“In the course of a lifetime, what does it matter?”
~ Sharon Creech, Walk Two Moons
When I read this book, I was probably about twelve, and I forgot the majority of the plot long ago. But, when I was at Walden, I was reminded of these words by another patient. It was one of the quotations that helped keep her afloat during her intense battle against anorexia.
While I still don’t remember much about the story, I now carry this single sentence in my heart. It is slipping back into my consciousness today, as I return to work after a restful week of visiting family. Though there is much catching up to do, I am able to fluidly transition from one task to the next, without taking myself or the demands of my job and my day-to-day life too seriously. “How long will it be before I start growing anxious and frustrated again?” I wonder. “How long will it be before I start telling myself that all of the too-many-things I squeeze into my schedule are necessary?”
Last night, as I was about to climb into bed, it occurred to me, “It is going to be a long life. In the whole, long course of my life, does [it] really matter?” Pondering this idea for a moment, I remembered that gentleness applies not only to how I act and speak to others, but also how I think, and how I talk to myself. Then, I thought, “…and if I don’t live a long life, and I die tomorrow, or next month, or next year, [it] really won’t matter!” I smiled. The though was more comforting than morbid. I felt silly for being anxious and worried about so many insignificant concerns.
Today, I can’t even recall precisely what last night’s [it] was. Most likely, [it] was some dietary indiscretion, a few days without exercise, a few nights of poor sleep, or some other perceived imperfection, but the plain fact that I don’t specifically remember demonstrates just how irrelevant these few dropped notes are in the grand symphony of the universe. Am I living up to my values? What are those values? When I stop to reflect, I know exactly how I am called to live my life.
“Then he said to all, ‘If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself?’”
The cross is the sacrifice of self-giving love. It is the call to die to my own egocentrism, patiently bear the trials and tribulations of life, trusting God, loving always, seeking the little way. Am I choosing this path each day, each moment? Because, in the course of a lifetime, that is all that matters.
The sixth week of the Kindness Challenge offered an invitation to reflect on those people who inspire me to greater kindness. Pondering this prompt brought to mind thoughts of some very kind and true people. Listing so many men and women who lived dedicated lives of grace, justice, mercy, peacefulness, and selflessness was simultaneously inspirational and frustrating, for their virtues sharply contrasted my own faults. As I thought about this topic, the people I most deeply admired included several saints and many other great figures from history – St. Pope John Paul II, St. Theresa of Avila, St. Francis de Sales, St. Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Dorothy Day. I considered the people whose writings and works influenced me over years. Some occasions in my life marked watershed moments in my own becoming. In my heart, I found that I was still deeply affected by the English thesis that I wrote nearly fifteen years ago on the poetry of Wilfred Owen, and the philosophy course that I took in college where I was first introduced to Leo Tolstoy’s treatise The Kingdom of God is Within You.
Through St. Thérèse, I am learning about the little way. If only I would find the time to actually take her posthumously published autobiography, Story of a Soul, off of my bookshelf and read it! The little way of St. Thérèse is spoken of often, but it seems very elusive and hard to put into practice. Reading her own words on the topic would probably be helpful, but even from what small bits I know, she is already gently reminding me that I do not need to perform great deeds, achieve astounding feats, or set my eyes on lofty goals in order to make a difference in the world. My part may simply be to live as well as I can in this moment, in this day, choosing the greatest love in the smallest, most ordinary decisions that I make, and thereby increasing the grace and goodness in the universe in a tiny, but not insignificant, increment. And, so, I continue to have patience with my limitations, including my limited time and the fact that I am a very, very slow reader.
“I applied myself above all to practice quite hidden little acts of virtue; thus I liked to fold the mantles forgotten by the Sisters, and sought a thousand opportunities of rendering them service.”
~ St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Story of a Soul, Chapter VII
When Mother Teresa took her first vows as a nun, she chose the name “Teresa” after St. Thérèse. Her name as a child in Albania was Gonxha Agnes Bojaxhiu. I first learned about Mother Teresa when I was seven, and one of my classmates chose her as the subject of an autobiographical book report. I was scared of this strange woman in a white robe who didn’t appear at all the way I thought a nun was supposed to look. She didn’t conform to the safe structure of my existing schemas at the time, and I think that made me feel afraid and angry. It was only as I grew up that I discovered the extraordinary compassion, mercy, faithfulness, selflessness, and determination of this incredible woman.
While Mother Teresa’s life served as a source of inspiration on account of her profound virtue, I found myself fascinated by her story for two other reasons. As I learned more about her, I came to understand that her path to her mission among the poorest and most indigent people of Calcutta was not a straight one. She served as a nun for nearly twenty years, teaching and even serving as a school principal, before she received her “call within a call” to work in the slums. It was another two years before she overcame all of the obstacles that prevented her from going directly about the task to which she felt summoned.
