“Be humble towards God and gentle with your neighbor. Judge and accuse no one but yourself, and ever excuse others. Speak of God always to praise and glorify Him, speak of your neighbor only with respect – do not speak of yourself at all, either well or ill.”
~ St. Margaret Mary Alacoque
Did you know that the origin of the word “humility” comes from the Latin word for earth? As in dirt. Ground. Humilis… humilitas… to be close to the ground. To know one’s place. To be firmly rooted in a reality of self. In preparation for a blog post that I was intending to write, I stumbled upon the above quote by St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, the patroness of my childhood parish. After reading her words, I abandoned my mental outlines. Do I know the truth about my weaknesses and appreciate the source and limitations of my strengths? Do I possess a healthy understanding of my nothingness? Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It would seem that those questions are better meditated upon in private. Thus, instead of my typical soul-searching post, I leave you to reflect on her advice for yourself. Before I go, so that we all might have a little something to smile about today, here is one final pearl of wisdom.
“Humility is like underwear; essential, but indecent if it shows.”
One afternoon, about a year ago, my division chief at the time popped into my office for a spontaneous chat. Michael was an unusual character and the only person to ever directly ask me what it was like to experience life with an eating disorder. Such baldness was fairly typical of his manner, and our little dialogues often diverged down rather unconventional paths. On this particular day, he was specifically interested in discerning my degree of spontaneity. Why? Your guess would be as good as mine, but apparently, it was a personality facet that was of explicit interest to him.
“Hi!” Michael announced in that stark and sudden way that always caught me slightly off guard. He seemed to appear in my office from an empty void of hallway outside. I smiled, assured him that he wasn’t interrupting anything important, and waited to discover what exactly it was that he wanted. “If I asked you to go camping this weekend, would you say yes?” he asked, without prelude.
“Ummmm… Nooo,” I replied, drawing out the vowels of my response with an inflection that was intended to convey just how entirely inappropriate I considered his question. “What the hell?” I thought.
“Why not?” he persisted, taking a seat across from my desk.
Staring at him with incredulity, I blinked, wondering which of the 3,000 reasons coming unbidden to my mind would be best to verbalize first. “Well, to begin, I hate camping,” I started. Why Michael continued in the mistaken belief that I was some sort of hiking, canoeing, snowshoeing, campfire cooking, outdoorsy, person, I could not understand. Multiple attempts to impress upon him my strong attachment to electricity, hot water, flush toilets, and soft bedding repeatedly fell on deaf ears. “In any case,” I continued, “you’re my boss.” Working under Michael’s supervision was one matter. Though some of his leadership decisions were a bit questionable, and his personality was a bit eccentric, he was an engaged and responsible chief. However, he was difficult to read, and he was not someone I would ever want to encounter outside of the workplace in a social atmosphere.
By his direct but indirect way of approaching a topic, he had yet to hint that the ulterior motive behind his wildly irregular query was one of determining just how adventurous I might be. “Well, you like to travel. What if I asked you to take a trip with me?” he asked. “What if I told you that the trip was all planned, tickets purchased, hotel reserved… would you go to, say Atlanta, with me this weekend?”
“No!” I exclaimed, quite scandalized. At that moment, I desired nothing more strongly than for him to depart my office immediately.
What did my face look like as I spat out my response? He seemed to finally catch onto my consternation, and he finally explained himself. “Ok,” I thought. “Weird, but ok.I’ll play along.” He rephrased his question, inquiring whether I would jet off with a friend under the same circumstances. “If it was someone I knew well,” I mused, “someone that I trusted, maybe someone I traveled with before, then yes, I think I might. It would need to be a very good friend though – someone who knew all my idiosyncrasies and whose idiosyncrasies were known to me. Then, I would truly trust her if she told me that all the details were already worked out.”
Even from Michael, I didn’t expect what came next. “Idiosyncrasies?” he asked. “What do you mean?”
A real friend doesn’t judge you when she finds you sitting in the sink.
