Saturday, July 05, 2008


About four, maybe five years ago, I started having these niggling half-formed thoughts that wouldn't leave me alone. I've always been interested in theology, sociology, self-help, psychology, personal growth kinds of things, and how they overlap to create or explain the human condition. So having further curiosity in these areas wasn't unexpected exactly. Just sort of, well, I don't know, really. But it felt like the horizons in my head were expanding. Feelings of expansiveness seem usually to lead to greater positivity, desire for good change and increased connectedness.

I don't know how to describe the progression of things in my head. I guess some of these thoughts have gelled over time and others are still in the works. Here's what I've got so far.

Each of us is both a magnificent creation and a total wreck.

Earth shattering conclusion, huh?

Well, about the magnificent creation business. We mostly fail to appreciate our physical beauty and are unbelievably hard on ourselves, often downplaying our best traits, physical or otherwise. Women, I'm speaking most directly to you. Stop it. You're made in the image of God and you're maligning that image. Quit it.

I've been plenty guilty of this myself, and heaven knows, as long as we inhabit this planet there will be plenty of flaws to pick at, but..... Do you see what I just did there? I presented a thought that was kinda revolutionary to many females (though truly, you know you have moments in front of a mirror where you nod and smile and think "not bad, baby"), a notion which has the power to change the way we think and interact, then copped to failing at it myself, then added how imperfect I am. Well, duh! Nobody's perfect, but what standard are you holding yourself to? The one that allows you to dis you so no one will think you're too haughty about your precious self? Seriously. This is a studied phenomenon. Women continually put themselves down in order to seem less threatening to each other.

Say you give your friend a compliment about her fantastic strappy heels and incredible skirt and how nice her legs look in that particular combo. "Oh stop," she says, "I'm so fat." You reply, "Oh no, you're fine. Look at my butt. It's horrible." She replies, "It is not, you should see my belly, arms, breasts, chin, feet, hammertoes." Or say someone shows you a picture of yourself clearly enjoying a moment of fun and relaxation. You look great. You're with your beloveds. Your skin is glowing, your smile is huge, you are obviously comfortable in your own skin and the memories this photo brings back roll over you like warm honey. "Oh look at my thighs," you say, waving the photo away. "I can't stand pictures of myself. I'm so fat."

Somewhere along the line, hearing such things out of the mouths of people has become a literal bitter taste in my mouth. It's a jolt to my psyche. I actually find myself flinching.

Let's imagine that you're walking through a parking lot when you spot a fabulous car. It is shiny, sleek, leather interior, plenty of chrome, all well cared for and clearly enjoyed by the owner, who is just then exiting the vehicle. "Niiiiiiice caaar," you say, nodding appreciatively. "Oh stop," the driver says, head shaking in disgust, "Didn't you see the big dent in the back? I'll never get that out. And the wax job is three whole days old. Don't even get me started on the bugs in the grill. Can't you see this thing is a wreck?"

What would you say? I think I'd be stunned into silence. (No mean feat, that.) I mean, come on. This car is clearly loved, sacrificed for, enjoyed immensely for what it does for it's owner (not just getting from point A to point B, either, this thing is hot) and you're going to stand there and argue with someone who is complimenting you, perhaps a little enviously, on your amazing ride? Are you nuts?

So back to body image.

Are you nuts?

Well, are you? When you see yourself in the mirror are you thinking of all the things you'd like someone to take a knife to? Of how much work you simply must do to your face this morning before allowing it to be seen by anyone else? Are you plotting how to afford the best products, treatments, procedures? Aren't you tired of judging yourself into a hole? Really, really tired?

Martha Beck addresses body image and self-esteem in her column in the June 2008 O magazine. (Go read. I'll wait. Humming...) In the interest of full disclosure, I must share that reading this column in the orthodontist's waiting room is guaranteed to draw unwanted attention from fellow parents of patients. You may appear to be having a mild seizure as you try unsuccessfully to avoid laughing out loud. I'm just saying.

