Tag: Shame

22Oct

Scriptwriting for Gremlins

I began keeping a daily journal the day I turned ten. My first entry includes a list of my birthday presents and the phrase, “I had been waiting for years to turn ten.” (Now that I have a ten-year-old of my own, I love that age even more if that’s possible.) In my teens, I had to add companion journals for all of the photographs, letters, and printed-off Jack Handey quotes that I wanted to preserve, and by the time I left for college, I was scribbling off several pages of my deepest thoughts each night before bed. After I got married, my journaling habits shifted somewhat, and I now write almost exclusively on the computer. I still have my old diaries though, a whole shelf of glittery or pop art or fur-bound books in various stages of disintegration. They are some of my most treasured possessions. They are also the most distressing objects in my life.

I cannot read far in any of my journals without face planting into sadness or shame. Between the difficult circumstances of my childhood and the misguided, often unlikable person that I could be, my past does not make for light reading. I usually only delve back into those handwritten accounts when I’m trying to fact-check. That’s exactly what I was doing several months ago, hunting for some info from my early teenage journals, when one particular page grew arms and jabbed a cattle prod into my neck. I’m still stunned and smoking slightly from what I read.

There on the page, in my own childhood cursive, is the nearly verbatim dialogue that I hear in my mind today when struggling to write, reconnect with someone, or just generally exist: 

People might think that you’re a great person, but you’re not; you’ve just conned them into thinking so.
Those who really know you know that you’re an ogre, black-hearted and evil.
You have no character.
You are ugly.
All of your achievements are based on lies; you are the dumbest person on earth.
You are lacking any softness or empathy. You cannot relate to human beings.
Your presence in others’ lives is slowly murdering them.
You are not capable of communicating properly.
You will never, ever have any real relationships.
You have no potential.
Any difficulties you are going through are exclusively your fault.
You are a disappointment.

All of my adult life, I’ve attributed these sentiments to creative gremlins or badly managed neuroses. When I haven’t had the strength to fight them off, I’ve accepted them as the voice of truth. What I learned from my journal, however, was that they used to have a real live human voice. Those sentences that I wrote down at age fifteen were spoken to me, repeatedly over the course of years, by someone I trusted.

I’d completely forgotten.

Recently, a friend (hi, Jeff!) shared the following quote by Mothering Magazine editor Peggy O’Mara: “The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” If I weren’t reeling from discovering that very fact in my journal pages, I might have dismissed the quote as fatalistic. I’m still not prepared to believe that every word from a parent figure gets internalized and rescripted as inner monologue, but I now know how deeply a recurring childhood message can be absorbed. The indictments I received growing up are as much a part of my mental landscape as are the resolutions I’ve made in adulthood.

While I don’t enjoy remembering those saw-toothed words being jabbed into my developing ears, I feel like my perspective has been outfitted with a whole new defensive strategy. It is much, much easier to fight back against inner voices that have a clear outside origin. Rather than swinging blindly at my own brain, I can stare down the source of the problem and remind it that it has no jurisdiction here. Not anymore.

I’m also grateful for the reminder to voice my fondness for my girls as intentionally as I go about the other day-to-days of parenting. When they run up against struggles in their adult lives, I want their minds to have ready access to the truth that they are capable, brave, and so valuable that their mom needed every day of their childhoods to tell them so. We’re not a deep-conversations-every-hour kind of family. However, I believe that the small encouragements I sprinkle into their days can add up to the kind of inner script that will blast shame back to last century:

People might think that you’re a great person, but those who really know you will be certain of the fact.
You are as human as they come, and your imperfections will help you relate all the better to the imperfect humans around you.
You are luminous and altogether lovely.
Your achievements do not define you, but each one is a testament to what you can do.
You are capable of deep love.
Your presence in the world is a gift to the rest of us.
Never stop cultivating the unique ways in which you express yourself.
You have the kindness and determination to sustain lasting relationships.
When you are going through difficulties, reach out. You are worthy of help.
You are a joy.

13Oct

Body Renaissance

When the first line of this story swooped out of the sky at the running track and imbedded itself in my brain, my first reaction was NO. Out of all the personal topics I explore in my writing, body image is the hardest. It’s like an elephant with a nervous disorder standing in my kitchen; true, I would be unwise to ignore such a thing, but one wrong step or unmodulated noise on my part could trigger a rampage. Tiptoeing in wide arcs around the issue feels much safer. No risk of stirring up shame-based emotions.

