Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Ugly Duckling

I had just completed my luke warm shower...the shower room sounding much like I remembered the locker room during Junior High school. For some strange reason, it seems that when men are in a community shower area, they feel a need to shout everything...no indoor voices used here. And they want to laugh and shout. As I walked out of the shower area wearing only my boxer shorts, carrying my wet soggy towel, I stopped in the sink area. I really don't know why...I had just completed my shower and shave a few moments before.

I stood in front of one of the sinks, looking at myself in the polished chrome mirror (no glass mirrors in this place). As I stared at the reflection of the man looking back at me, anger and hatred rose up inside of me. I hated what I saw. In my eyes, he was one of the ugliest people I had ever seen! There was nothing that I could find attractive.

There was no joy in smile...no twinkle in his eyes...no glow to his skin. In a sense, he was a walking dead man. My heart broke as I realized that reflection was my own.

I was reminded recently of the story of the Ugly Duckling, by Hans Christian Andersen. I was visiting with my ex-wife on the phone as I try to do every week. We were talking about my therapy group and how it is helping me recognize and deal with issues from my past and helped to form the man that I became. For years, I never took a good, honest look at who I was and the experiences of my youth. It was too ugly of a time in my life and I just didn't want to deal with it.

"Why are you so different from the others?" And the
ugly duckling felt worse than ever. He secretly wept at night. He felt nobody
wanted him.


"Nobody loves me, they all tease me! Why am I different
from my brothers?"

Excerpt from "The Ugly Duckling", by Hans Christian Andersen

As I went back and re-read the childhood fable about a swan that had grown up as a duck, I was struck by how I had shared the same feeling that the "ugly duckling" had. How does a little boy acquire an image of himself that he would feel so unloved? The answer seems so simple now…when ugly things happen to people; it gives them a skewed picture of who they are. I can still remember the confusion that I had as I entered adolescence about my sexuality. I understand now that being sexually molested as a little boy had left a lasting imprint in my mind, much as that baby swan that was raised by a mother duck had a lasting image imprinted in his mind. He thought he was a duck because that was what he had seen since birth. But he knew that somehow he was different. He didn't know why, but he could tell.
There is a scene in the Disney animated movie version of "Tarzan" where the young boy Tarzan feels totally lost and different. The other "ape" babies make fun of him and call him ugly, because he is different. Though raised as an ape, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't be one. The scene in the movie has Tarzan down by a stream, crying because he feels so alone and different. His "momma ape" comes down to the stream to comfort him. She shows Tarzan his reflection in the water and points out that he is different...that he is not an ape, but that he is beautiful all the same. He's not really ugly...he's just a boy and not an ape after all.
There are times when I wish that I had received that reassurance as a little boy. The pain of being teased for having a lisp when I started first grade, of having ears that were bigger than everyone else's and that stuck out (making great target for being flicked)...of just feeling different were nearly overwhelming at times. The molestation and the confusing sexual desires that it left buried that I knew were wrong left me feeling guilt that I had no one to talk to about. I developed shyness around girls that left me feeling even more awkward and different that most adolescent boys normally feel. When I looked at myself in the mirror as a blossoming teenage boy, I hated what I saw and knew in my heart that everyone else would hate it too.
I still have to look at my reflection every day as I brush my teeth or shave or comb my hair. I don't often stop and take a long look at the man looking back at me. But on those occasions when I do, I don't see the same ugly man (or boy) that I had seen in my past. Like the swan in that childhood fable, I now know who it is that's looking back at me. Though I'm not beautiful like a swan, I know, and accept, what has happened in my life and accept the fact that they helped to form the man I became, whether I liked it or not. I realize that, unlike the "ugly duckling", by refusing to try to find out who I was, I continued to only see the ugliness of my life that I wanted to keep hidden from everyone, including myself.

Like the swan in the Ugly Duckling, it has taken me time to discover who I am. And like the swan in the story, I know that I am different from others…even my brothers and sister. The differences come from our different experiences. There are a lot of things from my childhood that I wish had not happened. There have been times that I wished that I would have had a different life…that somehow it could have been a lot happier and filled with joy instead of pain. I no longer feel that way. I am a unique creation of God, with life experiences that have molded me…some for the good and some for not-so-good. The ugly duckling has grown up, and through that growth and maturity, I have come to acknowledge that I don’t have to hide my past any longer. I don’t have to deny the things that happened to me and the residual effect that have had on me. Like the swan, I can now live my life without fear or guilt…but with the contentment that comes from seeing the reflection peering back from the shiny mirror as a man who has discovered the reality of his life, accepted his flaws and let go of the ropes of bondage that kept him isolated for most of his life.


1 comment:

Deb said...

Beautiful, beautiful writing! Just like the man who wrote it. I can relate to all of this and love how you've expressed the lostness of being other, and the foundness that comes from seeking the truth.