Betty Duffy

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Impostor syndrome

A woman at Mass this morning had a portion of her skull missing. She's one of the old guard at the daily, and I've known her as long as we've lived here, without knowing her name (which is fodder for another post). But we have smiled at one another, shared anecdotes about her five grown children and my five young ones, and enjoyed general goodwill at nearly every meeting.

She'd gone absent for awhile, apparently having that part of her skull removed, and I thought maybe she had died. It's happened before. That name in the death announcement after Mass belongs to a person I've smiled at and offered the sign of peace every morning for two years--and I didn't even know they were ill.

This morning, everyone welcomed her back. It was her first day at Mass in a long time--long enough to have a piece of her skull removed, and then have the skin over it heal, and the hair over it grow, and for her to be well enough to say, "They want to put a plate in it, but I don't want any more surgery. I guess I'm just going to have a big dent in my head."

She looked embarrassed. She had given away how she spent the morning combing her hair over the dent, and how she thought she was too old for vanity, and lucky to be alive anyway. She had just had a piece of her skull removed, for Heaven's sake--and do I now go back under the knife to improve the look of my head--at my age? To hell with it, I'm going to Mass.

I wanted to say to her, yes, I'm glad you're back, though I don't know your name, but your face is like an old friend. I walked out of Mass, after a meek smile at her where she stood surrounded by people who have known her since her children were young. I am, for the most part, a stranger with no good reason to impose my gratitude on her--whether it's for her life or not.

And maybe it's not. Maybe it's for that little twinge of vanity she revealed, at her age, when she should be grateful for her life--that little inkling of humanity, still so desperate for redemption. Would it be wrong to be grateful for that? It made me feel a little less alone in that crowd of formidable women--less of an impostor among those who are so close to their reward.

I thank God for her humanity because somehow it pulls me further into the Body of Christ--it welcomes me there among fellow sinners, old and young. And it permits me to thank God for my own humanity.

Not all of us wear our imperfections like a big dent in the head, but all of us have them, the sin that keeps coming back. We can comb our hair in attempts to cover our flaw; we can hide from Confession--or we can thank God for the gift of our weakness, our need for Him--recognize exactly who we are, and go on anyway. Give up on the hair and go to Mass. Show your face where you fear it doesn't belong.


Shorty said...

Truly inspiring!

Julia said...

Thanks for these good thoughts.

Oddly enough, this week at Mass I sat behind a 10-year old girl whose hair was just growing in over an 8" scar on her head. The music was awful, the homily compared marriage to a popsicle (God was the part that held the man and woman 'sticks' together), the choir screeched a vaguely heretical hymn, and I was as non-recollected as it's possible to be.

And yet there right in front of me was a dad gently supporting his little girl on what was probably her first outing since brain surgery, and in the midst of the screaming hysteria in my brain, my heart was thumping, "Thank you. Thank you. Thank you."

I'd never seen the family before, may never see them again. Don't know their name. But I felt like I was watching a First Holy Communion when that girl went up to receive. It was a beautiful thing.

Anne said...

Love this! Just love it! I, too, feel like family among the dear old ones so close to their reward at daily Mass, yet know very few names. Can't wait to read your post on that one!

Enbrethiliel said...


Betty, I have the powerful urge to to encourage you never to ask for her name. (And as you see, I've given into it.)

BettyDuffy said...

E, I think it's far too late in the game to ask for it.

Allison Welch said...

Thanks for a great post. You are a gifted writer.

Enbrethiliel said...


I had a friend from uni who was scandalised to hear I had worked in the same library as a certain notorious postgrad student for a little over a month, but didn't know his name. I thought she was overreacting: I went to school with some people for twelve years and didn't know their names by high school graduation, so what's a month? ;-)

wifemotherexpletive said...

thanks be to God for our weakness, I've got a lot to be thankful for today... :)

Peter and Nancy said...

A friend of mine plays piano at our church, and continued to do so well into her cancer treatment. Many women would've felt too self-conscious to do anything that visible as they were losing hair and weight, but it was such an example of insisting on joy within suffering. Her life circumstances and condition spoke just as loud as anything she played during those months.

JMB said...

This is a stunning post. Thank you. I go to daily with a lot of old people, some of whom I know their names, but often I don't. I feel like a loser there because I'm not part of the blue haired clique. In fact, I sort of race in and race out.