That’s why I *had* to write about it in the end—because shame doesn’t get to call the shots anymore. I am participating in my own redemption story, and this is one chapter of it:

[Ed: Now that Deeper Story has closed its doors, the post is here in its entirety:] 

~~~

No one told me that running a marathon would turn me into a Renaissance painting. Sure, I’d had a hopeful inkling or two that all those months of training runs would leave me with a model’s physique, but I’d been thinking more Bündchen and less Botticelli, if you know what I mean. I’d taken it for granted that turning in my couch potato card for a marathon medal would result in a slimmer, svelter me, preferably one with Gwen Stefani abs.

Instead?

Well, based on my experience, here’s an entirely subjective rundown on how the human metabolic system works: If you don’t exercise, your body won’t burn enough calories and your waistline will resemble a popular baked good. If you do exercise, your body will try to store as many calories as possible in anticipation and your waistline will expand in much the same vein as the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. If you attempt to diet your way back to normalcy, your body will clutch every spare carbohydrate to itself (in the waistline region, of course) and defend its extra fluff to the death. And if you think you can use reverse psychology on it, put that plate of snickerdoodles down right now because it won’t work. Your friendly neighborhood muffin top is here to play. Forever, and ever, and ever…

I’m exaggerating, of course. Hyperbole is one of my great loves in life and pretty much the most fun you can have lamenting minor suckitudes. The honest truth though, the one that I’m plastering over with jokes and Ghostbusters references, is that within two months of running a marathon last fall, I had to buy new jeans. I couldn’t squeeze, shimmy, or pray myself into my old ones anymore… and if you think that prayer in this context is irreverent, then you haven’t stepped on a scale one morning and seen a number fifteen higher than the last time you’d checked. You haven’t found yourself inhabiting a body that feels as foreign to you as thrift-store coveralls. You haven’t seized a handful of your own flesh and presented it to God through tear-stung eyes as proof that fearful and wonderful no longer apply to you. Maybe just fearful, though “ashamed” would be the more accurate term.

I have spent the whole of this year in a body that feels like a mistake, something I should be able to backspace away. I have worn my new jeans as an act of spite. I have stocked my fridge with bitterness, resenting the daily recurrence of hunger, hating the familiar joy of ripe watermelon or fresh bread on my tongue. I have put on baggy workout clothes and run with a heaviness not fully attributable to extra pounds. I have hidden.

This isn’t easy for me to write. Exposing a source of shame never is. Shame thrives in the dark though, in the un-telling. It coaxes us into cellblocks of secrecy and grows in power the longer we let it hold the keys. I’ve let it hold many keys for me throughout my life, so I know what it is to cower against the lie of my own unworthiness, but I also know what it is to take back a key and let myself out into the light. It’s participating in my own redemption story.

I read An Altar in the World for the first time this summer and felt my breath log-jamming in my throat when I read Barbara Brown Taylor’s take on the spiritual practice of wearing skin:

“This [loathing and hiding from yourself] can only go on so long, especially for someone who officially believes that God loves flesh and blood, no matter what kind of shape it is in. Whether you are sick or well, lovely or irregular, there comes a time when it is vitally important for your spiritual health to drop your clothes, look in the mirror, and say, ‘Here I am. This is the body-like-no-other that my life has shaped. I live here. This is my soul’s address.’”

Do I believe that God loves flesh and blood? I truly hadn’t considered the possibility before. Actually, I’d always been under the impression that flesh and blood were necessary evils in the divine scheme of things, our bodies meant as vessels for reproduction and mortification (in multiple senses of the word) and little else. I’d certainly never thought of a curve of skin as something holy. That God might treasure the freckle constellations on my arms, the set of my truth-telling hips, the fault lines of pregnancies past, the traces of age spots to come? It’s a notion at once sacrilegious and stunning to me.

That’s exactly how it must have felt, I realize, to the long-ago woman who had been hemorrhaging for so long that her gynecological plight had become public record. By Jewish law, any person or even object she had touched over the previous twelve years had been rendered impure by association. Her body was socially toxic. When she snuck out to touch Jesus’s hem, desperately hopeful rebel that she was, and he not only healed but also affirmed and blessed her body, how sacrilegious must the encounter have seemed? And how beautifully, preposterously sacred? How must it have felt to learn for the first time in her shame-seeped life that God cherished her body as well as her soul?

Not too different from how I’m starting to feel, I expect.

The understanding that my body is loved by God is like a sun-shadow on the back of my eyelids that holds still until the instant I notice it and then flits toward my periphery. I primarily notice it in my reading, when Rumi writes to the “soul of my flesh” or Paul calls the body “a sacred place” or Ann Voskamp points out “Your skin is the outer layer of your soul,” and I glimpse the connection for a dappled instant. Every now and then though, I feel it in my body itself—a sudden physical inclination toward reverence, an impression fluttering across the surface of my skin that what I have here was never meant to be despised. In those moments, I can feel the thread count of Jesus’s hem.