When E was a long and skinny six year-old, she was playing in her room with a friend the same age and of the same body type. You know the ones who frustrate their mothers most by being unable to keep their clothes on their skinny, growing selves? I was walking by when I heard them exclaiming, at length, how fat they were. At six. Where did this come from? At the time, both of these girls watched only sporadic smidges of PBS, a few videos, nothing else, and were both homeschooled. They were engaging in the same social game that they heard their mothers playing with their friends. Only a couple of other times have I felt the same kind of jolt. I think that was likely the place where my aversion to self-insult as sport began. There's nothing like having your small child hold the mirror up for you, is there?

The other thing I've noticed, the second major shift in thinking, also occurring over about the same time period of four to five years, is that I've begun to be open to and recognize the need for (gulp) change within myself. Please don't hit me or throw anything, or breathe too hard in my direction. I am a fledgling creature still drying her wings in this regard. When I say that I've begun to be aware for this need, I should also say that I crave change. In physical location. In politics, in other people's attitudes (though I want my actual people to remain, thank you), in traffic, social policies, the church, menu, routine, et cetera (Latin, "and the rest"). In fact I'm so appreciative of change, I may well have some sort of attention deficit issue. While never being exactly oblivious to my own faults (remember that self-help interest of mine?), it is all too easy to believe the best of one's press and then seek out the folk who perpetuate kind remarks about oneself in order to get confirmation that the dissenter(s) are crazy, but you're perfectly fine. Phew! Near miss, that one.

Increasingly over the last half decade, I've felt something akin to a gentle, persistent tapping on my skull, almost an invitation to view things a little differently. To put some effort into losing some presuppositions, insecurities, and go on to step up my ability to flex in response to outside input. Martha Beck speaks of this change too.

So while I don't know quite how to explain this, I will offer advice on these two topics anyway. Nervy, I know. I'm a firstborn, so, um, this quality will probably stick around. I'm working on tempering it so people can receive my excitement as excitement instead of as me trying to hammer them into doing what I want or else (a thought which horrifies me). Perhaps it would help to think of this as a pep talk.

First, no more of this false self-deprecation. It's wastes your time. Own your gorgeous self, flaunt confidently and kindly the preciousness with which your Creator endowed you. I remember hearing someone describe her legs, negatively, as tree trunks. Well, let's see. If you must persist in such comparisons, let's think about trees. I never saw a poem lovely as a tree... They give themselves over to holding up and constructing amazing things for us: bridges, homes, even tree houses for children's play. Do these structures remind you of anything? There's endless metaphor available for strength in relationships.

When addressing your body, do you curse it for what it can't do for you while ignoring the places it takes you, the loveliness you experience (erm) through it? Those bundles of nerves, the ability to see (appreciate), taste (slurp), touch (caress), smell (revel), hear (lose oneself in) any number of sensory and sensual experiences. Man, how can you not love your physical self for the fundamental ability to function and thereby bring delight? Those legs carry you to your next sensory feast, they draw you nearer to your lover, they let you dance with your punkins, they change your proximity to locations of work, worship, rest, healing.

This negative behavior is disingenuous at best, creepy at worst. It is insecurity hoping for flattery, which translates into a lie. Besides, men really don't like this. They can't understand what's wrong with you, acting like you don't believe you're beautiful even when they and a few hundred other people clearly disagree. This seems to them like manipulation. And most of the time, they're right. Interestingly, manipulation is the dark side of the ability to empathize. Embrace it long enough and it will become paranoia, rendering you unable to revel in those intimate moments.

While you're busy releasing your attitudes of self-flagellation, think also about letting go of how hard you are on yourself for not "having it all together." Again, stop it. Life is messy. So what? Physical chaos is all plenty fixable. It does not, however, have to be placed neatly back inside it's labeled, allotted square of tape right this second, especially if doing so requires alienating people. (People first, animals second, stuff last. Do it kindly or not at all.) As a certain someone used to say when I was exasperated with the mess that comes with little ones, "It's okay. They'll grow. It will change. Give it time." Guess what? He was right.

Without messes, we couldn't make or birth babies. Without messes, we would have no art of any kind. Imagine how much less useful medicine would be today without the first ever, hideously bloody autopsies. Mind you, progress was made, thank God, so med students now do their work in a clean, orderly environment with no blood involved, per se. In art, the revisions that are messy are cleaned away with only the final version to refer to, in it's shiny glory. Messes surrounding babies, which seem somehow far less objectionable than any other, also get cleaned up.