Knowing that it took a figure who went on to fulfill such an astounding purpose quite a long time to get there is a comfort to me at my current stage of life. I think that I am on a decent trajectory, but I am not necessarily living my life’s vocation to its fullest extent. Yet. This is not the end. Mother Teresa’s story lends me the courage to keep trying to make the next, right decision, fueling my hope that if I can continue to string together enough of these small choices, my life may still reach farther beyond myself.
“We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop I the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.”
~ Blessed Mother Teresa
Additionally, I learned that after Mother Teresa found her inspiration and began her greatest work, she experienced a deep, spiritual depression. No one knew of this part of her interior life until a book of her letters was published in 2007. Despite an inner despair, darkness, and sense of total abandonment by God, she carried on in her dutiful ministry. For decades, she served cheerfully, encouraging others, never complaining, always faithful and loving, never hinting at the burden of the pain that weighed her down every day.
In my own life, I often struggle with doubt and depression. For most of my life, I was firmly convinced that God was ambivalent about my existence. Though I would never, ever wish the darkness that Mother Teresa described on any person, the words she left behind about these experiences fill me with gratitude, because I feel less alone in my most despairing thoughts. She shows me how to live with courage, optimism, and brightness, even when I feel far from bright.
“Speak tenderly; let there be kindness in your face, in your eyes, in your smile, in the warmth of your greeting. Always have a cheerful smile. Don’t only give your care, but give your heart as well.”
~ Blessed Mother Teresa
After reflecting on the examples of inspirational people like these two women, it is very easy for me to get stuck in comparison. I start thinking of all the ways I’m not good enough and of all the reasons why I fall short of their virtuousness. That sort of emotional and mental climate is not a healthy wellspring of growth. I tend to be quite hard on myself, and I am quick to devalue my positive qualities while also minimizing the weaknesses of others. Theodore Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” More than joy, though, comparison tends to rob me of my belief in my potential to change. One of the most important lessons for me in the lives of role models like St. Thérèse and Mother Teresa is that I am not meant to become them. By following their examples, I am meant to become the fullest and best possible version of myself. I still don’t know who that is, but I hope that by leaning on the wisdom of good people, I am moving in the right direction…
“God has not called me to be successful. He has called me to be faithful.”
Every Thursday evening, whenever I’m in town and not traveling, I attend a therapy group for people who suffer from eating disorders and distorted body image. Though I am surrounded by the support and love of innumerable family, friends, colleagues, and caring professionals, something unnerving and soul-wrenching happens when I am among others who know firsthand what it is like to live with this illness. When they speak, it is as if their words are my own. To know that I am not alone because my family and friends are always with me is comforting. But, to know that I am not alone because there are other people who understand… that is heart-breaking, mind-bending, and ultimately, healing. I am not so deranged that another human being can’t comprehend the parts of me that are most disturbed and irrational.
At the present moment, there are eight of us. Each of us is in a different place along our journeys. Some are actively working on their recovery. Some are still in the pre-contemplative or contemplative stages of change. To each other, we bring our struggles, daily experiences, and inner turmoil. Though the specific symptoms and behaviors of our eating disorders differ, a degree of body dysmorphia is something that we all share in common. It’s not that any of us suffer from body dysmorphic disorder, but when we look in the mirror, our brains have a way of distorting the image.
Within the safety of this familiar, little band, I stumbled into a startling discovery last week. As I listened quietly, one after another of these women, my friends, expressed their deep loathing of their bodies. It was painful to hear, and I was filled with empathy and sorrow. Yet, another emotion gripped me, which could best be described as excited gratitude. The meeting was drawing to a close. Unable to contain this perplexingly intense sensation, I wrapped my arms around myself squeezing my eyes tightly shut. An impish grin broke across my face, and I lifted my feet off the floor, stretching my legs out directly in front of me energetically as I declared, “I love my body!”
Part of me felt guilt for exhibiting such jubilation in the midst of so much suffering, but I couldn’t let the last word of that night be one of disparagement. As we departed, I meditated more deeply on these thoughts that were suddenly springing up inside of me. What I found was that…
I love the face that peers at me from the tiny square of bathroom mirror. A bit of makeup artfully conceals the acne scars and the red blotches. A little blush lights up my pale, monochromatic cheeks. I love my sparkling, hazel eyes, which appear to change shades depending on the color of the clothes I wear. I love my straight, pearly teeth and my even smile. My parents paid a lot of money in orthodontists’ bills so that I could share this smile with the world! I love my chin, which doesn’t recede and doesn’t protrude, but is perfect for my face. Just like my nose. I love my thick, auburn hair, the fineness of each strand, and its irremediable straightness.
