In the lead-up to and since my 50th birthday this summer, I’ve been taking strolls down Memory Lane. This has included listening to songs that remind me of earlier times in my life. As a little person in the 70s, I grew up loving the Muppet Show. Hearing its theme tune recently, in addition to inducing a fit of giggles, got me reflecting on a recent key phase of my life. But whilst Jim Henson gave us the term ‘Muppet’ – an affectionate one, synonymous with silliness, naivety and an unfailing optimism – it’s cultural re-appropriation to ‘muppet’ has turned it into something distinctly different, a means by which to insult someone deemed foolish and incompetent.
I believe each one of us has an area of our life about which we are particularly sensitive and insecure – an inner territory of muppetness. But rather than just representing an unpleasant, sometimes distressing, site of wounding, I see this part of one’s psychic landscape as containing buried gifts that have the potential to serve a valuable function. That is, that by coming to understand and befriend this troubled space within ourselves, there lies the possibility over time to unlock and release its gifts, yielding such treasures as wisdom, compassion and deep inner peace. Feelings of separateness and loneliness might be transmuted into a sense of belonging and connection with others that transcends manmade social constructs such as ethnicity and race. In stark contrast to this is the unconscious psychological defence of projection. When this occurs, aspects of a wound, such as a fear of being emotionally weak, are disowned and psychically ‘placed’ into others, enabling intolerance and denigration from a seemingly safe, but ultimately destructive, position. This is sadly a common tendency, particularly within the context of a fragile, threatened sense of self.
My version of such a wound has related to my core identity as an individual. Only since reaching mid-life have I realised that no evidence to support a self-concept of innate ineptness and worthlessness actually exists. Not having a sense of being a loveable or capable individual developed into a morbid fear of people, crippling my capacity to communicate and leading to a profound feeling of isolation. As the eldest of four, I’d assumed the role of carer from a young age, disconnected from my needs, desires, intuitions and other functions of selfhood. Essentially, I had no sense of my worth or power; as far as I could see, I existed only for the purpose of caring for others. However, in later years, adopting Yoga as a philosophy of life and engaging in a committed process of self-observation, I worked hard to get to know this wound and begin the process of healing. Ultimately, I believe it is the work of a lifetime but, so far, I have come to accept my right to exist and see myself through the loving eyes of those who know me best; I feel my worth and power. As a result, my drive to help others comes from a place of self-love and respect, as well as a sense of who I am and optimism about who I might become, rather than from lack and self-abnegation. By learning how to care for myself, I can better care for others – sweet fruit from all those years of hard inner labour.
Back to the recent key life phase. Several years ago, catalysed by the death of my father, I took the unprecedented step of forgoing both a contract extension and promotion within my existing sphere of work in exchange for temping as a medical secretary. The aim of this was to restructure my career and try to create more space in my life for creativity and compassion by seeking employment that enabled me to utilise these skills. Consequently, I found myself in an increasingly precarious situation. For a single, middle-aged homeowner this was risky enough but, despite the restrictions it imposed, I had just about managed to get by. However, the covid-19 pandemic took things to a whole new level and, to cut a long story short, I ended up with no work at all. I had reached a point where, in an attempt to be brave and bold – a capacity I’m passionate about retaining now that I’m on the disorientating menopause path – it seemed I had instead ruined everything I’d worked so hard to build.
Basically, I felt like a complete muppet.
Yet, some part of me knew I had to remain loving towards this inner muppet, embracing, not denigrating, its feelings of vulnerability and weakness. At the same time, I also knew I needed to work hard to remain connected with my inner Muppet – staying in the moment, trusting in the process and, as much as possible, maintaining humour and gratitude in the seeming face of failure, so as to be ready to spot and make the most of new, creative possibilities as they presented themselves, no matter how far outside of my comfort zone. Against a tide of doubt that left me wondering whether my 50th birthday would come to represent the highest point of failure in my life, I knew I had to keep believing that my original instinct to embark on this journey some twenty or so months ago was still valid, despite all current evidence to the contrary, and that something useful would eventually emerge – in its own way and in its own time.
And so, I waited and – in addition to keeping up my job search – watched… including more times than I can count Ridley Scott’s film The Martian – a man’s single-handed attempt to escape the red planet and return home to the safety of earth.
At the eleventh hour, a job opportunity presented itself that I had previously discounted without thought. Now, following some reflection, my initial hesitation shifted to the realisation that, not only did this job signal a solution to my immediate income dilemma, it also offered a means by which I could actually achieve my original aims, the ones that had motivated me to dismantle and rebuild my career in the first place. The organisation advertising the role had failed to recruit at the end of last year, re-advertising this summer amidst a massive rise in unemployment brought on by the pandemic. This time round, it had received more than double the number of applications. To have any hope of success, I knew that a key focus of my application prep had to be on boosting my confidence and getting back in touch with the more joyful, optimistic parts of myself, in order to feel sufficiently mentally prepared for the challenge that lay ahead.
The older I get, the more I appreciate just how crucial going a bit bonkers every so often is to being a mature, responsible adult… It so happens that I have a natural talent for it. Enlisting my inner Muppet and following a period of focused productive nuttiness that included painting my living room interspersed with frequent bouts of singing and dancing, I got the job, starting the week before my birthday. The most sensational, inspirational, celebrational, muppetational, 50th birthday present ever that has come to mark the beginning a new, exciting chapter of my life.
Looking back on all the physical and mental effort required to complete the journey that got me to where I am now, my thoughts turn to how incredibly fortunate I am to have had resources to even contemplate such an endeavour. I think about people in this country and across the world who were barely surviving before but for whom this current global health crisis has seen them lose the little they held so dear – loved ones, jobs and homes, amongst other things. I also think of those who are enduring, not only massive losses, but also dangers and threats to their very existence, causing untold emotional and physical suffering; refugees and asylum seekers who have travelled from a place they once called home, which they had no choice but to leave.
Reflecting on my circumstances in this light, my heart hurts and my head bows in sadness and humble gratitude; I am truly blessed.
In honour of the inner muppets and Muppets of all those who find themselves undergoing immense struggles at this time, I dedicate the following song to you. With heartfelt love and blessings.