My puzzlement and amazement deepened. “What do you mean, ‘What do you mean?’” I countered redundantly. “My idiosyncrasies. You know, like my little personality quirks.” His expression was one of bewildered bemusement. “You know, like…” I racked my brain… “I prefer to shower at night, and I prefer to wake up early and go to sleep early. I don’t drink alcohol or soda, and I don’t like babies, or Mexican food, or most dogs. I really can’t stand cigarette smoke, and I go to church every Sunday, even when I’m traveling.” When put on the spot, it was difficult to quickly summon a list of idiosyncrasies that were appropriate for sharing with one’s boss. I certainly was not prepared to divulge any stories that might exemplify my more hard-to-tolerate eccentricities. My trustworthy travel companions were the people with whom I forged those tales. They understood me enough to never speak of eyeballs in my presence, they didn’t care what I looked like without makeup, and they didn’t mind if my feet smelled or if I snored when I was extra-congested. For my part, I didn’t particularly care what they looked like without makeup, either, or if their feet smelled, if they snored, or if they stole all the blankets when we bunked together in a room with only one queen. I didn’t mind if they wore socks with their Sperry’s, or if they washed their clothes in the bathroom sink of the hotel, or if they always burned the microwave popcorn.
Michael scrutinized me briefly before responding. “Oh. I suppose I never thought about that sort of thing,” he intoned. He tipped his head to one side, thoughtfully. “I would have to say that I don’t have any idiosyncrasies.” I nodded and smiled politely. I was pretty sure that I could help him identify one or two. He slapped his hands on his knees jovially and pushed off of the chair. “Well, have a great afternoon!” he bade me, vanishing from my doorway as cryptically as he appeared.
Blinking, I watched him disappear. As perplexed as I was by the exchange that just concluded, our conversation was directing my thoughts along a different tangent. Recalling numberless road trips, beach trips, Euro trips, and couch surfing expeditions spanning decades, I found myself swimming in delightful memories. I wasn’t recollecting perfect experiences, however. I cringed at reminiscences of my own foibles, and I smiled warmly at the patient tolerance of my friends. I grinned at their own unique peculiarities, and I laughed as I reflected on all the crazy, weird ways that the stress of the unexpected could manifest when our coping skills inevitably slipped. How blessed was I to be able to treasure those moments? How much did my life overflow with abundance to be loved and accepted by these trusted few and to be able to love and accept them in return?
“See everything; overlook a great deal; correct little.”
~ Saint Pope John XXIII
When my plane lifts off for Paris on May 19th, there will be no one waiting to meet me on the other side of the ocean. I frequently travel by myself for work purposes, sometimes living out of hotels for up to a month at a time, but my upcoming trip to France will be my first solo vacation. To claim that I don’t worry a bit about being lonely is a lie. What will it be like to stay in a foreign country par moi-même for seven whole days? I’m not sure. My nearest comparison was a two-day side-trip to München during a two-week sojourn in Germany, and I was very glad to return to Helene’s apartment in Stuttgart at the end of those 48 hours. Despite living on my own for over a decade, an underlying predisposition in my personality toward loneliness, isolation, self-pity, and melancholy tends to assert itself if I allow that to sprout and take root. If. The thing is, I am never alone. Wherever I go, I am known, and I am loved. With me, I carry all of the people I treasure in my heart. Inside of me, I contain every occasion we shared, great or small, exceptional or mundane. Deep down, in my center, there is a little nugget of God. Even when my vision is blurred by the sticky mire of loneliness, all it takes is a twinkle of grace to penetrate the muck of my soul, give my heart a bit of a polish, and remind me, once more, of all my beautiful connectedness and of the all-loving God who is holding me in his hand.
“To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.”
“The One that rules over men in justice / Is like the morning light at sunrise / on a cloudless morning, / making the greensward sparkle after rain.”
~ cf. 2 Sm 23:3-4
“Every morning we arise afresh in Christ our light. Ancient Christian writers warn against ‘morning demons’: yesterday’s worries and grievances returning to poison the new day.”