I love being short! I fit into so many small places and tight spaces. It doesn’t even bother me that I can never reach the tops of high shelves. That’s why there are stools and tall people in the world. I love my petite hands and the writing bump on my right third finger. I love my feet and all the callouses that cover them. They tell the story of my life. After all the miles, all the experiences, all the long days and long nights of thankless work, the high and low adventures, and all the injuries, my feet remind me that I am resilient. And they remind me that I am not invincible. They invite me to take care of myself and to rest when I need it. My feet remind me to push my boundaries, and to know my limits. They remind me to accept what is, and to do what is needed. Oh, do I love my feet!
There are a few aspects of my body that I am learning to simply accept, like the chunk that is missing from my left eyebrow where I underwent a skin biopsy, and the unsightly acne that still peppers my face, chest, and back, even in my 30’s. I accept my aches and pains, my knotted muscles, and my chronic TMJ. Ultimately, I accept that my body is changing. The lines of my face are creeping and multiplying, their creases deepening. Here and there, I catch the glimmer of a silver strand of hair. The scattered, purple, spider veins that are barely visible on my thighs will one day spread into a dark, violaceous network to cover my legs, just like all the other women in my family. My weight may even (gasp) fluctuate. That last one is still the hardest for me to accept, yet it is the truth, and it is natural. It is just part of this experience of living. Because, in the final equation, my body serves a purpose. It is the temple of my soul. It is the vessel that carries me through this world. It enables me to do a great many things, though I remind myself that one day, it will fail. My faith tells me that I am wonderfully made. My faith also tells me not to be overly attached to my body, at least not as it is today, and not to idealize any physical standard of perfection. There is more to life, and death, and the life to come than can be contained in this organic being.
Perhaps my brain is changing, too. Perhaps, I’m rewiring, making new and different connections, overwriting the old, automatic, maladaptive signaling pathways. How did I move from waging a war of submission against my body to harboring this intense desire to hug myself in a giant, bearlike embrace? When did this shift happen? I’m not sure, but I like these feelings.
When I first began the Kindness Challenge, I was feeling frayed, haggard, and on the cusp. I felt overpowered and threatened by circumstances that were beyond my control. My coping skills were always, almost, utterly depleted under the unceasing exigency. Like a raw nerve, I cringed and recoiled at the slightest prick, hypersensitive in my anticipation of the next deluge. Edgy and exhausted, my thinking slipped into rigid patterns, my self-compassion waned, and I stumbled along a circuitous course of self-perpetuating frustration over my “regression.” My intention at the outset of the challenge was to reconnect with a gentler version of myself. Through the first few weeks, I honestly noticed little change. When the fourth week of the challenge began, I was ready to begin again with renewed energy.
“Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”
~ Blessed Mother Teresa
The focus of week #4 was “Be Kind,” which sounded simple and direct enough. However, after practicing loving-kindness meditation for the past year while striving to bring a bit more good into the world as often as I could, I wasn’t sure how the week would be different from my routine. I was re-reading Niki’s wonderful list of suggested kind acts while thinking to myself, “I already make eye contact and chat with everyone I meet, both friends and strangers. I already hold open doors for people, I’m continually working on being a better listener, I often write encouraging notes to friends and family members, I donate money to the church every week and to my favorite charities every month, I try to go out of my way just a bit to help other people when I see they need a hand, and I endeavor to remain open to the smallest act that might add a little light to the world…”
“Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.”
~ St. Thérèse of Lisieux
As I mentally scrolled through this litany of kindnesses, trying to conceive of something novel (that also wouldn’t take up too much time in my zany, work-a-day life), I was struck by how difficult it was for me to acknowledge my ongoing efforts. (Even typing them out here feels boastful and wrong. “People will get the wrong idea about me,” the voice in my head is saying. “I’m not that good.”)
Oh, that little voice. It clings on. I am no longer feeling quite so fragmented. Time and space are a soothing balm, but so are prayer, meditation, and the gentle, consistent, understanding, and encouraging support of an expert therapist, a skilled dietician, and a host of patient friends and family. Whether my external circumstances are truly altered, or the shift is an internal one, or both (I suspect the combination), I am thinking and feeling better. I leave it up to those who know me well to judge if my subjective sense of improvement correlates at all with an exterior change in comportment, but I am telling myself that I am less reactive and volatile than I was a month ago. Of course, my mind and my moods ebb and flow, and I continue to struggle with difficult and distorted core beliefs, such as that I am a bad person, blameworthy and wicked. Yet, I accept that I am a work in progress, and this work is the enterprise of a lifetime.
After toting about the book, “The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion,” by Christopher Germer, for a couple of months, I finally started to earnestly read it again. I also found a few other, short articles by various authors about what I would call, for a lack of a better term, the wholehearted approach to building an enriching life. Perhaps I needed a little refresher. With a highlighter and a pencil, I plodded along, a little bit each day, allowing the words to percolate as I scribbled my reactions and ideas in the margins. When I noticed a troubling or repetitive thought or an unpleasant feeling, I jotted it down on a sheet of paper that I titled my “monologue diary.” In five, neat columns labeled situation, thoughts, emotions, rational responses, and outcomes, I attempted to identify my underlying self-talk and pinpoint the circumstances that prompted these automated messages, countering the distortions with compassionate but honest reframing.
