Monday, 2 November 2009

Iago and The Postmaster’s Wife

“You’ll never guess what that woman did!” exclaimed Karen as she made my coffee. “She told George that she had seen me stroking your dog and that it was unhygienic and shouldn’t be allowed. Why couldn’t she talk to me directly instead of going behind my back like that? She’s a real witch!”

Karen is my favourite barista at my local café. George is her manager. The woman in question is the wife of the postmaster who runs the small sub-post office next door to the café. She sells the newspapers, stationery and sweets. He deals with the letters, parcels and all the official post office business. They are both immigrants from South Asia.

I was upset at the devious way that this “nosey neighbour” had got Karen into trouble with her boss. Also a part of me felt hurt that anyone would object to someone petting my dog. Karen adored Peppar and it gave me great pleasure to see the way they interacted. Karen would pull Peppar’s cheeks playfully and Peppar would mouth and lick her in response.

“I always wash my hands afterwards,” continued Karen, “Why does she need to poke her nose into other people’s business? What’s her problem?”

I have never much liked the postmaster’s wife. She always looks bored and unhappy and seems to regard customers as something of a nuisance. Much of her time is spent peering out onto the street to see what people are up to or chatting to friends on the phone. When customers do approach the counter she doesn’t even bother to put the phone down or stop talking while serving them!

I would never dream of behaving like that at work. As a seminar leader I am always caring, concerned and attentive to the needs of my students. I want them to think well of me and I make a point of being both approachable and personable. In one of my workshops on service mindedness I stress the importance of putting the customer first - something at which Karen excels. To my mind this woman’s couldn’t-care-less attitude was an example of everything that is wrong with the service sector in the UK. How dare she point the finger at Karen’s behaviour when her own is so appalling!

These judgements sounded loud and clear inside my head in defence not only of my friend, but also of the part of me whose feelings had been hurt by this woman - my young, sensitive self. They damned her as “cold-hearted”, “meddlesome”, “inconsiderate”, “unprofessional” and “devious.”

I felt so deliciously self-righteous and powerful in my condemnation that it took some days for these judgments to abate, but when they did and I was able to reflect, it was obvious to me that I was projecting some of my disowned selves onto her - the ones my primary selves didn’t want around. I knew that if I stepped back from the situation I could begin to embrace these selves, find out about them, and move my Aware Ego Process forward. But to stop there would be to cleverly avoid addressing something else that had been triggered by this incident. At a much deeper level I sensed another darker, forbidden energy had begun to stir……

“I am not what I am” - Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello (Act 1, scene 1)

As a child I was raised to be well behaved and considerate of others. I doffed my cap respectfully when greeting women and politely enquired about their health. I ran errands for neighbours and offered to carry their shopping. At church on a Sunday I looked like a perfect angel dressed in my white choirboy’s surplice and pleated ruff. Everyone regarded me as “such a good little boy”.

My exemplary behaviour earned me lots of approval and affection from the adults around me. This felt very comforting to my more vulnerable and sensitive selves. But there was a down side. It made me a potential target for bullies at school who would taunt me, calling me a “goody-goody” or even an “arse-licker”. To deflect their negative attention, I developed a clandestine self that protected me and kept me safe - an inner Iago.

This part of me learnt how to surreptitiously draw attention to faults and weaknesses in other boys. It would work behind the scenes to shift the focus of attention away from me and onto them. Because I was the instigator and not the perpetrator I was never found out. The bullies got into trouble with the teachers, not me. I stayed out of harms way and my image as a good boy remained intact.

My Iago also came into play in relationship to the adults around me. My primary selves wouldn’t allow me to rebel or express negative feelings towards them even though their behaviour often upset me. I particularly disliked the emotionally invasive and intrusive energy that came my way from some family members. Instead of confronting them openly, Iago created imaginary scenarios of torment and torture in which I would punish them by inflicting mental or physical pain. In this he was amazingly creative, but his machinations never saw the light of day. They existed only in the shadowland of my fantasies.

