I've already received two early gifts this year, but not from any person. They were not objects, but moments of a feeling I've been hoping for and cultivating and needing all my life--self acceptance. They were beautiful and intimate experiences that I choose to share, only after consideration, in the hard won knowledge that I ignore gut instinct at my own peril and in the hope that my weakness may become another's strength.
A few Sundays ago, as I was driving to church for Christmas play practice, Leeann Womack's song I Hope You Dance came on the radio. I sang along because I love what it says, and teared up as I thought of how much I want those sentiments to be true in my own life and how fervently I hope that I can pass on such wisdom to my son. That part was normal for me when I hear that song. What came afterward was not.
I suddenly felt, not sentimentally teary, but ready to sob. I was alone, so I rode the wave of part longing and part gratitude as it briefly passed through me. Then, like the clean calm after a summer storm, came the thought "I'm OK."
That might sound like reassurance to myself after an unexplained crying jag, but that's not the case. I knew that I was all right, regardless of sudden tear squalls. I've gotten used to my emotionality, even though I strive to be a steadier person. No, this was more like an unexpected status update from deep within the running inner monologue we all have. My thoughts were telling me that I was OK just as I am--as in enough, acceptable, worthy.
I've been trying to get my deep animal brain to believe that for some time, ever since I learned that self respect was a necessity for a healthy life. I've said it to myself over and over. I've tried to repeat affirmations on occasion. I've prayed, trying to understand that God loves me just because. But those efforts always seemed hokey or forced. I was paying lip service to what I knew was supposed to be truth, but I didn't really believe it, not way down. Instead, I traveled through years listening to a serpent's mantra of unworthiness. If inner life can be characterized in a sound, there was a lot of moaning in there, much gloom and expectation of rejection. I came at the world with my head down, saying "Well, I'm probably lame, but here I am."
Not that I didn't improve my life and my situation anyway. I have healthy, loving relationships now. I took advantage of an opportunity to learn a new, better paying skill. I fulfilled a seven year dream by going to culinary school at the age of 40. I started writing. Through good years and bad I've served others at my church.
But all that growth was an upstream swim against a current of my own hidden shame and fear. I had identified it, but couldn't seem to remove it. A friend eventually named this voice of doom Gilbert in an effort to objectify and diminish it, but still he hissed in my ear "Uunwoorrthy". Or tiraded about the futility of my efforts and the audacity of my hopes. Or just buzzed with doubt and despair. I began to wonder if my mental background noise was always going to be woe.
What a surprise then to hear, not me trying to convince myself that I'm OK, but myself stating that I was--I am--sufficient. Basically, I gave myself a passing score for the first time in my life, laying down the measuring stick I've always carried. I felt a tiny warm light, like a birthday candle or a Christmas bulb, glowing in my geographic heart.
After all this time and effort, here was the simple state I'd been seeking, just arriving as I drove along a country road. I offered gratitude for it, hoping that it wouldn't be a distant memory before the night was over, as often happens with emotional highs, and keeping it to myself until the morning, when the thought and its glow were still there, and I felt ready to tell my husband about this experience that seemed to me like a small, lustrous pearl I'd been given.
In the following weeks, as I would if I were carrying a jewel in my pocket, I would reach for that new feeling and find it small but still there, and I would be both relieved and thrilled. That treasure would have been enough for quite a while.
Then last week, while lying over a rolled blanket to stretch my poor tight shoulders, I again suddenly felt the urge to sob, again tasted the mixture of longing and gratitude, again felt at peace with letting this new wave just roll through me, and again experienced a marvelous new thought that has never before lived in my mind: I love myself.
Oh, dear goodness, that might sound so kooky, but I risk that chance because it's true. I actually felt a genuine, not a taught, caring for myself just as I am. I laid there with my heart open to heaven and treasured the feeling, with its lightness and relief, which I can only describe as the first spiritual ecstasy I've ever known.
It was utterly wonderful to be released in that moment from the toxic self worthlessness that usually haunts me. I felt as if a heavy Less Than sign board had suddenly been lifted from me, or as if someone whose approval I'd always wanted finally gave it to me. My load of shame, that demon lead that has always weighed down my feet and my hands and my spirit, was blessedly and instantly gone. The moment held a bigger warm glow than the one in the car, enough to visualize holding my hands over it like someone just in from the cold after a long dark journey. I had been given another pearl that I again hoped I'd be able to keep.
It's been days now, and the new thoughts are still there: I'm OK. I'm enough. I really am as good as anyone else. I can enjoy my life because it's good enough, too!
After years of trying to earn my own love and approval, after decades of trying to be good enough to be satisfied with myself, I finally GET that it's fully acceptable to be me just the way I am right now--not after I'm successful (whatever that means) or enlightened or better than someone else, but right now, with all my limitations and scars and unfulfilled dreams.
Years ago I read a definition of humility that was new to me and apparently needed by me. It said that humility is understanding that you are neither no better nor any worse than anyone else. Obviously, I've never had a problem with the first part. It was the second part that was my failing. Although we usually think that those who deem themselves better than others are the ones who need to learn about humility, I'm living proof that the opposite can also be true. Just as many painful errors can be committed when you think you're worthless as when you think too highly of yourself. We don't need to be puffed up, but we aren't much good if we're downtrodden, either.
I have no desire for a fuzzy but false and lazy sense of self-esteem or to think that I'm absolutely fabulous. I would only like to be without shame and the worry that I'm not good enough. I don't want to measure up. I want to stop the measuring itself. I want an innocent first grade pride that doesn't need comparison at all. And while I long to just feel good rather than bad, I don't want it only for me. I want it so that I can be a good wife and mother and sister and daughter and friend, for my loved ones will benefit from my true humility as much as I will. Just ask my husband, or the others who've endured my darkness in the past.
For now, I'm grateful for the pearls in my pocket. Sometimes I can't feel their glow, but I know that they're there. I hope for more, enough for a long rope necklace whose weight will help me remember and carry myself upright.
In Elizabeth Gilbert's memoir Eat, Pray, Love, she records a piece of advice a friend gave her about writing her book, which was "Tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth." That's what I've done here--told my truth because it's what I have and what I feel that I need to do. These are my stitches. The tapestry is up to God.