“Unless this love is among us, we can kill ourselves with work and it will only be work, not love. Work without love is slavery.”
~ Blessed Mother Teresa
At the conclusion of each day, as I tucked myself into bed, I permitted a few moments to feel the crisp, cotton sheets against my skin, rub my tired feet, and reflect upon my day. I paused long enough to bring to mind the different conversations that I shared with friends and strangers, the smiles, laughter, and encouraging words that were exchanged, to remember the emails or text messages that I sent to my loved ones, the letters that I mailed, the prayers that I offered for others, and each small act of generosity, whether it be holding a door open or allowing someone to skip ahead of me in line. From a six-week course on positive psychology that I completed last summer through the free, online educational website, Coursera, I learned that meditating for even a short while on “micro-moments” of connection or positivity at the end of each day would affect not only my mood but my body chemistry and neurobiology. I brought to mind the experiences from the day that were not-so-great and reflected on the ways that I failed to live up to my values. Rather than blaming or castigating myself for all of my shortcomings, I offered myself the same kindness that I was trying to cultivate for others. “Nobody is perfect. Yes, I made mistakes, and it just proves that I am human. It just shows that I am still a work in progress. Tomorrow is another day and another opportunity to try again.” It was grounding and humbling. Silently whispering my prayers, asking for the help, the grace, and the strength to navigate the coming day with an open heart, I pressed my face into my squishy, soft pillow.
“I prefer you to make mistakes in kindness than work miracles in unkindness.”
~ Blessed Mother Teresa
A week later, my heart feels fuller, and my mind is more at ease. I continue to hear the sharply judgmental and critical voices telling me that I’m worthless, that I need to work harder and earn my redemption, and fearfully casting others as potential threats to my own best interests, but I understand where those messages come from, and I don’t become angry or frustrated with myself when they occur. I recognize that they are just thoughts and emotions, and that everyone experiences unwanted and unhelpful thoughts and emotions from time to time, but they don’t dictate who I am or the choices that I make. I still need practice. It feels like a tiny, baby step. The result thus far, though, is liberating. When I am compassionate with myself, my heart feels gentle, and I treat others the same way. The kindness flows outward, but it starts with me. Wishing you all a kind, gentle, compassionate day!
“Spread love everywhere you go. Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier.”
A couple weeks ago, I began to fall behind on my Kindness Challenge reflections, which was ironic, considering that the emphasis during the third week was on radiating kindness through my daily acts of living. After returning from my life-changing experience at Walden in January 2015, what I desired more than anything else was to become the most loving, empathetic and compassionate, authentic version of myself possible. Could any goal be more congruent with the third week of the challenge?
“Then, beside myself with joy, I cried out: “O Jesus, my Love, at last I have found my vocation. My vocation is love! Yes, I have found my place in the bosom of the Church, and this place, O my God, Thou hast Thyself given to me: in the heart of the Church, my Mother, I will be LOVE!”
~ St. Thérèse of Lisieux
Thus, I figured that this third week would result in no great change from my everyday strivings to live wholeheartedly, lovingly, generously, and authentically. Still, I looked forward to the opportunity to rededicate myself to this way of being. Despite my best intentions, I remained quite dissatisfied with my persistent meanness and littleness. Often imagining myself as a sour lemon drop, my own mouth puckered when I recollected the rapid-fire judgments and preconceptions that came to me so unbidden and automatically. I loathed the way I was so quick to complain and how easily I became just another contributor to the cynical, negative griping that permeated my workplace.
“Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.”
~ St. Thérèse of Lisieux
After returning from my brief vacation about two weeks ago, I also began to notice an increase in my self-criticism, my rigidity, and my perfectionistic striving. I wasn’t sure when it started, though I suspected the change commenced at least several months ago. Discouraged, I attempted to treat myself gently, recognizing that further criticism and frustration would only perpetuate the cycle. However, I was a little depressed. What happened to the self-compassion that I so carefully nurtured in my early recovery? There was a time when I repeated these words every time I stepped out my front door: “Today, I’m cultivating imperfection!” Somewhere along the way, my heart forgot a fundamental realization that made my recovery possible. My head knew the truth, but I lost the significance and the implication of what follows: God loves me not because of who I am, not because of my accomplishments or efforts, not even because of my potential, but because God IS love. God’s love for me is absolutely independent of my actions, or even my beliefs. All I need is to LET God love me.
“When we’re accepting of our own idiosyncrasies, we become more accepting of others… If I feel humble and loving toward myself as I walk out the door, in spite of my flaws, I’ll greet others with a soft smile.”