~ October 31, 2016: Prayer for Morning,Magnificat
I know morning demons well! I confront them in the mirror every day at 5:30am as I wash my face, blow out my hair, and apply my makeup. It always frustrates me that during those 20-30 minutes, I am invariably flooded with preoccupations about all the worrisome and troubling thoughts that are crying for my attention. They rush upon me all at once. It seems that one anxiety-provoking notion recruits another and another in an escalating spiral. In like fashion, one bitter and resentful animosity about some conflict at work, some perceived injustice, an invalidating experience, or some other occasion for ire stirs up memories of all manner of past injuries and offenses. My emotions run away with me, and I am left in a conflicted and tense state, vexed by my inability to self-regulate and by my failure to think dialectically, objectively, and compassionately.
Once a month, I receive a small devotional booklet in the mail called Magnificat. All month long, I tote the little collection of passages and reflections around with me, just in case I manage to create the time and silence necessary for a brief meditation. On this last day of the month, the pages are now very tattered. Opening them to read the words of this morning and realizing that the struggle against these “morning demons” is (and always has been, and always will be) a part of the universal human condition reminds me why making space for quiet contemplation is worth the effort. I am not uniquely broken, and I am not alone.
Wishing you all a beautiful, blessed week and month ahead.
“I am not absent-minded. It is the presence of the mind that makes me unaware of everything else.”
~ G.K. Chesterton
In my imagination, there is an ideal of what it would mean to be perfectly mindful. There is a notion, a concept, of always being in the present – fully aware of what is going on around me, fully conscious, awake, and attentive to my external environment and my internal thoughts and emotions. My therapist tries to tell me that to be always mindful would not be mindful, but that makes little sense to me. As I gradually make my way through my book on mindful self-compassion, I draw encouragement from learning that the moment we become aware that we are not being mindful, we become mindful. (I know that I’ve been writing about this same book for months. I’m a slow reader, okay! It also doesn’t help that I jump from one book to another, then onto a third, then back to the first).
One afternoon, last weekend, I set out for an autumn bike ride along the paved trails near my house.
The fall is one of my favorite seasons, and it always stirs up some very strong memories and emotions. They swirl together fluidly, making it impossible to follow a linear ribbon of thought or recollection. Light and dark, faces and names, places and ideas, happiness, joy, gratitude, nostalgia, pain, loss, guilt, delight, sorrow, shame, laughter, tears… they all mix together like so many disparate ingredients poured into one giant bowl. Flour, sugar, eggs, and milk form a smooth batter, never to be constituent parts again, but richer for their joining.
My mind was fluttering with activity as I pedaled along the tree-lined paths, legs pumping, lungs heaving, and heart nearly bursting with all the glory of that autumn afternoon. When I returned to my apartment, I was in danger of falling into self-criticism for being so mindless. Though I did notice the sparkling rays of the setting sun, the fresh current of the air, and the smell of damp earth, I could not deny that I was largely preoccupied during my ride. As I stretched my sore quads, I turned on the television to a biopic of G.K. Chesterton. Not knowing much about this British author, I continued to watch, and I found myself presented with the above quote. It gave me pause for deeper consideration.
Perhaps there is more to this practice of mindfulness than I am allowing.
Yesterday, I did something really stupid and careless.
I hit a parked car.
The story itself is rather unremarkable… in retrospect. It is not an experience I am eager to repeat, but at the same time, I am bizarrely grateful that it happened.
It was 10 minutes to 4 o’clock, and I was scooting out of work a bit early. The parking lot was still full of neatly aligned vehicles, and I was a bit pleased as punch that I was going to beat the mad rush of traffic that would soon be backing up on the little, two-lane road. My car was at the end of a row that faced uphill, so when I started backing out of my spot, I allowed gravity to do the work for me. I slowly rolled backward, lazily turning the steering wheel while gazing absent-mindedly in my side-view mirror.