It was this buried Iago self that was triggered by the actions of the postmaster’s wife. It invented a fantasy of her as a dark skinned witch, an intrusive busybody, jealous of the beautiful young Karen and out to get her - just like an evil character in a fairy tale. It figured that she probably hated dogs, was unhappy in her marriage, and was sexually frustrated! Having created a picture of her as something strange and monstrous, the stage was set for her vilification.

The post office is closed on Sundays, so when Karen took her cigarette break and joined Peppar and I at a table outside the café, she thought it would be safe to play with Peppar without fearing that the “witch” would see her. She gave Peppar a big hug and was rewarded with a big wet lick on her face.

As I glanced over her shoulder at the post office I saw a face peeking out from the darkened interior. Iago seized the moment. “Karen, she’s watching us,” I whispered, pointing towards the post office. “I don’t believe it!” exclaimed Karen. “Why can’t she leave you alone?” I hissed, stoking the fire of Karen’s resentment. “It’s really intolerable that she spies on you like this. I wouldn’t be surprised if she got a camera out and started to take photos as evidence to show George!”

It felt like some Machiavellian energy had possessed me. As we spoke I kept nodding and pointing in the direction of the post office, making it very clear that we had seen her and were talking about her. My primary Nice Guys had been sidelined and Iago had taken over - coming perilously close to the surface but cleverly using Karen as a shield. After all, it was Karen who had the real issue with the postmaster’s wife, not me.

Suddenly the door of the post office flew open and out stormed the postmaster’s wife. Without looking at us, she strode into the café and began to harangue George about Karen’s behaviour with Peppar. He looked taken aback and was obviously trying to placate her. A moment later she came back out and to our surprise walked straight up to our table.

“I saw you!!” she screamed at me, “You were talking about me. I saw you pointing your finger. I’ll call the police. I’ll tell my husband. You are harassing me!” She turned towards the shop and shouted one more time for the whole neighbourhood to hear, “You are harassing me!!” Karen and I looked at each other in amazement, smiling nervously like two naughty kids who had been found out.

A few minutes later the postmaster appeared with a face like thunder. Into the café he strode and gave poor George another earful. On his way out he paused, looked me in the eye and said angrily, “You’d better watch it mate or I’ll get you!” and disappeared into the shop, bolting the door behind him.

Silence. Karen raised her eyebrows in exasperation and, after a thoughtful pause, dismissed their behaviour as “really crazy” and went back into the café to pacify George. I wasn’t able to take it so lightly. My primary selves squirmed. I felt deeply embarrassed and a little nauseous. I tried to put on a brave face and laugh it off but Iago had been publicly exposed, accused and condemned. My Inner Critic was going to have a field day.

In his book “Avalanche: Heretical reflections on the Dark and the Light” Dr Brugh Joy uses the phrase “non ego-enhancing material” to describe buried selves like my Iago. An ego that is identified with being kind, considerate and non-aggressive does not want to acknowledge that an Iago-like self is lurking in the depths. It is very painful when such material shows up - and particularly when it happens in such a public way.

Even now I find myself obsessively turning the Sunday afternoon confrontation over and over in an attempt to shift the blame away from me and onto the postmaster and his wife. My Rational Mind and Psychological Knower are telling me, “They clearly overreacted - maybe because as immigrants they feel vulnerable in this middle-class community. Maybe they have experienced racism, prejudice or abuse before and are hypersensitive to any sign of it. Or maybe they are just very unhappy people with lots of personal problems.”

But such speculation is to miss the point. Having written this piece, I realize that in fact I must thank the postmaster’s wife for being so sensitive to the vindictive energy that Iago was sending her way. By dramatically and emphatically calling me on it, she has enabled me to begin the difficult task of acknowledging and embracing this long-disowned aspect of my psyche.