~ Christopher K. Germer, PhD, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion
Of course, being a hard worker, I threw all my strength and energy into the endeavor of salvaging my skills. If there was one thing I was ever good at, it was making lists. I scrambled to pinpoint ALL of my weaknesses and enumerated specific methods to rectify each one. However, identifying my “problems” only pitched me into increasing desperation and intensified rigidity. I told myself that I was a failure for my inability to maintain my coping skills and healthy thinking. I failed to read enough, write enough, live wholeheartedly, adhere to a consistent schedule of sleep, attend enough yoga classes, drink enough water, swim enough, walk enough, pray enough, use my DBT workbook enough… I couldn’t do anything right. Then, one afternoon, during a conversation with my pastor, self-awareness slowly creeped upon me. I… AM… BEING… SO… FREAKING… HARD… ON… MYSELF. I am so quick to feel persecuted and unfairly treated by others or by fate, but it is I who treat myself the most mercilessly.
At precisely 9 am, every Tuesday through Friday morning, all the decision-makers from each branch of my organization come together to brief each other… and to share “constructive” criticism. Though my office environment is very flexible, and I count my closest colleagues among my supportive friends, many of the people who gather around the conference table on these mornings rely (unconsciously, I’m certain) on those coping skills that shift pain, discomfort, and intolerance onto others – shaming, judging, and scapegoating.
When I first returned from partial hospitalization for my eating disorder, the thought of stepping back into that room evoked panic. During treatment, I discovered a fragile, precious soul under all of that hate, anger, self-loathing, numbing, helplessness, blame, and fear. Like a tender, spring bud pushing up through loose earth, I felt exquisitely vulnerable to the crushing, bitter negativity of the people around me. Fortunately, with the passage of time and regular practices of mindfulness, acceptance, and dialectics, that tiny shoot sprouted a few, delicate roots. I experimented with different ways of interpreting what transpired during our meetings as I attempted to understand circumstances from as many perspectives as possible. In my better moments, I sought countless ways to give others the benefit of the doubt. These mornings became an opportunity for me to exercise my dialectical behavioral skills, to observe, to describe, to explore my cognitive and emotional reactions, and to seek for the shared humanity that existed between all of us, but as I gradually grew stronger and more adept at navigating the world around me, my sensitivity to my ongoing need for these skills waned.
“I know now that true charity consists in bearing all our neighbours’ defects – not being surprised at their weakness, but edified at their smallest virtues.”
~ St. Thérèse of Lisieux
The morning following my conversation with my pastor, I walked into the sterile, gray-walled conference room, found my usual seat, and began scanning the many faces around me. As I settled into the moment, opening my ears to the soft, whooshing drone of the ventilation system and the gravelly, deep, methodic voice of the particular department chair who happened to be speaking, I made a rather sudden and spontaneous decision. To every meeting, I carried with me a small, spiral-bound notebook in which I recorded any thoughts, emotions, or reactions that I might need to process. Only a few pages remained in the pad that lay before me. Curiously but hesitantly, I fluttered the pages backward until I arrived at the very beginning, written precisely eleven months earlier. As I listened quietly to the relatively bland conversation unfolding around me, I skimmed my notes from July 2015 for the first time since putting them down in tiny, neat cursive. In a matter of mere seconds, my eye glancing from one line to the next, a pattern swiftly emerged. I WAS so freaking hard on myself.
There was no gradual loss of self-compassion. I never ceased treating myself kindly. The reality was that I never exercised much self-compassion, ever. For me, self-compassion was always a struggle. A year ago, the triggers for my inwardly-directed criticism were different, and I was hyper-attentive to an alternate spectrum of shortcomings. Yet, I was just as unwilling to accept imperfection in myself then as I feared I was now. A tiny slip-up provoked an equally self-blaming, self-paining response.
Which leads me to… ACCEPTANCE. Being kind is always going to be a challenge for me. That is just the way it is. That is just the way I am. There will be no rapid undoing after thirty-two years of the same strict, uncompromising, results-oriented, utilitarian, un-empathetic messages. What I received from my parents in childhood became my core beliefs about myself and the world, and from there, my inner voice springs. I can change it. I am already rewiring my brain. But slips and setbacks will happen. Perhaps the kindest gift I can give myself today is to accept that I am going to say and do nasty things, I will vent anger, frustration, impatience, and hurt onto others, and there is a very good possibility that rigidity and perfectionism will remain my stumbling blocks until the day I die, even if I live to be 100. Even if I live to be 120. Rather than treat myself severely and unforgivingly each time I catch myself thinking or behaving in these ways, maybe I can just accept my weakness with humility, and try again.
“Self-compassion can seem quite elusive at times, but since the wish to be happy and free from suffering is innate, it can’t be ignored forever; some measure of success is virtually guaranteed.”
~ Christopher K. Germer, PhD, The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion
Here it is, the final day of the challenge! Thank you for reading and for allowing me to share some of my favorite quotations with you. To conclude the challenge, here is a sampling for you to take with you into your day.
