“Where’s the Dead Mouse?”
Let me take you into the story of a slight mice inconvenience I had one winter.
I live in a pretty rural area, a garden in the back (which actually appears to have been the source of the problem), a couple acres of open field, a ditch that runs along the side of our driveway back into a woods about a half-mile down, and then farm fields encircling almost all of the property.
So a pretty ideal place for the adventures of mice.
Now, I have a pretty stern perspective of anything that breathes…so this was a major compromise for me, but eventually we set some traps. I don’t think mice are a problem in and of themselves, but because of the civilized decisions I have made for my life, they easily get in the way of what I want and how I’ve set up my home. So I thought it was better to take their life than to change mine. Traps were laid, scare tactics used, and lots of waiting to see if any of it worked.
27 mice lost their lives that winter.
Actually, I think it was 28.
Because, what if, one day, you came to my home to visit — you walk in and you get a drift of home-baked cookies, which immediately smells pleasant, but then it is followed by a tropical, fruity smell and then you walk a little further into the house and you smell “Midnight Rain” and then something else that makes you think of sea island cotton. By the time you get to “Midnight Rain” you should be thinking that something unusual is going on.
The real question would be,
“Why do they have so many candles burning right now?”
And then you go and sit on the couch.
Next to a vent.
And it smells like we took a smelling oil (which we did) and rubbed it on the vent because the vent is pushing this overwhelming smell right towards you.
But there is something else there infiltrating your olfactory system…something a little musty.
Like decaying and rotting flesh musty.
And you get this mix of too many good smells being plagued by one really bad one.
I imagine if you came into our house during this escapade, you would eventually ask the question,
“Where is the dead mouse?”
And the honest answer is that we didn’t know…but it was trapped in a vent somewhere.
So we did everything we could to try and mask the smell and hide the bad odor with lots, like “lots” as in too many, good ones. I imagine that upon realizing we had all of those candles lit you might even jump to the conclusion,
“They are hiding something.”
Quite literally, you could smell it.
A Culture That Lives in Fictions
Think about when you run into someone for the first time in awhile and you begin the small talk:
“How are you?” you ask.
“Good!” they answer with a luminous smile.
And then they go on to brisk through the details of their life in order to keep exposure at a minimum and keep things moving.
Our culture is really good at presenting the acceptable, likable, and non-disruptive versions of ourselves. Our ego, pride, and identity are at stake and we have the opportunity, or you could say, the control, to display our lives in a way that promotes our agenda to be liked and to save face from anything that would work against said agenda.
We hide the full version of ourselves to portray the version we and the world find the most appeasing and the most comfortable.
The line of transparency is drawn where it requires the least amount of journeying into any junk that could disturb the peace.
Essentially, we live in fictions.
Often, we will even tell ourselves a particular narrative to solidify whatever identity happens to seem most coherent and, as a narrative therapist might tell you, typically bends towards the negative, destructive, self-inhibiting result; partly because it is easier, partly because that narrative has been confirmed a million times by our past and relationships and the world as a whole, and partly because we fear what telling a different story would do. Beyond that, however, these stories we tell ourselves are often in avoidance of that which would cost us something or exist as an attempt to conceal a deeper reality that would expose the depth we fear.
Whether through our idealistic social media posts and photos or our glossed over surface response to questions — there is who we are and who we want to be; what is really happening and what we display — and they are often different.
How’s it going?
"Good," is just easier.
A Note on Vulnerability
In contrast to our habitual patterns of friendly conversation, what if my family’s response to the smell was just to be honest about it? To sit in that reality instead of masking it?
Where you walk in and we just say,
“We’ve got a dead mouse.”
Instead of trying to cover up the smell, what if we dealt with it and moved our lives to a place where the smell was actually taken care of?
Out of the fiction that we present and into raw depth of the unmasked version?
Because that is how authenticity will unfold.
But it would also smell a lot worse when you come and sit on the couch.
This is both the power and the difficulty of vulnerability.
Because, yes, some people can’t handle your vulnerability and may abuse it and it could be unhealthy…so light those candles.
And, yes, the smell is deeply uncomfortable — it will change the atmosphere of your life and will certainly cost you something.
But for our most intimate relationships, for the spaces where we give up that power, what would it look like to stop covering up the smell?
Because, for several people in my life, if you start out a conversation with, “How are you doing?” and I say, “Good,” their next question is going to be,
“Where’s the dead mouse?”
And we’ve developed some recipes, you could say, to help us do this. Sometimes I’ll begin an interaction with offering a scale of 1–10 and inviting people to disclose via number how they really are — which usually leads to a follow up question on what is going well or what has been hard. Or I’ll ask, “How are you today…wait five seconds and give me your third answer.”
It is just a way to invite transparency, authenticity, and vulnerability.
I don’t know how many people I come across and interact with where I so badly want to stop them mid-sentence and say,“Where’s the dead mouse?” But we live in a culture that would rather shove things under the rug, put up walls, & cover the vent in Sea Island Cotton oil than to just be honest about what is going on and force one another to deal with it together.
Which means we never actually do the hard work of confronting the mouse.
We hide behind our fictitious portrayal and, in our pretending, miss the opportunity of journeying towards the potential change waiting on the other side of our vulnerability.
What Happened Next?
There we were, my family drowning in candle scents with the plague of a dead mouse nauseating our lives. We portrayed our image of a good smelling house in hopes that it would all just go away.
Until a good friend of ours, one of those intimate ones, showed up and, sensing something was wrong, asked the question that catalyzed the truth:
“Where’s the dead mouse?”
In that moment, especially in our friends declaration that the candles just made it worse, we went to the basement, found the dead mouse in the vent, and actually mitigated the smell.
The vulnerability invited us to confront the mess and be changed by walking through it.
Our culture, now more than ever, needs to get more comfortable with naming our dead mice.
And start getting more comfortable with vulnerability.