knowledge that she had been good, and curious to see the bad student brought to justice.

The teacher was now holding a paper high above the class, and continuing to talk. The little girl couldn’t hear anything else. The offending paper belonged to her!

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It starts so early.  Several years ago, I identified an undercurrent of shame as one factor that seems to hold me back. Trying to unravel its source has been tricky, and uncomfortable.

I can’t really remember a time in my life when I did not feel shame about something. My father died when I was very young, and I felt shame about being in a family that was so different than my friends’. Irrational, I know, but rationality is not a characteristic possessed by most kindergarteners.

My mother and her mother compounded my feelings. Mom and her sister had different fathers, and there was some suggestion that my grandmother had not been married to one of these men. ( I will never know, because the involved parties have all gone to their graves with their secrets.)

I got older, and taller than almost everyone else. And my hair was wildly curly. Different again, and shameful, in my mind. I was repeatedly ridiculed in elementary school for being singled out by my teachers for being smart.  And on it went;  right up to my current under-employed present- just another reason to feel shame.  Shame was a magnet for other reasons to feel it. I never stopped to question whether my feelings were valid.

Shame can be useful. Applied properly, it helps us function as a society. We should feel shame when we harm one another by lying, cheating and stealing, or worse.

Shame that only hurts ourselves is no shame, just waste. The real shame of this shame is that it is also very context-specific. Had my grandmother lived her same life in another time and place, right now, for instance, no one would blink at her less than conventional family life. It pains me to think of all of the emotional suffering that would have spared her, my mother and my aunt.

That kind of shame keeps us from taking our rightful place in the world; I know I dialed down my efforts in school to fit in with my classmates, (a real shame with permanent effect.)  More recently, ashamed of my lack of  employment-related identity, I have hesitated to make social overtures, an obvious waste of free time I will never have again, not to mention opportunities to make connections that might help me find work!

Going forward, I promise this:

1) When I feel ashamed, I will ask myself whether I have caused anyone actual harm. If so, I will do my best to right the wrong. If no, I will get over myself, and move forward.

2) When I see anyone around me feeling self-harming  shame, I will do my best to comfort and encourage them.

Imagine a world where we all felt shame only when we should, and never when we shouldn’t. We’d hardly recognize the place.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to do it all in this post. But I have spent a good portion of this year considering the impediments to what I want and need to do. Now I will address them in writing.

I will occasionally be dragging one out, holding it up to the light, examining it, and describing it before I decide how to dispose of it.

These musings will be posted under the category of “Baggage” so consider yourself warned if you would like to avoid the navel-gazing.

I was raised by an anxious and depressed mother. She came by it honestly; her life was hard in ways I can only guess. In the manner of her generation, she did not share many details. I do know that she dearly loved my father. She lost him suddenly when he was killed in a car accident on his way home from work. I was five.

I can’t count the number of times I heard “Your father didn’t come home one night” as I tried to weasel my way out of curfew during my high school years. At the time, I felt it was her effort to repress me. I get it now. It was her expression of the painful truth that at any time, anything can go horribly, catastrophically  wrong.

I have, perhaps predictably, lived a fearful life. I have been afraid to be hurt, afraid to be disappointed, afraid to be afraid.

As a result, I have missed opportunities. And fun. (Probably lots of fun.) And I have been hurt, disappointed and afraid anyway.

None of the worrying or avoidance protected me. And I have been gobsmacked by things I never dreamed of worrying about. And survived it all, so far.

The last five years have been particularly challenging. There were the three years of bi-coastal marriage. The Kid went to college, and came back early. There were health issues. Our darling Maggie dog died. My mother died, and my brother and his family were cruel and deceitful. I have been under-employed, and uncertain about what to do about it.

There is not that much left to be afraid of.  Rather, there is not much to be afraid of that I can control.

I am afraid that I will regret not taking more chances from now on. And I can do something about that.

George Lakoff

George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (

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