“One cannot judge the beauty of a path merely by looking at its entrance.”
~ Paulo Coelho
“The same everlasting Father who cares for you today will care for you tomorrow and every day. Either he will shield you from suffering or give you unfailing strength to bear it. Be at peace then and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginings.”
~ St. Francis de Sales
“Go out into the world today and love the people you meet. Let your presence light new light in the hearts of people.”
With life seeming to break around unexpected, sharp turns fairly frequently of late, I apologize that my blogging is a bit erratic and infrequent. There are many words and ideas pinging around in my head, but I am making self-care my priority. I find myself short on free time these days, and to dedicate all of it to writing would mean sacrificing the other parts of myself that bring my mind and soul into balance – my relationships, my personal journal, exercise and yoga, drawing… Well, the result is that I’m a bit behind on my Kindness Challenge Reflections. As I prepare to publish this post, I am a bit dumbstruck by how long it took me to cobble it together, but I am also allowing myself to celebrate the other ways I am using my time – the backyard picnics that I attended with friends this weekend, Saturday’s massage, daily prayer, mindfulness practice, helping my parents around their house, wandering through the garden when the work was finished. With acceptance in mind, I’m continuing forward.
It so happened that the second anniversary of my 30th birthday fell during the second week of The Kindness Challenge, when the task was to “observe kindness around you.” Throughout my personal history, “kindness” and “my birthday” were contradictory terms. In fact, “kindness” was a word that I rarely, if ever used, and it was a concept that I certainly did not understand. You see, the sole function of my birthday was to annually substantiate, to myself and to the world, how little I mattered. It was a day for remembering that I was not only unloved but unlovable… not to mention forgotten, outcast, and worthless. It offered all the evidence that I required to remain irrefutably convicted in my mentally-ill heart that I was abnormal, defective, and irreparably damaged. I repeated the same story to myself year after year to prove why there was no hope for me. Life is not a fairy tale, and there are no such things as happy endings. I only needed to turn on CNN or look to the streets of the city where I lived for evidence of the overwhelming suffering in the world. Somehow, I was convinced that by bearing a disproportionate amount of pain, misery, loneliness, heartache, and despair, I served as a sort of reparation for the injustice and hurt experienced by others.
Underneath it all, I think that I was afraid. Of what, precisely, I’m not entirely certain. The unknown? Change? Allowing myself to be vulnerable? To be dependent on others for my emotional needs? I didn’t understand that human beings are made for each other. I couldn’t comprehend that one of the reasons I felt so lonely and unfulfilled was because no individual can satisfy all her own longings. Our souls demand connection in order to flourish. We are nourished by relationships, even the simple exchanges of a friendly smile between strangers on the subway or a kind greeting over a morning coffee transaction. I viewed my sadness as weakness. My depression was a flaw to be mercilessly vanquished through diligent work and application. Emotions were obstacles on my path to success, and other people could not be trusted. Every May, I broke my own heart. I asked for nothing, but I expected everything. In my romanticized world, I imagined that all of my friends and family would just know as my birthday approached. Though I admonished and scolded myself that life was no fairy tale, I fell for the fantasy of every chick flick, Disney movie, Hallmark Channel original, and jewelry advertisement I ever saw. I was endlessly disappointed, of course. A healthy person might recognize such disappointment as the result of an ideal founded on illusions and clever marketing, but I convinced myself that I didn’t matter. I would never matter. I was destined to be alone and to suffer forever, because it was what I was made for. I was confident that even God was ambivalent to my existence.
My 30th birthday was a murky transition between the darkness of my contorted thinking and the light. I barely dipped a toe into cognitive behavioral therapy beginning in March of that year, and I was not yet owning my “eating issues.” A year later, after six weeks of partial hospitalization for binge eating disorder, four weeks of an intensive outpatient program, and ongoing weekly therapy for my depression, anxiety, and orthorexia, I was ready for something different. Planning a party or organizing an event was still a bit beyond my coping skills. Thoughts of the food challenges, the crowd, and the expectation all provoked anxiety, resulting in my familiar chest tightness and one of my favorite fallbacks – avoidance. My biggest step forward was in acknowledging my birthday and allowing others to celebrate me. As the second anniversary of my 30th birthday approached, I felt a familiar tension rising within. Initially, I succumbed to the pressure of believing that, because I was now in recovery, I needed to honor myself by observing my birthday in a remarkable way. However, apprehension gave way to acceptance and then to a serene peacefulness as I released all of the remaining expectations to which I continued to cling. For perhaps the first time, I decided that a structured, choreographed, orchestrated bash was not requisite to prove my worth or my commitment to my self-love. Instead of assuming that I would be forgotten, I permitted myself to take for granted that the people closest to me would send me cards and that my officemates, who never, ever miss a birthday for anyone in our workplace, would at least hang up our “Happy Birthday!” sign over my desk. Vulnerability. Yet, regardless of what happened, who remembered and who didn’t, or how I celebrated, I knew that I was loved and appreciated, and on more than just a single day of 365.