There was no jolt, no thump, no shudder. The tiny collision almost escaped my notice entirely. But, it was a beautiful autumn day, and my windows were rolled all the way down. At the same time that my foot pressed the break to shift into drive, the faint sound of metal scraping metal assailed my ears. “Did I just hit that car?” I wondered, scrutinizing the ancient, long Cadillac that jutted into the aisle behind me. The Caddy looked like it was from 1970 and was probably built like a tank. I was more worried about damage to my car if I did, indeed, bump it. “What do I do?” flashed through my mind. For a fraction of an instant, I considered driving away and feigning complete ignorance of what just occurred, but my anxiety and my need-to-know seized me. I jumped out to hastily glance at my bumper. “Looks good!” I quickly concluded. For another nanosecond, I told myself that I ought to walk over to examine the other car, but then I rationalized, “That car is way sturdier than mine, and if mine’s ok, the other car must be ok, too. Anyway, looks good from here!” I shot a brief squint over my shoulder as I climbed back behind the wheel.
As I zoomed away, I was wracked with doubt. “It’s fine,” I tried to tell myself. “This stuff happens all the time.” I recollected the time someone doored my car in the very same parking lot, putting a giant dent in my side panel that cost $200 to repair. Maybe little dings and scrapes did happen all the time, but that didn’t make it right. “I should have left a note.” I considered trying to track down the owner of the car when I returned to work the next day. As I continued along my route, I started mentally composing the note I should have written. “Well, if I am ever in a similar situation again, I will act differently,” I decided.
When I arrived home, I inspected my rear bumper more closely. There was no dent, but the paint was most definitely cracked. So… I hit with enough force to crack the paint. “Did I just commit a crime?” I wondered. “Was that a hit and run?” My wild imagination began concocting scenarios involving parking lot security cameras, police investigations, and serious consequences. My anxiety skyrocketed. “Well, this isn’t the afternoon that I planned,” I assented. I didn’t know what would happen next, if my victim was even still at work, but I knew that I needed to go back. I needed to at least try to set it right.
Fortunately, the drive lasted all of twelve minutes, even despite the traffic. Double fortunately, the Caddy was precisely where I left it. There was no sign of scratch, scrape, dent, nor ding. I fished a blank index card out of my work bag and scribbled a slightly hedging but very apologetic note. “I think I bumped the front of your car as I was backing out of my parking spot today. It cracked the paint on my rear bumper, but I didn’t see any damage to your front bumper. If you notice anything, though, please call me. I am sosorry!!” I neatly printed my phone number at the bottom and signed my name. Still shaken, I walked back into the office. Most of my co-workers were gone, but my friend Patrick was still there. “I thought you went home,” he declared, surprised to see me.
“I did,” I stated bluntly. “I came back.”
“Ohhh,” he nodded in a knowing way, indicating he could tell that something was clearly out of sorts. I unfolded the whole story of my little accident, my flight from the scene, and my ultimate return to take responsibility for my mistake. He nodded again.
“I’ve written notes like that before,” he admitted.
I was astounded. “You have?!” I asked, my voice peaking. Then, he shared his story with me. Bad weather, icy roads, and a hurry to get to a class, followed by the comically slow slide into a stranger’s car, the definitive “dink” of metal tapping metal, and the dawning realization of what just transpired.
“The owner never called,” he told me. “Maybe this person will never call you either.”
“Maybe he will call and say, ‘My car is ok, but thank you so much for your very nice and honest note,’” I suggested, wishfully. It felt good to know that I did the right thing, in the end. It also felt good to know that I wasn’t alone in perpetrating careless blunders.
Why am I grateful that I hit a parked car? I believe that God is at work in all the moments of our lives. As I reflect on this accident, I am contemplating how it is helpful for me to let go of my expectations in order to recognize and accept the graces that God wants to give me. God’s gifts to me may not fit into my limited construct and narrow definition of a blessing.