Grown-ups can get cleaned up too. Which brings me back to the tapping on my head. It's sort of a still, small voice thing, I guess. I found myself listening and hearing things differently through campmeeting, the tapping getting a little louder. I picked up a book on marriage at Costco a couple of weeks ago, wondering what on earth for, while feeling like I really had to get the book, with no good reason anywhere in sight. I skimmed the book, thinking as I started that this was crazy, not applicable to me. I mean, I don't seem to have anyone to apply newly learned skills to in a marriage, do I? (Nor do I have any desire to go looking for someone else.) And still with the pushy little sort of nameless thing requiring something more of me. Over a few months, I've been able to pay more attention to the ideas rising in my consciousness like cream on milk. It amounts to this: a growing desire to change.


Not the things like how I squeeze the toothpaste. Though perhaps that should be on the list too...

No. I think this is about being able to step back, view oneself with some sort of outsider's criticism and empathy (an important combination), then take the new knowledge, turn it into understanding, and assimilate it. This is new, so I don't know if I'm working on say, rough edges, a fundamental way of dealing with folks, my world view, or my personal preferences. I'm just beginning to understand that this emerging awareness of the last several years is taking me into new territory, so I don't even know what to call the territory, much less how to negotiate it. The best clue so far has been the words that keep coming with the tapping: Grace, meekness, loving-kindness, gentleness, humility, self-control.

Perhaps our next memory work for school will be the fruits of the Spirit: "But what happens when we live God's way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely." --Galatians 5:22, 23 The Message

This feels bigger than self-discovery, because that pretty much seems to result in further navel-gazing. This road seems to be headed toward the integration of "things," for lack of a more concise term. General possibilities seem to be increasing, rather than dwindling. I'm feeling less and less locked into old patterns, more and more drawn into a willingness to see things as if I'd been drawing upside down.

I'm sharing this here because these two subjects plus a few other fringe ideas (I'll save those for later), persistent hangers-on that they are, now refuse to be ignored. I'm rather surprised, constantly, by the things unfolding as a result of this. It's a little like volunteering to have one's skin peeled off in order to become a new creation, Eustace-like. Writing it now, it seems a little overblown and yet it's impossible to overstate just how enormous these matters are to me, and possibly to you.

Disclaimers: When embarking on something of this scale, it is important to remember that there are people out there who enjoy seeing others on their faces in the dirt. Don't go on a quest for change and invite people who self-soothe with vitriol to push you down. Speak with people who are capable of great kindness, whom you trust to strive within their own experience, and request their support.

About self-care. Be clean, tidy, cute, polished, accessorized, (appropriately) sexy. Go work out, make yourself strong, and have a huge glass of water a few times a day. Enjoy some really nice lotion or a sugar scrub. Read. Sleep. (Hahahaha. Oh. Sorry.) Get a massage and/or a nice pedicure when and if you can afford it, or ask your beloved to help. This opens up all sorts of other possibilities (grins). Glory in those things, experiencing fully the sensation involved -- skin, smell, textures. Mmmmm. Then move on, letting your old negatively looping internal soundtrack seep out your pores, slipping down the drain next time you hit the shower.

If you're looking around right now feeling like your environment will never allow you to effectively measure up, consider what effort you're putting into maintaining that dynamic. Do this before you make any other changes. Unless you're at risk because of someone else's unrepentant violent tendencies (in which case, leave now, then get help) look first into the quiet places inside yourself. Check to make sure that you haven't allowed them to become mosquito breeding pools, replacing clear, refreshing thought patterns and behaviors with crud that will keep you too stung to grow. Chances are good that if you approach the people in your "group" with a desire to change things for the better, they'll be glad to help. Enlist a counselor to maximize the benefits from your efforts.

Also, when one goes about beginning to be able to pray, "Change me, Lord," and mean it, one often seems to miss the mark. Bear with me, if you can. Mind the wet feathers. Thank you. (Backing quietly into my nest.....)



annie said...

I think your feathers are more than a little dry already.
meditation/yoga/prayer/quiet/centering are some other helpful accessories!

i enjoyed your post.
don't be shy!

C said...

Thanks, annie. It's nice to "see" you. :o) I appreciate your input.