When I released those expectations, it was as if my birthday transformed into the fairy tale I always imagined, but in an entirely unexpected way. There was no great pomp or flash, but I found magical delight in the simplest kindnesses. I flicked the light switch in my tiny office to illuminate a confetti-strewn scene bedazzled with sparkling, metallic streamers, balloons, and accented with a bouquet of bright flowers practically overflowing their vase. The absence of definitive plans allowed for an impromptu lunch at one of my favorite nearby restaurants with two of my closest colleagues, culminating in another favorite, a warm brownie sundae. I discovered that a brownie sundae is even better when it is shared with your friends on your birthday while the sun shines brilliantly outside, birds whistle springtime songs, and work stands still just long enough for a slow, deep breath that brings life all the way to your toes. I returned home at the end of my day to a stack of packages and cards piled so high that I borrowed a mail crate to carry them all from the front office of my apartment community to my little townhouse. Under a radiant, sunny sky, I rode my bike along the nearby trail, drinking in the colors, sounds, and smells all around me as I reflected on all the love poured into my heart that day.
There are always hard days when I feel myself drawing inward, when I close myself off in a self-protective cocoon. Fear, bitterness, resentment, pain… c’est la vie. If my past birthdays illustrate anything, it is that shutting myself off from the world only guarantees my suffering. Throughout this journey, I am learning the necessity of connection to the wholehearted life for which I long. It can be terrifying to allow myself to so raw and exposed, and it is pretty much guaranteed that I will both be hurt and hurt others along the way. Which leads me to this… don’t we all deserve a little kindness and compassion on this rough path we all must tread? When I open my senses to the kindness and connection all around me, I feel more alive. Today, I am grateful for all of my friends and family who showered me with smiles and thoughtfulness this May, and I am especially grateful for all of the people who loved me through all those hard, dark Mays before. Thank you.
In the current chaos of my life, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. My little raft is tossing about on some pretty turbulent and stormy waters, and sometimes it feels like all I can do is hold fast. At times, it even feels as though I’m already overboard, and I’m just clinging to the lines, choking on salt spray, and struggling to drag myself out of the waves. As my fingers tip-tap over the keys today, I am floating through a momentary calm. My emotions are steady, my breathing is easier, and my friends are close at heart. However, it’s hurricane season in my metaphorical ocean. I know that there will be more storms to weather before all the present uncertainty works itself out.
The challenges that I am confronting right now are difficult and triggering in an unfamiliar way. The last time I felt remotely similar, I was still at Walden undergoing partial hospitalization treatment for my eating disorder. As days become weeks and weeks coalesce into months, the emotional and psychological demands of the evolving circumstances become increasingly taxing. The acuity and extremity of the stress makes it hard for me to access and utilize the skills that I didn’t realize were becoming lax with disuse. Incorporating elements of mindfulness, dialectical thinking, CBT, and the other tools that I once practiced diligently into my daily life means that I don’t pay as much attention to the focused, attentive, and deliberate training that it required to build those habits. When I am in crisis, I can’t recall how I once managed distress tolerance. When my emotions are roiling out of control, I know that I am in desperate need of emotional regulation, but I don’t remember how to do it.
In addition to the pain that I experience on account of the uncertainty of life, there is the pain of my secondary emotions. I am upset about being upset, and I am frustrated that I am frustrated, and I am angry because I am angry. Such secondary emotions only deepen the darkness and tip me closer to despair. That is one reason why I am grateful for the first annual Kindness Challenge. It couldn’t be more appropriately timed. Just as I feel the light in me flickering unsteadily, here is a choice to pursue a different course. A course of kindness. A choice for life. I hope that, no matter what occurs over the next seven weeks, I can embrace this challenge and nurture that little flicker in my heart.
“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience…And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection. And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body. And be thankful.”
Several days ago, a constellation of circumstances coincided that prodded my little mind to begin agitating like the trusty, top-loading washer that I bought on sale from Sears when I moved into my first “grown up” apartment. One event rotated through my thoughts, then another, and glistening bubbles began to break open on the water’s flat, unassuming surface. Each one was effervescent and shiny, reflecting rainbows of light across a delicate, tense, shifting film of shimmering soap. If I tried to hold onto any slight notion too tightly, it vanished with a soft “pop,” leaving me with nothing but an eye of soapy water. With a slow blink, I gazed again at the rising suds as they coalesced…
Something was stirring… as the tiny ripples of many disparate eventualities effervesced, their distinctive rainbows mingling into radiant beams…
Many weeks ago, my friend, Nel, sent me a small arrangement of flowers. There was a bit of hassle involved in the delivery, due to the conflicting schedules of the florist van driver and me, but in the end, it all worked out. The delivery person left the flowers in the leasing office of the apartment complex where I live, and I picked them up the following day. Of the three women who work as property managers, Lisa was the only one there that day. I explained that the flowers were from a friend back home and read the attached card, “Something beautiful for someone beautiful.”