I’ve debated with myself about whether or not I should scrap the earlier joke about turning into a Renaissance painting; the last thing I want is for my story to cause offense or hurt. I ended up keeping it though because it’s more apt an analogy than I gave it credit for at first. Botticelli and Tintoretto and Raphael and Michelangelo, like all gifted artists, kept their souls tuned to the frequency of beauty. Their sensitivity to it and ability to transmit it to others are why, five centuries later, we find ourselves vibrating at the same frequency when we stand before one of their paintings. We see the human form as they did, in all its vulnerability and power, its peculiarity and mystique. We see rolls of flesh celebrated in perfect brushstrokes. We see the contours of our own soul’s address right there on the canvas, and we call it what it is, what it’s been from the moment our Artist-God breathed life into clay:

priceless.

04 - Susanna and the Elders - cropped-001

image source

25Feb

Cappuccino On The House

Now that we’re on the other side of the holidays and [nearly]never-ending head colds, we’re settling into a pretty great morning routine here at Casa de Bassett. Dan gets up first—how early, I can never bring myself to ask—and then brings me a cappuccino sometime in the 6:00 range. I spend the next hour and a half filling my soul up to the brim with reading, journaling, and music, just me in the pre-dawn lamplight. (A note: If I skip this part of my day, I feel disconnected from myself and God and basically just turn into Gozer the Gozerian until nightfall. As much as I might think I like sleeping in, nothing beats this early morning routine for making me feel human.) I then help the girls get ready for the day, and Dan walks them to school around 8:00 while I work out. After breakfast and various concessions to hygiene, we disappear into separate rooms, he to the office to run his business, me to my writing nook to tease words out of hiding, until school pickup and lunch with the girls.

My afternoons are usually spent wearing my other hats—mom, housekeeper, errand-runner, book-keeper, friend—and then Dan and I get the evenings just for us. The mornings are what I wanted to talk about though. More specifically, the 6 a.m. cappuccino part of the mornings.

Those coffees that Dan delivers, steaming hot with the perfect sprinkling of raw sugar, are what get me out of bed. No question. My sleep-drunk brain has the willpower to hold out against alarm clocks and knocking on the door, wakeful children and good intentions, principalities and powers and everything really except a delicious source of caffeine set within arm’s reach. After 10½ years of marriage, this is an established fact.

And yet… morning after morning, when my husband’s whisper and the scent of coffee tug me toward consciousness, my gratefulness is quickly superseded by guilt. The blunt truth is that I don’t feel I deserve his kindness. At 6 in the morning, I haven’t had a chance yet to make up for yesterday’s relational blunders, much less the weeks and years of marital TLC received on the house. The only strings attached to my husband’s sweet gesture are of my own invention, but I can invent some real humdingers when it comes to guilt and what-I-deserve.

In this kind of situation, the kind in which my brain translates love into liability, the Shoulds are especially eager to bolster my neurosis with their shackle-heavy logic. You should feel bad, they explain. You should be doing more to deserve a husband like yours. In fact, you should be the one bringing him coffee in bed instead of snoozing away expecting to be served. (Ever thought about trying that “helpmeet” label on for size?) You should require less sleep, less handholding, less of your husband’s valuable energy, and certainly less caffeine. No proper wife would rely on room service each morning. You should be ashamed of yourself.

And I do feel ashamed. I blush red-hot anytime my morning coffee comes up in conversation, sure that everyone is now wondering why Dan chose to marry such a lazy-ass diva slug. I indulge in a masochistic round of criticism every night when I purposefully don’t set my alarm. I’ve even tried talking Dan out of making me coffee ever again, but he’ll have none of my self-recrimination. “I do this because I love you,” he says. “End of story. Besides, do you have any idea how hard it is to make a cappuccino and bring it to the bedroom?”

“Something on par with Hercules slaying the Hydra and then rolling it Sisyphus-style up Mount Olympus while an eagle feeds on his liver?”

“Uh… no.”

Unfortunately, since Dan refuses to stop coaxing me awake every morning with a mug of dark-roasted excellence, my only option is to accept his loving gesture as such. This is hard, folks. I don’t know if it has more to do with my personality or with the tit-for-tat theology of my childhood, but I cannot easily wrap my brain around the idea of gift. Instead, I keep grasping at the concept of fair, an even slate in which nothing is owed and favors are performed in equal balance.

This is so not the way of love though, and I know it. When I’m able to pull my perspective back from the limits of my own small experience, I can see that this is how the world was always meant to operate—with selfless intention, with joy in the giving, with the extravagant grace that shows fairness to be a miser by comparison. In this world, the fact that I am loved is a songbird ready to soar on a breeze or a tune at any given moment. No strings attached.

Gift is a concept I’m working to comprehend, and I may not fully grasp it this side of heaven. For better or worse, I will always have this brain to contend with, and this brain can’t easily remove “deserve” from its vocabulary. I have ample opportunities to try though; my husband and his string-free 6:00 cappuccinos are seeing to that.

24Feb

Becoming My Name

Let me tell you about my friend Erika, the Life Artist. She applies soul to life the way Pollock applied paint to canvas, and the resulting swirls of color and energy keep me glued to my front-row seat. The way this lady loves her husband and her little punks and her city and her God is like nothing I’ve seen before. Her stories are a mix of the gritty and the gorgeous, and each one leaves me looking at life with new intention. (I don’t think you could look at a Jesus-following reality the same way after reading her tale of Plus One.) I am flat-out honored to be posting at her place today—a story of names and close encounters of the spiritual kind—and would love it if you followed me there to soak in a little life art for your Monday.

