Thank God I am not an Ugly Duckling – By Dr. Bernie Siegel
The Ugly Duckling: Part 1…
The other day, as I sat on our back porch enjoying the sun, a bedraggled little duck startled me with a big splash as he crash-landed in the little pond I built in our backyard. As he settled down and tried to catch his breath, I noticed his feathers that pointed in all directions. I continued to watch as our rabbit, Smudge, hopped over to the pond and struck up a conversation.
“Hi, I’m Smudge. If you’re looking for a place to rest, you landed in the right place. Can I get you something to eat? You look tired and hungry.”
“I could use a bite to eat and a few moments to catch my breath,”said the little duck.
When Smudge gave me the sign, I took over some birdseed and corn from our food bin, then went back and sat down so I wouldn’t frighten his new friend.
“That helped. Thanks!” said the little duck.
“Happy to help,” Smudge replied. “The humans who live here, Bobbie and Bernie, rescued my sister Snowflake and me two years ago. They have big hearts and a house full of animals that they love. We all have stories to tell. What’s yours?”
“When I popped out of the egg before I was expected,” the duck explained, “my mom told me that she was disappointed in me from day one because I was so small—and had weird-looking feathers. She said she was tired of explaining things to people and hiding me. She kept telling me what a disappointment I was to her and my dad. This broke my heart, so I decided to run away.
I’m an ugly duckling with no place to run to.”
Without hesitation, Smudge replied, “Well you have a place now. You stay right here while I tell everyone about you. We’ll get you moved into our bird sanctuary where you’ll get to meet the other ducks and geese who live here—not to mention all the other creatures we have rescued who have learned we’re all family.”
“Why are you being so nice when you don’t even know me?” asked the duckling.
“Dear Doctor Bernie taught us that we’re all wounded and have our share of troubles. He’s a surgeon and says we’re all one family with the same color inside,” explained Smudge. “So we try to serve one another. I know someone whose childhood was a lot like yours, except for one thing that made all the difference in the world to him.
“Would you like to hear a story? It might help you understand and change how you see yourself,” asked Smudge.
“Sure. I’m definitely not going anywhere,” said the duckling as he settled down to listen.
“Once upon a time,” Smudge began “there was a young woman who was told not to become pregnant because she was very sick and had lost a lot of weight. Her doctor felt becoming pregnant might endanger her life. She and her husband followed the doctor’s advice, but her mother wouldn’t accept it. She told her daughter to lie down on the couch, and she started feeding her all through the day. Well, in time, the woman gained thirty pounds—and went ahead and became pregnant.
“Things went reasonably well until the time when the baby was due.”
Smudge paused his story to say to the duckling, “You showed up too soon, while this duckling seemed like he had no interest in ever coming out.
“Weeks went by,” he continued, “and finally his mom went into labor, but after several days, he still didn’t show his little head. I think it was his big head that was the problem— butdon’ttell anyone I told you that.
“His mom was going through a lot of pain. The doctor said he really needed to get her baby out. But she wasn’t well enough to risk a cesarean section—so they reached way up inside and pulled the baby out!
“Then the fun began. His mom said when she saw him, she thought, ‘They didn’t give me a baby; they gave me a purple melon!’ So she and the baby’s dad wrapped him in ‘kerchiefs and put him in a covered carriage—so no one would see him—and when they got home, they hid his carriage behind the house, then covered all the mirrors.”
“Boy, I know how he must have felt,” the duckling chipped in.
“But there was one big difference between his family and yours,” Smudge continued. “He didn’t consider running away from home. Can you guess why?”
“Think about it,” said Smudge, “He had what you didn’t have—a grandmother. And he was her grandchild. She saw the beauty that his parents hadn’t learned how to see.
“It’s not their fault,” added Smudge, “and I am not blaming anyone. It’s about life and what they have experienced. Hey, the next generation becomes great-grandchildren, so it is definitely about what we learn from our experience.
“I’m sure you know by now that the ugly duckling with a grandmother was Bernie.
“Bernie’s mom said her mother took him and poured oil over him many times a day. She massaged and pushed things back where they belonged. Bernie said that as he grew up, whenever he worried about how he looked, he’d go to his grandma for a hug. Finally, when he was old enough to go to school for the first time, he told his grandma, ‘I don’t know how I look. There are no mirrors in our house.’