“Aw, that’s so sweet,” Lisa observed, sentimentally. Then, with a hint of wistfulness, she added, “Nobody ever sends me flowers.” There was a twinge at my heartstrings as she spoke and a single, pizzicato note reverberated into the universe. I really should buy her some flowers, I thought.
That good intention succumbed to the busyness of my routine, the other demands of my life, this errand, and that whim. I was always pressed for time; I always produced some other excuse. I always told myself, Tomorrow, or The next time, or Today just isn’t a good day. Deep down, there was also the fear of how such an overture might be received. What would Lisa think? Would she think that I wanted some favor? Would she think that I was crazy?
Often, I tell myself that I am an obnoxious, irritating, and demanding tenant. I tell myself that the management staff consider me a difficult and unreasonable person. On more than one occasion in the past six years, Lisa and her two colleagues, Cindy and Mara, as well as the very kind and responsive maintenance worker, Hal, were exposed to me hovering at a rather heightened pitch of existence as I attempted to manage rather monumental and prolonged life stressors. At times, my abilities to cope and self-soothe were less-than-ideal. Although at other opportunities, I always paused time to smile and chat, to ask about their days and their weekend plans, or to inquire about their families, my self-portrait resembled a shrill, shrewish woman, unhinged and unbalanced. Would they just think I was trying to make up for being so high-strung and neurotic?
Then, on an unremarkable Tuesday afternoon, I was picking up yet another box (after ordering yet another book). Mara looked like she was coming to the end of a very rough day. Her face was tired and lined, and even though her eyeshadow twinkled and she smiled pleasantly, the slump of her shoulders betrayed the truth behind her cheerful, “Hello!” I remarked on the sunshine outside and the fact that in fifteen minutes she could leave the office behind to drink up the beautiful weather. She sighed, the corners of her mouth turning up a bit, but her shoulders collapsed even more. I remembered my intention to buy flowers for Lisa, and it occurred to me that Mara could probably use some flowers to brighten her day, too.
My compassion for Mara and Lisa might very well have died right there. However, the very next day, another happenstance stirred my too-often shallow, self-absorbed heart. I was perusing a story about living with integrity written by the talented Eli Pacheco on his wonderful Coach Daddy blog. I felt the inspiration to recommit myself to the LIVING of my values, and I told Eli as much in a responding comment. Driving to work, I entertained myself with contemplations of love, compassion, empathy, and wholeheartedness… and within an hour of sitting at my desk, the distractions of the day drove out all of those blissful ideals.
On my lunch break, without reason, but possibly because I was feeling even more weary and depressed than usual, I decided to head home rather than adhere to my usual routine of eating at my desk. It was only because I stepped away from the office that I thumbed my cellphone off of “airplane mode,” and skimmed my WordPress alerts. There was a message from Eli. “I want to know how your day goes!” it read. Weird, I thought. Why would Eli care about my day? It took a solid minute or two of scrolling to remember the post from the morning and to recall its impact on me at 6am. Finally, the soapy water was starting to froth.
At the end of the day, how am I going to leave the world a better place than I found it this morning? I asked myself. I sat with this question all afternoon. As I made my way home, the song playing on the strings of my heart sounded like, “Flowers for Lisa, Cindy, and Mara. Buy flowers. They might need cheering up.” All of my reasons against this course of action percolated under the surface, but I chose to follow the path of vulnerability instead. At the market down the street, I found three small pots of blooms, one yellow, one orange, and one a vibrant purple. Tentatively, I parked the car in front of the leasing office, and precipitously balancing the pots in my petite hands, I stepped over the threshold.
As it turned out, Mara wasn’t the only one who was exhausted and overworked. They were all busy and burdened with the many demands of multiple spring move-ins and move-outs. Mara explained that her son was on mid-semester break, and she was planning to take vacation to spend time at home with him, but given the demands in the office, she didn’t think she would be able to get away. I think it meant something to them that someone took the time to notice them, to ask how they were doing, and to care. The bright flowers were a bright spot in their day, which became a bright spot in my day.
Turning to leave, I couldn’t help but marvel at the chain of happenchance that resulted in a single, shared moment. Isn’t it wonderful, I thought, the effects that can manifest from one, seemingly insignificant act of kindness? In my mind, Nel and Eli deserved equal credit for planting the seeds of compassion and connection that peeked forth a tender, green shoot that afternoon.
Today, I am making an extra effort to smile at every person I pass. Maybe that person will smile at the next person, who will smile at the next person, who will change the life of someone in need.