On a recent morning run down my winding road, I turned a corner and suddenly found myself threading my way through a line of trucks and other equipment owned by a local arborist. The company had evidently been hired to cut down designated trees in preparation for some additional infrastructure work in my neighborhood, and workers were busy using cranes and cherry pickers to slowly, methodically remove several large trees along the road.
In preparation for this work and the additional work that was to come, the contractors had obviously put in a request with the city’s Digger’s Hotline for the marking of all the underground utilities in the area (to help workers avoid a damaging, perhaps dangerous, collision with them). I say “obviously” because the result of this request was a conspicuous sloppy grid of multicolored paint lines and flags (yellow for gas, red for electrical, green for sewer, etc.), garish markings that traversed the roads, sidewalks and yards on the street with equal determination and impunity.
Much like graffiti that defaces a building, this indiscriminate tangle of colored lines and flags was disfiguring to the pretty, orderly block. But, more than that, it exposed the ugly inner workings just below the neighborhood’s tree-lined streets and well-kept homes, a mishmash of pipes, fittings, poisonous gas and unclean sewers that is usually, conveniently, kept underground where we don’t have to see it.
As someone who really appreciates the aesthetic qualities of my area, I was disheartened by the unsightliness of the display. But I was also aware that I was seeing, for the first time, what is always there, hidden just under the surface – inner workings that are, in fact, essential to both our individual survival and the smooth functioning of our neighborhood.
And I also knew that the unattractive markings that revealed these inner workings, while temporarily spoiling the beauty of the street, would eventually assist in the safe repair and renewal of these important systems.
So, what does this have to do with us humans?
Well, if you’re anything like me, you also work hard to assert a beautiful exterior to the world, so that others won’t see your ugly inner workings. You often claim self-assurance when you’re really confused or uncertain; you sometimes present a happy, pulled-together façade even when you are breaking up inside; and you frequently assert that everything is fine even when it’s actually . . . well . . . not.
Why do we do this? I think, at our core, we do our best to hide the weaker, less competent, and more confused parts of ourselves because we are afraid that if we expose this “ugly” self – the part of us that worries and despairs, the part that isn’t always sure what to do, the part that is fragile or broken – others might think less of us, perhaps even stop loving us. They might, in the end, even leave us and move on to a prettier neighborhood.
Our effort to hide our ugly inner workings is a futile one, of course. The parts of our selves we feel are so unattractive are always with us whether or not we acknowledge them, just like the pipes under the street, and trying to hide them only seems to make them more likely to pop out at unexpected times (like when we suddenly find ourselves sobbing uncontrollably after a Hallmark commercial, or taking out our work frustrations on a major appliance!).
Moreover, this uglier side of ourselves is what makes us fully human. We are all, in the end, complex creatures – both confident and uncertain, both joyous and troubled, both strong and weak. In trying to hide what we consider to be the negative parts of ourselves we end up withholding a more complicated, but also more whole and authentic, self from the world, and so are often left feeling alone and disconnected, separated from or misunderstood by others.
But most importantly, these human inner workings, like the utilities that snake under our neighborhoods, are essential to both our individual survival and the smooth functioning of our communities. The revealing of our inner struggles, while often spoiling the more confident façades we usually show the world, eventually assists us in getting the help we need, from others and from ourselves, help that allows us to repair and renew our lives and relationships. Sometimes, like the utility lines that run under our streets, we have to be exposed, fragile and ugly for a while in order to be healed.
So, how about this? Instead of trying to fool each other with our competent façades, instead of keeping up appearances, let’s each agree to try to embrace our whole self, what Br. Kevin Hacket (of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist) describes as “ . . . the misery and mess of human life, with all of its joy and dignity and all of its tragedy and sorrow.” Let’s encourage each other to “expose your ugly” and make a habit of revealing both our strengths and our brokenness to each other so that our common stories of both struggle and joy can bring us together as a family, as friends, and as a community, and so that we may all, in due time – like my lovely neighborhood – be repaired and renewed.