Becoming One’s Self

Highway 89A outside Escalante, Utah

A number of years ago I drove from Tucson, Arizona north to Escalante, Utah with my son and his dog.

Actually, we were driving to Chicago, but we made a stop in Escalante to see my father. A few days later we drove the “loop” from Escalante along the top of the Rockies and then north to Salt Lake City. Our stay in Salt Lake included some time visiting a number of my family members.

The  mountain side view from the Salt Lake Cemetery where my mother and many family members are buried.

The most notable aspect of this trip was time spent with family – from my son to my father to my aunts and uncles.

As a little girl I loved my family and have fond memories of spending time with them. That ended when I was nine and we moved away from Salt Lake. Then my time with family became rare, a mere handful of trips between the age of nine and this trip, as a grown woman of 53. I grew up learning how to be disconnected from family, on the one hand, and overly connected to my mother, on the other. It’s a long story, this over-connection to my mother, but it defined me then and is at the root of the challenges I have faced ever since.

My life has been defined by learning how to be my own person. In Bowen Family Systems theory this is described as being “Self-differentiated.” A person who is differentiated is simultaneously clear within the self about who one is and the values, beliefs, and principles that guide one’s life AND able to be in relationship with others, particularly one’s family of origin. Being in relationship with one’s family of origin means the ability to have meaningful conversation while not engaging in the debilitating patterns of family dynamic that cause anxiety such as unhealthy triangulation that blames or shames another; distancing and avoiding others or cutting others out of one’s life by moving away or not speaking for great lengths of time. My family easily falls into a pattern of distancing or cutting off. Working to maintain relationship is hard work and it requires intentionality.

This year I have taken a number of workshops offered by the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center which focus on helping clergy and congregations live together and do ministry in a healthy way. The primary focus is on the self – one can only change and work on one’s self. One can only look at one’s own family of origin, and the joys and anxieties produced in those relationships, in order to come to an understanding of the dynamics that manifest in all of our relationships.

Becoming my own person means learning how to be comfortable with who I am, solid and centered in my beliefs, values, and principles, which reside in me in a conscious, thoughtful manner. Becoming my own person means recognizing when the anxiety of my childhood is activated in my current relationships but not allowing that to determine how I function, now. It’s a process of becoming “self-differentiated.”

When I was ordained my mentor gave me a copy of this poem. It stands for me, and I’m sure was the intent of my mentor, as a reminder of self-differentation, of becoming my own person.



The Journey

One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice–

though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.

“Mend my life!”

each voice cried.

But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,

though the wind pried

with its stiff fingers

at the very foundations,

though their melancholy

was terrible.

It was already late

enough, and a wild night,

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.

But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do–

determined to save

the only life you could save.

– Mary Oliver

The real task of becoming one’s own person, of being self-differentiated, is a process of growing in relationship. One cannot become one’s own person out of relationship with others. It’s a journey. The journey of life.

That road trip, from Tucson to Escalante to Salt Lake to Chicago, was a drive through my past and into my present, leading me to my future. The time I spent living in Arizona was fraught with conflict that I was ill prepared to navigate, although I tried. I am not sure I would do any better now, if were to encounter the same dynamics, but I do understand my role in them and what was triggered in me, better. My time there was, on the one hand, a “failure.” But on the other hand, it has provided me with a great learning opportunity. Leaving Arizona I left behind some great sorrow and drove toward a new, healthier self.

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About Terri C Pilarski

I am an Episcopal priest serving a delightfully progressive, interesting, creative congregation. I have been married more than half my life to the same man. We have two grown children, plus two dogs and two cats, although the number of four legged household members changes from time to time. I love to garden, knit, read, and play on Facebook or with my blog. I have been a practitioner of daily meditation since I was nineteen. I practice yoga five days a week and walk every where I am able too.
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