The Wars Against the Self

Man getting his hair cut

Copyright © Anne-Louise Quarfoth/iStockphoto

by Susan McCaslin

Today, September 21, is the International Day of Peace. By the time you read this blog, the occasion will have passed, but like Mother’s Day (which for some has become a sentimentalizing of the mothering principle) the practice of active peacekeeping can easily be forgotten in the day-to-day of living.

I’ve been reflecting on Chapter 8 of my book Arousing the Spirit, and noticed that my discussion was mostly about big-stage physical warfare: Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. Yet in that essay, I also stated, “Peace cannot be achieved worldwide until we individually enter the state of peace in our everyday lives…”

It is pretty hard to love others and the world if the essential ability to love the self is missing. But self-love isn’t so easy, as my father noted on his deathbed when he remarked, “I never loved myself enough.”

He wasn’t talking about egotism, vanity, admiring himself in a mirror, but about resting comfortably in the “I amness” of his own uniqueness. Such self-nurturing has nothing to do with achievement or productivity. It’s about feeling in the bones one’s intrinsic worth. The archetypal mother who can be awakened in us all loves unconditionally.

You’d think that at the age of 65, after a satisfying career as a college instructor, after publishing 11 volumes of poetry and garnering several important poetry awards, I’d have a pretty high level of self-esteem. In fact, I thought I’d worked through many of my childhood issues of being raised by a mother with schizophrenia, and reached some kind of equipoise.

However, a recent dream suggested to me that the work of self-love and self-treasuring isn’t done.Maybe if it were, I wouldn’t be here.

Anyway, here’s the dream:

I’m working in a beauty salon cutting hair, down on my hands and knees sweeping up hair into a dustpan. Somehow I’ve been given this job but never had any training as a stylist. I don’t have a clue how to wield a pair of scissors.

A man walks in and establishes himself in the twirling chair. I cover him with a plastic apron tied at the neck. It’s clear he’s quite particular about how he wants the back layered. I try and try, but don’t have a clue how to layer hair.

Soon there’s a gouge in the back and he’s starting to look “butchered.” He grabs the mirror, swings the chair around to examine the back, and insists I fix it immediately. He’s steaming.

Suddenly, I remember that today is my wedding day. I’m getting married just around the corner and I’m late. I’m going to miss my wedding if I don’t leave right away. So I tear off my apron and run out of the shop, apologizing madly, but determined to get to my wedding even if I lose my job.

As I’m running toward the church, my mother’s face appears before my eyes and she says in a sarcastic tone, “Well, you’ve certainly become eccentric, haven’t you?”

Ouch, ouch, double ouch!

First of all, why am I still on my hands and knees putting other’s needs before my own? Why do I feel incompetent and have an imposter complex? I have a PhD, for God’s sake, and I’m retired.

Why would I miss my own sacred marriage? Why am I still apologizing for myself? Why is my lovely mother cast as the critical witch, when she was in real life much more critical of herself than anyone else?

Well, maybe that answers my question. How could she transmit self-love if she felt a paucity of it herself?

Are these various characters in the dream all components of myself, and, if so, why would this kind of dream come up now, after I thought I’d resolved many of these issues? I’m not asking for a psychological interpretation of the dream, since, believe me, I’m good at analyzing, whether from Freudian, Jungian, or other perspectives. I’m not into parent blame or crafting a repetitious narrative about how hard-done-by I was as a kid.

And don’t get me wrong. In real life, I don’t think you’d call me a patsy or pushover. I have learned to nurture myself. In fact, when I had the dream I was enjoying a week-long retreat with a fine group of women writer friends who were giving me gentle and insightful feedback about my current writing project, which they happen to love.

The guy in the chair was nothing like my dad, husband, or most of my men friends, and the mother nothing like my real mom, who admired my achievements. The last words I remember hearing from her on the phone were, “Susie, you’re remarkable, a remarkable woman.” But in the dream this negative mother (probably some aspect of myself) was ironic, critical. The word “eccentric” was delivered with scorn.

So I turn it over to you. What about self-nurturance and self-love? How do we end the terrible warfare against the self and enter into peace? I remember my father’s last words to me: “Love yourself. Have a good life.”

