“Peeling the Onion” is a phrase used in psychology and sociology, as well as in the Twelve Step Program, because it’s so descriptive of human experience. It’s a metaphor for the process of getting beneath the surface of who you are to try to discover the origins of some of the attitudes, fears and behaviors that are causing problems in your life. What triggers them? Can you learn new and better ways to respond to those triggers? You’re encouraged, usually with the help of a therapist, to start at the outside, with more recent phases in your life journey, and work your way inward, layer by layer. Root causes probably lie deep within, through early childhood crises you’re no longer aware of, but peeling layers from outside-in will, theoretically, help you discover their effects gradually and more definitively. Be forewarned: onion-peeling can easily lead to tears in your kitchen, and this often happens when the “onion” is your complicated inner self as well.

I once participated in a weekly group of people who were discussing this concept and trying to put it into practice. Each week we’d share what layers we were trying to peel back and any progress we’d made. One week, a faithful member of the group reported this to the rest of us: “I’ve been learning a lot about myself by peeling layers, but a sudden thought slapped me in the face: What if I peel away the last couple of layers, and there’s nothing there; there’s no me under the layers?”

Her brave disclosure has stuck in my mind ever since she shared that with us. Here are some thoughts I’ve had :

  • This person was expressing her own particular challenge. As I tried to relate her anxiety to my onion-peeling process, I realized that I didn’t fully share her fear of finding nothing at the core of my being. The early traumas she endured were much more severe than anything I had known in my basically-nurturing family. Her journey promised to be much more intense than mine.
  • However, everyone in that group, including me, was going to find that each layer peeled left them feeling more vulnerable, raw and exposed. The outer layers of an onion are dry and hard, having the responsibility of protecting the inner layers. That’s the part of me that I present to the world to deal with the challenges of daily living.
  • But only the inner layers are alive and growing. If I don’t find a way to bring them more in contact with the outer world, with family, work and relationships, I’ll begin to shrivel up, like an onion at the end of growing season. God has surrounded me with people who care about me, and I have to trust them with more and more of my inner layers to be a healthy person.
  • As a Christian believer, I’m committed to the fact that I’ve been created in the Image of God. And I’ve learned from the Bible, as well as from the wisdom of people who have studied the Faith in depth, that I’ve been created uniquely in the Image of God. At the core of my being, under all the obscuring layers, I’m a one-er!

Here’s a surprising implication: The reality is that I’ve never met the authentic me, the unique Image-of-God me. My life is too cluttered with a catalogue of memories, experiences and sins. No matter how much layer-peeling I do, I’ll never be sure I’ve gotten to my true core, the Essence of Me. I think that may be one of the surprises God has in store for me in the afterlife — introducing me to me. It may take an Eternity for me and me to get acquainted.

– – Pastor George Van Alstine