Peeling the layers from an onion produces tears. The zingy stingy acidic fumes blast into our delicate membranes and cause local irritation. Yet onions, added to food, produce much-needed verve and spice – without which many a dish would be bland and uninviting.
The central part, the core, is usually the most authentic; it is the sweet epitome of onion-ness! You can’t get any more onion-like than that!
We, too, have layers to our personalities. We, like onions, have a core, a central part which, in many cases, has to be carefully peeled back: Tough outer skin, often a beautiful colour, has to be debrided first. This can be the most challenging layer-peel of all because so many of us are neurotically attached to that surface layer; so many of us confuse it with the whole person, and think it defines us in our totality.
But, as the layers unwind, a more translucent self begins to emerge. This can be an intensely painful process – and it often causes as much local irritation, as many tears, as cutting into, and working upon, the circular satellites of Planet Onion.
We cling to our skin, both in the epidermal sense and the more abstract emotional one. We create siege conditions behind the ramparts of the castle which is our soul, shooting arrows at those who approach, flinging boiling oil on those invaders who have the temerity to breach our battlements. Like the humble onion, we fight back: Blind, sear the sinuses, cause stinging cuts to the knife-wielding fingers.
And yet, that part right at the centre, that vulnerable little circle of pure us, is, like its Allium cousins, the sweetest and truest part of all – and well worth the winning, the peeling, the tearing back layer after layer after layer.
Taking this metaphor to its conclusion, however, forces us to face a dark truth as well. Some onions, when pared to the ultimate layer, have rotten and black insides. The astringent odour of normal onion becomes tainted with the grave, with decomposition and death.
So it is with some human beings. Occasionally, winding the layers in an ever-faster spiral of the curiosity dance produces rancidness and cruelty and a central portion so twisted and hunched and nasty that we throw it in the metaphorical bin, wash our hands in strong antiseptic and turn elsewhere for that life-giving spice which we all need in the everyday palate of our appetites.