I do. I am, Dad, despite these shadows that sometimes arise out of the depths.

If we could only manage to simply be (without the egocentric perfectionism), love of neighbour and love of the world might just fall into place. Then we could get on with the business of tending the planet.

Susan McCaslin is a prize-winning poet and author of eleven volumes of poetry. Susan is Faculty Emeritus of Douglas College where she taught English and Creative Writing for twenty-three years. Her most recent volume of poetry, Demeter Goes Skydiving (University of Alberta Press, 2011), has recently been named a finalist for the BC Book Prize (Dorothy Livesay Award). She lives in Victoria, British Columbia. Visit her website at

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Categories: Featured, Peace, Self worth, Self-Help, Susan McCaslin


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11 Comments on “The Wars Against the Self”

  1. September 26, 2012 at 3:57 pm #

    This is beautiful Susan. Thank you.

  2. September 26, 2012 at 5:17 pm #

    It feels to me a dream about women’s place in society, more than a personal reflection. I love your parents’ last words to you, Susan, and I can hear them ringing/resonating down through the years for you!

  3. September 26, 2012 at 5:50 pm #

    The hair-cutting part of the dream makes me want to laugh. But upon examination, It’s this doing-for-others that so many of us women get ourselves caught up in — in the case of your dream, to the point that you are about to miss your own wedding!
    Yes, unselfishness is a virtue to practise, but finding the balance between other and self seems critical. And who knows, maybe finding that balance is one result of valuing self in the midst of the chaos of demands from ‘other’. And there’s one of those word-tricks: add an M to other and what do you get, but Mother.

  4. Leslie
    September 26, 2012 at 7:53 pm #

    I’ve experienced very dramatic dreams stemming from only a few self-critical thoughts that had gone unnoticed the day before. If I didn’t have a ‘habit’ of these thoughts and wasn’t brought down by them, perhaps I wouldn’t have such a strong corrective reaction in a dream afterwards, and it doesn’t sound like you have this habit, Susan. But I do find it enormously helpful to see how often unconditional love is the set-point in our unconscious as, it seems to me, so often our dreams are helpfully redirecting us to see our (unrecognized) gifts. At this stage of life the shadow may not be all that shadowy, but the light may still be less apparent; we live in a shadowy and rather unconscious world and culture; not much soul or non-efforting, relaxed spontaneity, valued there. Your remark about being able to just be, without the accomplishments, without the effort, and to love yourself in this particular way is often still a remote possibility for many of us, but one I ask for, in my own way of praying, when I remember to, to take the pressure off, as the pressure to accomplish can be profound and a bit restrictive if we have to get it ‘right’ –especially in creative work. You’ve raised some wonderful and intimate and courageous questions. Thank you.

  5. Leslie
    September 26, 2012 at 7:58 pm #


    “Man [and woman] is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play.” Heraclitus

  6. September 27, 2012 at 7:49 pm #

    Lovely, friends, so heartening to hear from you on this subject! I don’t usually share my dreams on blogs, so felt a little vulnerable. We’re all in it together.

  7. September 27, 2012 at 7:57 pm #

    Thanks, all!

  8. Jennifer McCaslin
    September 27, 2012 at 9:09 pm #

    I took David out for a haircut. The stylist said that Hair-cutting is an Art and the quick chain stores rush everything so it comes out all wrong- so she now has her own salon. The stylist said that the last person who cut David’s hair did it all wrong in the back. I don’t know how you picked up on this.

  9. September 28, 2012 at 3:19 pm #

    Went to hear Ivan Coyote last night… she told a terrific story of a bad haircut and a great barber.. but the story was really about gender identity and recognition. Synchronicity abounding!

  10. Doyali Farah Islam
    October 20, 2012 at 4:40 am #

    Great post, Susan! I feel that this kind of difficulty is something that many of us struggle with but still don’t often like to talk about in our society. It’s as if we feel we should be past it… but I think the most difficult thing to deal with is the inner self.

    • October 23, 2012 at 5:19 pm #

      Thanks for commenting, Doyali. I find that when we make ourselves vulnerable in our writing sometimes, we find that lots of others are experiencing very similar things.

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