Maybe I needed a little reminder of my human limitations and my great capacity to err. Maybe it was time for a little exercise in humility. Maybe I was in want of a fear-inducing challenge to my values so that I could face down that fear to grow in the courage of owning up to my mistakes and accepting the consequences of my actions. Of all the dumb, careless, or misguided things I could do, backing into a parked car at 2mph was a relatively harmless gaffe upon which to build my humble mistake-owning.
In the end, yesterday afternoon was a reminder that we are all vulnerable to chance snafus. It happens to me, it happens to Patrick, and it happens to everyone else. When I make mistakes, I face a choice. I can either keep all of my slip-ups and faults to myself, attempting to portray a perfect image to the outside world, keeping everyone else at arm’s length… or I can admit the truth about who I am – all the silly, crazy, weird, flawed, and dysfunctional parts of me – and be my authentic self.
P.S. As I am pressing “Publish,” I am feeling the melting sensations of shame and the gripping of fear, mainly stemming from the fact that I ran away at first. I am still imagining police officers knocking on my door. There’s absolutely no excuse for my initial reaction. However, hopefully others can summon some compassion in their hearts for my genuine remorse, with the recognition that we all do idiotic things from time to time. Especially when we are afraid.
“The antidote to fear is gratitude. The antidote to anger is gratitude. You can’t feel fear or anger while feeling gratitude at the same time.”
“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.
Four months later, I am finally writing my reflection on the seventh and final week of the Kindness Challenge. I am calling it my “kind of” conclusion, because my aim is to continue the daily challenge of being as kind, loving, and forgiving as I possibly can be… and accepting that I will encounter times when I both succeed and fall short.
When I began the challenge, I was frayed, distracted, and feeling dashed on the rocks of the stormy sea of life. I was longing for shelter from the pounding waves, and the challenge provided structure, short-term goals, and a wholehearted purpose at a time when wholeheartedness seemed distant and impossible. Participating in the challenge reminded me that in order to share love with others, I first needed to treat myself with gentleness and self-compassion. How could I expect myself to meet others “wherever they were,” giving them the benefit of the doubt, and acting kindly regardless of how they might treat me or respond, if I could not approach myself in the same manner, understanding myself as an imperfect person trying my best?
During the challenge, I was invited deeper into mindfulness and into the connections between all of us here in this living, breathing world. I was frequently confronted with the greatest commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength,” and, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:30 and 31)
It seems that breaking out of my inward focus and my self-protective shell and loving God in the guise of my neighbor, brazenly and fearlessly, with my whole heart, will always be one of the most difficult things I do. Where love is, then pain, disappointment, and rejection inevitably follow. Not always, but sometimes. This loving is a risky business. Yet, I know that it is possible, and through this challenge, I am encouraged to continue working on it each day.
Many thanks to Niki for hosting the Kindness Challenge. For those of you who aren’t familiar with her blog, I highly encourage you to go check it out, here. She is constantly updating with new content, and it is never too late to participate in the challenge!
According to science, true perpetual motion is not possible. Those physicists at MIT never met me…
When I was in college, I was in awe of my friends who could sit in near cataplexy for hours upon hours, deep in focused concentration, with towers of books, sheaves of paper, assortments of pencils, pens, and colorful highlighters, and discarded coffee cups piled about them. There were a multitude of cozy, quiet, beautiful little nooks and crannies across our centuries-old campus where a person could nestle away for days of endless study. Yet, within an hour or so of burrowing down into the catacombs of the library stacks or snuggling up beside the massive fireplace in the periodicals room, a stirring would begin to creep through my body. It declared to me, “You’re a failure, you can’t hack it, you’re not as good as the rest, and there is clearly and obviously something abnormal about you, because you can’t sit still for two bloody hours! For crying out loud! GET BACK TO WORK!”