~~~

Out of all the insults leveled at me as a child, my name was the hardest to bear.

Bethany.

In its syllables, all the other taunts—“goody two-shoes,” “cover-up chicken,” “freak”—condensed into a three-pronged weapon that I sharpened with my own arsenal of self-loathing. I didn’t meet another Bethany until my teens, so for years, I imagined myself the sole embodiment of the name. I was told it meant “house of God.” I knew better though.

Bethany meant little girl, over-young, embarrassingly naïve. It meant one deserving of abuse. It meant unworthy, unlovable, the lowest common denominator in all of God’s harsh kingdom. It mocked me with an air of churchy pomp that was neither warranted nor wanted. When I heard my name spoken, no matter the context, I cringed. It felt like a prison sentence, this identity printed as bold bureaucratic fact on my birth certificate.

My middle name was even worse, a Christian buzzword that sounded oversized and ironic coming from my lips. I had been told what it meant too, and the theological implications spoke of a God who saw the worst in me, who obligated me to eternal servitude by deigning to save a wretch like me. I never said my middle name without flushing inmate-orange. I vowed never to tell it to anyone who didn’t absolutely have to know.

Our church nurtured a conviction that names are destined by God and hold powerful meaning, and I knew that going by a nickname would be counted unto me as sin. Nevertheless, as I entered my teens and began to carve a new facet of myself out of each new inch of freedom, I asked friends to call me “Beth” or “B” or “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch” if they had to. Anything other than the name-nooses in which I had been choking. Anything to forget, however temporarily, the shame and condemnation that were my birthright.

{Continue reading over at Erika’s place}

27Sep

Choosing Both the Guilt and the Trip

The girls and I were halfway to school this morning when I became aware of a small crescendo of panic next to me. Sophie, whose five-year-old heart is cased in nothing but bright pink tissue paper, was whisper-wailing “oh no oh no oh no” like a runaway mantra, clenching my fingers as might a lobster in peril.

