Autobiography in five chapters
by Portia Nelson
I walk down the street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I fall in. I am lost … I am helpless. It isn’t my fault. It takes me forever to find a way out.
I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I pretend I don’t see it. I fall in again. I can’t believe I am in the same place. But it isn’t my fault. It still takes a long time to get out.
I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I see it is there. I still fall in … it’s a habit. My eyes are open. I know where I am. It is my fault. I get out immediately.
I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it.
I walk down another street.
I can’t remember when I first came across this piece, but it started to resonate with me about two years ago. I found myself in a situation where I began to feel I was walking down the same street, falling in that self-same hole repeatedly. The hole wasn’t mine, it belonged to someone else (and was in the care of the local Council!) but it was mine to fall into. The more aware of it I became, the more conscious of where it was located on that street, the no more was I able to avoid falling into it.
Part of me knows that I will always continue to fall into it – it’s my reaction to spraining my ankle that may be able to change.
I have always had weak ankles, making balance in yoga practices quite a challenge for me. I sprained them multiple times when I was younger. The funniest time was when this terribly preppy first-year undergraduate invited me out in my first few weeks at Yale. He was from one of the leading prep schools on the East Coast, clearly from a wealthy family, and he was incredibly polite and well-mannered. I, in contrast, was from a very ordinary, not very well-off middle-class family who lived in a small apartment on the West Coast and I’d gone to a run-of-the-mill public (that is, state) school. I didn’t like this guy, I found his good manners stifling, and I felt intimidated by his background, but I didn’t know how to say no to him. I was a great film enthusiast and a friend of mine had recommended a Jimmy Cliff film called ‘The Harder They Come’ that was on that night which I knew nothing about, so I suggested we go see it. Sitting there in the cinema in the dark I found a horrible feeling of dread creeping over me, partly to do with the film and its unsuitability for this occasion, probably more to do with how I was going to handle the rest of the evening. As a result, rather bizarrely and most likely the result of stress, when the film ended and I stood up to exit, I found the entire left side of my body had gone dead and I fell over in the aisle, spraining my ankle badly. People stepped over me, strewn in the aisle, to exit the movie theatre. This guy, Rob, escorted me back to my room, and being the type of young man he was, he then felt he had to come visit me on various occasions while I convalesced. Those awkward meetings still make me cringe. When asked about my most embarrassing moments in life, this one is near top of the list.
So I know what it’s like to have weak ankles and fall in holes – literally and metaphorically. There are holes out there for you to fall in, but the harder holes to manage are those within.
Coming back to that hole in the pavement on that street – this five-part improvement programme has always appealed to me, and yet there is something about it that has felt too neat and not quite real. The penny suddenly dropped and I realised it was about Chapter V.
‘I walk down another street.’
All very well, all very possible when we are focusing on the external landscape. What about the internal?
I carry my street with me, the past is always within me. What I can change is how I relate to it, in the present. That is my different street yet even still as I walk on the same street. The invitation is not to change streets but to change my relationship with the street I am on. There is a subtle difference here. And that’s why the Self-Help industry misses the point of what it means to become a fully-functioning Self.
Here’s my Chapter V: I walk down the street.
I [ just, simply, whatever] walk down the street.
I can then find liberation within the past not from the past, moving from the dark end of the street perhaps to the brighter side of the road.
I walk down the street. I might see a hole, I might even fall in a hole, perhaps I do sprain an ankle. But all my old reactions pre- and post- the hole experience are reduced, changed, different. I have the experience without letting all the associated responses be triggered.
Actually that’s harder than walking down another street – but this isn’t a competition. And really there is no choice. I am on the street. I am walking down my street. And still and always, my hole, you are there.