Holding the tiger’s tail is a fool’s errand but one with which I am familiar. Several years back when I was reflecting on the role of alcohol in my life, the idiom came to symbolize my struggle. Although I could feign control in the moment, I was increasingly aware that the tail upon which I was exerting control was connected to a beast for whom I was no match.
The tail is actually a fascinating body part, all the more so because we humans have only the missing piece – a tail bone with nothing attached. As I gently stroke the tail on a cat, I am aware of the power of this appendanage that flexes all the way down the backbone. Cats use their tails to comfort, to nudge, to affirm, to dissuade. As I consider the feel of the tail, I am persuaded that it is at once both a part of the feline and also markedly distinct. The skeletal system closer to the heat of my hand, the teeth and eyes unseen, the soft tissue missing. What I am holding in the tail is from the cat, to be sure, but it is not the cat.
As I moved through the announcement of my retirement last week, I was aware that I was sharing but one piece of the proverbial elephant. My retirement is about being 50 with an empty nest and a need to explore new paths, this is true. But this decision is about so much more. This decision is about the hurts of the past years that have snowballed down the mountain. This decision is about fundamental questions of ethics in my profession which include basics like whether there is a legitimate place for religious expression in a post-modern world. This decision is about the tangled boundaries of professional and family life that began to trip innocents. While my letter, blog, and even public speak reference my own developmental needs (true), the spoken was simply the tail of an enormous elephant.
Or maybe it is a tiger.
After church yesterday, week 1 complete, with a wash of ‘firsts’ behind me, I was struck that an elephant is much more passive than the weight I feel bearing down. The energy in all that lies unspoken is much more aggressive and animated than an average elephant though perhaps not as massive. Grief isn’t known so much for it’s size as it’s ferocious power and I suspect that what is bearing down now looks more catlike than pachyderm.
When I came to realize that my control of alchohol was holding a tiger by the tail, I could make the first step: I am an alcoholic and my life is out of control. Perhaps recognizing the familiar flex of the tail, the power of the vertebrae felt unmistakably in the extremity, I am ready to speak the deeper truth of this turn in my life. As the days turn into weeks and months, and I gently release my grip on the tail and step away, the tiger will take on my clarity.
For today, I am simply noting that this place of holding feels tenuous.