I didn’t break stride. While I certainly feel for my tender-hearted daughter—especially since she inherited this capacity to feel feelings to the power of one zillion from me—I also knew that her panic might have been precipitated by nothing more than serious than a wad of gum on the sidewalk, because what if the person who dropped it didn’t know where to look for it? and what if he wanted it back? and what if we were the ONLY PEOPLE IN THE WORLD who knew its location while that poor gumless soul staggered around the neighborhood bereft? and also, what if people stepped in it? and it was all her fault? and then the neighborhood took up arms against her and life as we knew it ceased to exist? WHAT IF???

This morning’s crisis was not about gum. Sophie confessed through raggedy breaths that she had forgotten to pack a book that her math teacher had asked her to bring to school. “What am I going to dooooooo?” she wailed, scanning the street as if the forgetfulness police would show up any second to cuff and cart her away.

“First of all, DON’T WORRY.” This is how all of my advice to Sophie begins. (Come to think of it, this is also how 95% of Dan’s advice to me begins as well.) “All you have to do is tell your teacher that you’re sorry you forgot the book and that you’ll try to remember it tomorrow. That’s it. No big deal. You’ll still have a great morning at school.”

“Oh.” Her panic ebbed as swiftly as it had rolled in, and I congratulated myself on teaching a valuable life lesson before 8:15 a.m. Before coffee, even. Look at me, parenting like a real live adult. Wisdom, thy name is Mommy.

I really was genuinely proud of myself. As I’ve gotten a clearer perspective of the shame culture in which I grew up and its effects on wholehearted living (hint: nothing good), I’ve resolved to help my daughters develop a firm sense of their self-worth that won’t be shaken by others’ opinions of them or by their own mistakes. When one of the girls does something out of line with her true self—say, forgetting her math book or using her sister as a pre-breakfast punching bag (it was One Of Those Mornings)—there is no need for her to freak out or berate herself or let the incident define who she is. All she needs to do is acknowledge her mistake, try to make it right, and move on. Easy peasy.

Which begs the question, then… WHY have I been sitting at my desk for the last hour staring dismally into space, reviewing all the most recent reasons I should turn in my human credentials and find a nice homey compost pile to rent?

Let’s take this morning’s pre-breakfast sister punching fest as an example. I woke up tired, and with Dan away on business, I had neither the bolstering effect of his presence nor the bolstering effect of his Good Morning Cappuccino. It was so not the right time for the girls to be waging civil war in the next room, as they quickly discovered when I barged in with my best WFT, children?! face and sent one bloodthirsty sibling back to bed because “I just CAN’T deal with you right now!” Said child then whined that I was treating her like a dog, which I argued was absolutely untrue as I wouldn’t have reason to yell at the dog. It was not a proud parenting moment.

I lumbered out of the room, splashed some water on my face, and made up for hurt feelings in a much more professional and motherly manner before taking the girls to school… but as soon as I walked back in the door, the incident was waiting for me to pick up and mull over and absorb like some sort of skin-borne toxin. I am a monster of a mom, I told myself, forgetting all about my shining life lesson moment in the darker reality of shame. My kids would have been better off with Snooki. I suck I suck I suck I suck. Other memories began to gather as if by invitation, moments from the past few days in which I’d failed to be kind or brave or organized or engaged enough. Before long, it was clear that I was just as worthless a wife, friend, housekeeper, and email-keeper-upper as I was a mother.

Of course now, in the writing of it, this thought process shows its true absurdity. The very fact that these memories strike me with such dissonance proves that I am more than the sum of all suckitude. If I were actually a monster, I wouldn’t care; I would just go along my merry way ruining loved one’s lives, violating traffic laws, and removing mattress tags with cheerful abandon.

I feel anything but cheerful abandon right now, but I’m reminded of the point Brené Brown makes in Daring Greatly about the need to differentiate between Shame and its gentler cousins Humiliation, Embarrassment, Guilt. It’s not that I’m particularly fond of guilt, but acknowledging that I’ve done some things over the last few days that are inconsistent with my values is so much healthier than embracing the idea that I am a horrible human being. If I continue aligning myself with Shame, I will sink further into self-loathing and create even more incidents to regret. If I choose Guilt on the other hand, then I’m free to follow my own advice to Sophie this morning: acknowledge my mistakes, try to make them right, and move on.

