I never thought of myself as what you might call a “tortured soul.”
As a child, I lived a rather boring, ordinary life. My parents were (for the most part) very happy. The worst you could say about me, if you could say something, was that I was far too competitive (incidentally, things often came easily to me and I was encouraged at whatever I did, which may have been related). And so it was that I was a good student, an accomplished musician, and dedicated athlete. I didn’t get into much trouble, either. I was pretty much a model kiddo.
Except the fact that, no matter how much I succeeded, I always had this nagging sense that, deep down, if folks really knew who I really was, they wouldn’t like me all that much. Strip away my “doing” self, and I figured that what was left would send the people whose affirmation I most craved packing. I don’t know where that feeling came from, but it was there, from very early, convincing me that my only value was attached to what I could do. Whispering that the love of my family and friends was in some sense conditional.
When you think that way, it can lead you down some pretty strange roads. You can convince yourself to make all sorts of compromises. You can tell yourself that the only way to survive is to abandon yourself. And you can convince yourself that denying yourself is normal, that it is healthy, even. You can find these messages everywhere– in pop culture, in religion, and often in the way that families talk about (or don’t talk about) success.
And so early on I set to work contorting myself into a shape I thought people wanted me to be. A shape that appeared pleasing. Competent. Good. Sure, I was loud, even bossy sometimes, but almost always in the service of “acceptable” (let the reader understand: culturally approved) goals.
But every time I did dare to be loud, or silly, or “too much,” I knew I would spend the next 24 hours second-guessing every choice I had made. No matter how many groups and activities I added to my resume, the suspicion would linger– is it enough? Will they love me?
My sister would probably tell you that there were times when I was completely insufferable growing up, and she is almost certainly right. I was insufferable. But I was also suffering. I spent so much time trying to be what I thought the world wanted me to be that I ended up neglecting to ask the critical question: what do you really want?
Things got bad enough that at one point I started engaging in harmful behaviors, all in the service of the story I was telling myself that the world would only love me if I appeared a certain way. I struggled with safe boundaries because I was afraid that if I said no, I would be abandoned by those I most wanted to accept me. I kept myself from drawing too far outside the lines, because I had been told exactly what the picture was meant to look like.
What a perfect life, right? Doesn’t it sound wonderful? The worst part of all this is that I did this to myself. My little soul convinced herself somewhere along the way that this was the best it was going to get. That I better settle down for a lifetime of this way of life, and learn to enjoy it.
My biggest rebellion, in fact, if you could call it that, was becoming a pastor. Church was a place where I saw a future for myself, a glimpse of something real, even thought I don’t think I understood that fully at the time. Church was also a place that was mine–I chose it, and when the rest of my family moved on, I held fast to it and ultimately gave my life in service to Christ because I believed in the fellowship and community made possible inside its walls. And while I still believe with all my heart that the church is capable of great things when it holds fast to Jesus, I have learned to be skeptical of those who claim to have figured it all out.
I wish I could sit my young self down and tell her exactly how Beloved she was in the eyes of G-d. That there was not a hair on her head that G-d herself didn’t know and cherish. That yes, childhood can be brutal, that the desire to be a part of something can eat you alive, but that she would find her people, eventually. That there would be a community of broken-hearted people who could handle her dumb, silly antics, and even love her for them.
It took a long time to start believing in myself instead of my accomplishments. To start letting go of the compulsion to hide behind what I could do and instead embrace who I am. I am still learning this–every day is a lesson, an opportunity to start over again.
One partner in my current reflections is the book of Ecclesiastes. It has been on my mind this week as I have pondered the excellent ministry of biblical storytelling that some of my people shared last week at the Network of Biblical Storytellers conference. And one of the themes of Ecclesiastes is the question of meaning. The author struggles to find a purpose “under the sun,” and one thing that frustrates them most is the recognition that no matter what you do (or don’t), or what you have (or don’t), how smart or dull you are, how known or invisible, your fate is the same:
This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: The same destiny overtakes all….
So go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lotin life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.Ecclesiastes 9:3, 7-10
For me, for now, I hear this as a call to let go of all the bullshit that has held me down for so long. To give myself permission to stop wasting my life worrying about what people will think about me, and to instead embrace the journey and the gift of life itself. We waste so much precious time worrying about making the one, right choice…but what if there are no right choices? What if there are only pathways forward, not a single one of them perfect, all of them choked through with possibility?
At least, that is what I tell myself today. Who knows what tomorrow might bring?
May you carry light within you, friends.