“She answered, ‘Come over here. Look into my eyes and you will see how beautiful you are.’ Bernie didn’t need plastic surgery, nor did he do what the ugly duckling did—run away from home. You won’t have to struggle to seeby your reflection that you are beautiful because you’ll see that in our eyes. Bernie’s grandma taught us all a few things. Bobbie (Bernie’s wife) did insist upon having a mirror by their front door. So Bernie’s grandmother hung a sign across the top of it that said –
‘Come and see how beautiful and meaningful life is.’
“So whenever anyone is having a ‘bad’ day—and Grandma isn’t around—we just go and stand in front of Grandma’s mirror.”
The Ugly Duckling: Part 2…
Many years ago my mother—due to her hyperthyroidism—was told not to become pregnant because she had lost a great deal of weight, and her physician felt the added stress of pregnancy would endanger her health and life. Her mother—my future grandmother—didn’t agree, and so she had my mother lie on the couch while she gorged her with food. My mother gained weight—and became pregnant.
As the due date drew close, my mother experienced an early rupture of her membrane—which she did not communicate to the doctor due to a lack of understanding. When she finally went into labor, I didn’t seem interested in being delivered. After several days of labor and, to quote my mom,“Screaming and tearing up all the hospital bed sheets,”her doctor told her he felt a cesarean section was too risky to attempt—and they needed to get me out. So I presume they reached in with forceps and pulled me out.
My mother said,“They didn’t hand me a baby. They handed me a purple melon.”Yes, my mother was handed an ugly duckling. What do you do when you give birth to an ugly duckling?
In the story above, we are told the duckling’s mother rejects him and eventually discards him from the nest.
When I read the story to our grandchildren, I thought about how rare it is for an ugly duckling ever to look at his or her reflection and accept being a swan. Even swans look in the mirror and find their faults—and not their beauty. Studies show that ugly ducklings are far more likely to become addicts and self-destructive as they grow up. So what saved me?
My mother said that when they took me home from the hospital, my father wrapped me in kerchiefs. Once home, my mother covered my carriage and placed it behind the house so no one would see me and be upset. There are photographs in our family album showing my smiling mom standing next to a covered carriage, and no photographs of me, which proves this was true. So I told my mother I wanted to know why I turned out the way I did. My question was,“How and why did I make it?” “What did I have that the ugly duckling didn’t have?”
The answer, of course, is a grandmother. I recall reading a story where a teenager living with her grandmother complained that there were no mirrors in the house so she couldn’t tell how she looked before going off to high school. Her grandmother replied,“Look in my eyes and you’ll see how beautiful you are.”
Well, my mother tells me my grandmother took me from her, and five or six times a day,“Poured oil over you, and then pushed everything back where it belonged.”I had my answer. I was massaged by loving hands every few hours. I know what that touch does to newborns of all species. They gain weight and mature faster than their untouched siblings—or the “controls” when a study of the effect of massage on infants is done.
Several decades later—the first time a female massage therapist placed her oiled hands on my shaved head—I went into a trance which frightened everyone in the room because they were unable to communicate with me. When I came out of the trance and saw all the people in the room, I asked why they were all there. They said they thought I had a stroke or heart attack—because I was gone. I said,“Yes, I was gone. I went back to my childhood because my body remembers what my grandmother did. I returned to my infancy because of the touch of a woman’s hands.”
That event helped me to understand why I shaved my head early in life at a time when it was definitely not in style. So my advice to everyone—based upon my experience—is don’t have children before the age of 60. Then you will be ready to love and not judge. I know this from my experience as a pediatric surgeon and as the father of five children, including twins, and as grandfather of eight grandchildren. I was very concerned regarding the physical integrity of our children—and even examined them after they were born. Yet I was only interested in loving our grandchildren when they were born. I was ready to deal with whatever came with them. That’s when I understood why we call our children simply children, while the next generation becomes our grandchildren, and the generation after that becomes our great grandchildren. The reason for the various labels, I believe, relates to our development as loving human beings as the years pass. Hopefully, we will all act like loving grandparents someday. And on this day all the children will feel loved.