And when I file through my mental Rolodex of suckitude, I see that I’ve already done a pretty thorough job acknowledging my mistakes and trying to make them right. The only thing still missing is the part in which I move on.

Enough searching real estate listings for compost heaps; I have better things to do with my morning, including—though not limited to—continuing that real live adult trend.

Just as soon as I remedy the cappuccino situation.

17Apr

On Mothering Grown Women Before They’re Grown

My girls have a good dad, no doubt about it. He teaches them how to throw the Aerobie and ask good questions. He sits cross-legged on the rug to build LEGO police-station-chemistry-lab-recording-studio-princess-schools according to request. He turns up the Dropkick Murphys loud when Sophie’s in the car and gives Natalie special computer programming assignments (pretty much everything about our girls’ personalities can be summed up in this sentence). He knows what makes them tick, and he encourages streaks of independence that I’d never even noticed. He fosters their creativity, respects their privacy, and displays their construction pencil holders in his office. All girls should be so lucky.

My girls have a good mom too. The Law of Self-Deprecation says I probably shouldn’t be saying this, but it’s the truth, and I know it. I tie three sets of aprons and show the girls how to measure and whisk and roll cookie dough in cinnamon sugar. I instigate Jamiroquai dance parties in the living room, tickle-chase escaping fugitives, and read Roald Dahl aloud before bed. I teach Natalie about story arcs and Sophie about “c-a-t,” and I tell them they’re beautiful every single day. Dan and I aren’t perfect parents by any stretch of the imagination, but our girls know we love them and like them and want them around. We’re doing a few somethings right.

But there is one aspect of parenting girls in particular that moves me to contemplate tequila as a valid breakfast option. For all the positive things Dan and I are teaching our girls about themselves through our attention and encouragement, I am also teaching the girls about themselves by how I treat myself, and I can tell you, the message coming across from me to me is rarely of the positive variety.

While it’s easy for me to focus on the features that make my girls inside-and-out beautiful—Natalie’s midnight blue eyes, Sophie’s whole-body smile, the glimmers of kindness and joy that light each of their demeanors like a personal aurora borealis—my filters tune to the negative when I look at myself. I only notice the stray eyebrow hairs, the unflattering curves, the tired slump of my shoulders, the frustration that flares up like lava bursts. I don’t see anything worth celebrating or encouraging in myself, and this would feel pious and admirably ascetic if not for the fact that my girls are absorbing my brand of womanhood like sponges.

Their eyes go round as they watch me sweep on my mascara, and I remember that same combination of curiosity and awe from my own girlhood while I watched my mother dab on moisturizer and replace it in the mystical realm of grown-up toiletries under the sink. The secrets to my future self lived under that sink. Tucked among the perfume bottles and tampons, womanhood whispered to me about beauty and strength and sensuality and fragility, and it had my mother’s voice.

Now it has mine.

In the contours of my figure, my daughters glimpse the trajectory of their own bodies. In my speech, they catch inflections and sayings that will one day trip off their own mama-tongues. Each of my habits is a clue to their own approaching adulthood, each of my mannerisms a point on the map, and like it or not, I’m their first lesson about how to be a woman. Good God in heaven.

I never anticipated mothering grown women before my oldest finished second grade, but here we are on this express route to the future, and when I seethe with impatience over my own limitations, I’m teaching my adult daughters that they don’t deserve grace, and when I mutter into the mirror about my physical imperfections, I’m telling these one-day women that they are not beautiful just as they are, and when I ignore my own needs to the point of burnout, I’m showing them that self-care is not a priority. My soliloquies are their screenplays, and the implications knock the breath right out of me.

I feel like this shouldn’t be such a big deal. The solution is as simple as treating myself the way I want my girls to be treated—with gentleness, compassion, joy, and the occasional spoonful of Nutella. Everybody wins, right? Except that I’m me, so nothing is ever that simple, and the reality is that I’m far more comfortable with self-deprecation than I am with self-care. I’m good at listing my faults, grimacing at my reflection, and jabbing unkind sentiments into the soft belly of my mind. They produce a kind of half-vindictive, half-vanquished satisfaction. Tenderness though… it has always felt like a guilty pleasure, emphasis on the guilt.