As the clock on the wall continued its tortuous march, the thoughts in my head continued their annoying chatter, filling my mind with fantasies of restroom breaks, the weather, chocolate covered pretzels from the lobby shop in the student center, friends from home, shopping, movies that I loved, movies that I wanted to see, the parties that I wasn’t attending and the life that I wasn’t living while I was slaving over my textbooks day after day, all of my shortcomings and failures, the birds outside the window, my next vacation, anxieties about the future, regrets about the past, curiosities about what every person I knew was doing at that very moment, coupled with assumptions that they were all thriving, self-criticism of my sloppy appearance in my standard study-garb of t-shirt and sweatpants… This cyclic, often distorted stream of consciousness was accompanied by a twitchy, restless energy. There was a kinetic force that just wanted to be released. “Make it go away!” was the subconscious message I sent myself, though my executive center screamed, “Everyone else is working hard! What is wrong with you? Why can’t you sit still?!” (Self-compassion was never one of my strengths.)
If you knew Alice or Margie, you could ask them what it was like to live with me during final exam week. When there was no other outlet for that nervous, impatient, distressing dynamism that flooded my body and irritated my brain, I took up the habit of pacing the countertop of our kitchen peninsula. Sometimes, I stood on tables while I recited biochemical reactions from memory or they quizzed me from my flashcards of Latin declensions. Food offered a release, a distraction, an escape, and a comfort. Everyone needed to eat. I awaited mealtimes with apprehensive eagerness, because they provided a legitimized reason to leave my desk for an hour or so. Self-soothing and escaping difficult emotions by eating when I was not hungry or over-eating were maladaptive coping skills that I already carried with me from my earliest childhood.
A few weeks ago, I was tucked into a corner of my therapist’s couch, recounting a more recent experience of that same intense urgency, which arose during a stressful and busy time at work. When my therapist asked me to describe what I meant, I was ready with a catalog of adjectives. Skittery, jittery, tense, and intense. Fluttery, high-strung, and hyperactive. Agitated, frenzied, and disquieted. Discombobulated. She asked me if this state was always necessarily negative, and her question left me confused. Clearly, I was not using my words effectually. Of course it was negative! When I was caught up in this crazy spiral, I felt like my heart might explode, like electricity was running through my body, like I was literally a live-wire. It was confusing, disorienting, uncomfortable, and distressing, and the result was that I became inefficient and ineffective. All I could think about was making it stop and turning it off. Without binging, there was no physical release. I was left to tolerate the intolerable with coping skills like deep breathing, which felt like whispering into a tornado.
My therapist pressed a bit further, challenging my negative associations. Where did I learn that feeling hyperactive, confused, disoriented, and electric were bad? Could those same adjectives also describe excitement? What about exuberance, joy, enthusiasm, andpositive energy? Then, she suggested something else that I wasn’t ready to hear. What if I was born with a more restless temperament? What if I simply wasn’t created to sit still for eight or ten hours at a stretch? After decades of comparing myself to others, could I accept myself as I was? What if the fact that I was not the sort to sit still and quiet for very long didn’t mean that I was broken, or a failure, or dysfunctional, or bad, or deficient, or weak-willed?
Oh, to know peace and rest in my body and my mind! To simply stop moving and thinking! How I yearn for such stasis! To be able to pass an afternoon with reading, meditation, writing, drawing, or painting seems like it would be bliss, but within fifteen minutes (sometimes more, sometimes less) of sitting down, I am up again. Maybe my rejection of my restlessness and my easy distractibility is what amplifies the intolerability of the urge to move. I attempt to fix the “problem” by eliminating every possible distraction before I try to find my calm, but the chores never end, and the to-do list only grows longer.
We spoke about ways that I might find more of a forgiving cadence in my day by building in more frequent, shorter breaks, interspersed with shorter periods of work. Perhaps the combination of quietness and movement is what I need, finding a rhythmic flow between work and restorative reflection. My current patterns will be hard to break, but I am hopeful, because I see the potential for more peace and less burnout. With repeated effort, this could be another step toward relaxing my rigid standards and reducing my self-criticism. Perhaps one of the reasons I enjoy yoga so much is the unity of movement and stillness. Now, if I could only bring my practice off of the mat and into my life.
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.