Somewhere along the years, I picked up the notion that any scrap of kindness—even within the privacy of my own thoughts—must be earned through perfection. Patience and rest must each be purchased with intense stretches of achievement, and if I want that spoonful of Nutella, I’d better be sporting rock-hard abs. It’s my own personal works-based religion. I follow it like a spiritual devotee too. I’m so familiar with the liturgy of criticism that its sting almost feels like comfort by now, and the idea of psychological freedom is not enough of a motivator for me to revamp my self-image.

However, the idea of my daughters’ psychological freedom is. I’m almost angry that this is the answer, that I have to be comfortable in my own skin in order to raise daughters comfortable in theirs. I’d much rather refer them to a stack of self-help books or start a therapy fund, anything other than having to lead by example. I don’t want to have to spelunk the messy dark of my own emotional history to find the reasons why I can’t smile when I look in the mirror. I don’t want to march into shame’s territory and fight to win myself back.

And it’s not like my girls will be doomed to a future of bitterness and self-loathing if I don’t figure this out. They’re already thoughtful and resilient individuals, and part of their growing up experience was always going to be figuring out who they are apart from their parents. I would be either very arrogant or very naïve to assume that they are my carbon copies, destined to play out my own life choices.

Using their individuality as an excuse to avoid doing the hard work on myself is a cop-out though. Even the most curmudgeonly gatekeepers in my mind know deep down that learning to love myself is worth the struggle. It’s worth working through profound discomfort in order to make my daughters’ first perspective on womanhood one of kindness and joy and wholeheartedness. It’s worth charging back into that formidable battle against shame in order to give them the gift of a mom who’s happy to exist as herself.

(Yes? Yes.)

I’m writing this from the entrance of the emotional messy cave—no answers at all, just a few half-baked ideas and a significant amount of trepidation. I’m perplexed as to why it should be this hard to start seeing myself a little more as a unique and valuable human worthy of love and a little less as Jabba the Hutt, but the Real Beauty Sketches video going around (have you seen it yet?) proves that I am not alone in holding a distorted and negative view of myself. We women are masterful at finding fault in ourselves. Glossy cover models and online mommy wars prey on our insecurities while religious pundits promote our inferiority. We react by judging each other in a misguided attempt to boost our own statuses, and it’s no wonder that so few of us can fathom the idea that we might be worthy of celebration or admiration or love.

What I can fathom, however, is that my precious little girls are worthy. They don’t have to do a single blessed thing to earn their lovability; they are themselves, and that’s enough. I cherish the ways their minds work, their bodies are taking shape, and their hearts expanding, and I dearly hope that they can grow up seeing themselves through the same lens of happy awe that I do. It bears repeating that they are themselves, and that’s enough—enough to warrant compassion and respect and appreciation and understanding and spoonfuls of Nutella and a personal cheerleading squad and full-out, unconditional, never-changing, no-holds-barred love—

and if my girls are worthy just because they are who they are, then it’s time I accept as truth that I am too.

11Apr

Birds of the Air, Hamsters of the Faith

When I wrote the following entry in my journal this morning, I was intending it just for me. I already had a blog post in the works, and I just wanted to get these thoughts off my chest first. However, when I caught myself writing that I need to stop apologizing for the way my mind works, I decided to stick it to shame and let you into my real Thursday morning headspace. Welcome.

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I was listening to This American Life while straightening up the house and making my breakfast this morning when a short story by Shalom Auslander came on. In the story, two pet hamsters are starving to death and trying to make sense of why their owner is neglecting them. One of the hamsters says their owner has forgotten them, and he tries to forage for his own food with only limited success. The other hamster says it’s a test of faith; he sees signs of the owner’s care which, when successfully debunked by the unbelieving hamster, become additional tests of faith. He prays in thanks to the owner for starving him in order to show him his sin of ungratefulness. Finally, as the hamster is praying, the owner comes in the door. He’s with a woman, and as they fumble their way toward the bedroom, he turns off the lights.

I know that Shalom Auslander came from a severe Orthodox Jewish background that makes mine look almost liberal and that he has no shortage of bitterness toward God. I totally get it. And it’s because I totally get it that I felt sacrilegious and scared listening to the hamster allegory. The story didn’t denounce the existence of God or his roles as creator and provider; it simply made the argument that God doesn’t care about us, and that hits too close to my own doubts for comfort.

When times are hard, as these last two years in particular have been for us, we’re confronted with three possible perspectives. One is that the hardship proves that there is no God, that we’re utterly alone in this world. The second is that the hardship proves that God doesn’t care about us or that he will only help us if we prove our worthiness by pulling ourselves out of the hole. The third is that the hardship is part of a bigger plan for our own good and that God’s care for us is a constant we can cling to for comfort.

The first option doesn’t work for me because I do believe in God. I can’t help it. I’ve seen too much evidence of a divine force participating in our lives to doubt God’s existence. Choosing between the second two perspectives is tricky though. On one hand, hardship sucks. I know that if Natalie or Sophie were going through extreme financial and relational stress and I had the power to alleviate their burdens, I would do it in a heartbeat. That seems like the only loving option to me. But on the other hand, I know it’s ridiculously subjective to say that my displeasure with circumstances makes them categorically bad. I don’t know the bigger picture, and the idea is that God does, so we can trust that the ultimate outcome will be good… “good” in a philosophical sense only God can understand, that is. It’s never far from my mind that God’s idea of good could involve our destitution or death, and trying to call any pain that we experience “good” because God knows best makes me feel as pathetic and delusional as the praying hamster from Auslander’s story. Granted, we’re not destitute or dead right now, and I can’t go basing my view of God on other people’s circumstances that I only glimpse from the outside.

Obviously, I vacillate a lot between the two beliefs—God loves us, he loves us not. I prefer the loving option, but when all evidence seems to point to the contrary, I don’t know what to stake my trust on. I don’t have the kind of faith that can declare God good and caring no matter what happens to us. It does matter what happens to us! We matter! Our pain matters! When religious institutions try to placate people like me into blind faith with platitudes and Christianese and churchy aphorisms, it makes me want to abandon ship. We are not such spiritual beings that our physical realities don’t count. We have to have some kind of reason for our beliefs, and at least for me, faith comes from seeing a spiritual God interact with our physical world. Call me a weak Christian, but I can’t just glibly attribute both good and bad circumstances to God’s love. I can’t.

Some days, I take comfort from what Jesus said about God caring for us, meeting our daily needs, and answering our requests as a loving father would. Other days, I can’t stop considering that Jesus said these things shortly before he was tortured to death. Honestly, what am I supposed to take from that?

I feel like I should apologize to God or Jesus or the Pope or someone for putting that last paragraph into words, but I’m tired of apologizing for my mind. I’m tired of trying to silence questions and misgivings that don’t fit within church-approved mindsets. Censoring my doubts doesn’t make them go away; it just makes me live dishonestly, and how can I love God with all of my mind if I keep trying to lock parts of it in the basement? For better or worse, I’m stuck with this brain until death do us part. The tendency to overthink and question everything is hardwired into who I am, and apologizing for who I am is nothing less than deferring to shame.

So this is me, authentic and unapologetic, admitting that I can’t figure out this morning whether I’m one of the hamsters from Auslander’s story or one of the birds of the air from Jesus’s sermon. If I decide that God is indeed taking care of us no matter how life looks through the porthole of today, am I shutting down logic and deluding myself? Or if I decide that God has left us to fend for ourselves, am I discounting the many forms that grace takes in our lives?

This no man’s land between the two perspectives is not an ideal place to set up camp, but it’s not unfamiliar territory for me. In fact, I’ve often encountered God here in the breathing space between the opposing swirls of doctrine and rationale and emotional charge. Grace for now is accepting that my doubt-disposed brain is fearfully and wonderfully made and resting in the certainty that life does not depend on my perception of it. What’s more, God’s character does not depend on my understanding of it. Either we are being taken care of or we are not; my outlook changes nothing except how I feel… and what I feel right now is a blanket of peace wrapped around my questions, a gentle assurance that I don’t have to have God all figured out. This, more than anything else this morning, is helping me to navigate back toward the belief that whatever my reality right now, whatever my physical circumstances or spiritual uncertainties, he does care.

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