Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you.
You must travel it by yourself.
It is not far. It is within reach.
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know.
Perhaps it is everywhere - on water and land.
― Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
When I was in first or second grade, my first TV set was black and white with rotary dials and an antenna. No buttons, no remote, no cable TV. My childhood clothes often came from Family Dollar, Dollar General (where my mom worked), Goodwill, or on special occasions, Walmart. My first name brand pair of shoes were FILA (which, by the way, is an insanely popular brand here in South Korea). I remember thinking brands like Old Navy, JNCO, GAP, or any novelty item purchased at Spencer’s or later (the forbidden) Hot Topic gave a kid instant notoriety. Even in elementary school, I remember feeling deep sense of being different, long before I became aware of other ways in which my life and experience did not mirror those of my peers.
In high school, after finally convincing Nanny that I needed those JNCOs to survive, I remember rocking them like there was no tomorrow. Until it became tomorrow and I had to wear another pair of jeans because that one pair of JNCOs was so conspicuous, I wasn’t allowed to wear them every day. So on the off days when I went back to my Faded Glory’s or whatever other off-brand clothing I had. I went back to what felt like a regular sense of “I wish.” And that’s what it was: a wish, a very big wish.
Just to be clear, this is not a critique of my mother or grandmother. This is not a “You wouldn’t buy me what every other kid my age had, so I became the topic of ridicule and bullying.” To be very clear, my mom and grandmother were two amazing women doing the best they could with that they had. They took care of me insanely well, and I feel nothing but gratitude for the ways in which they provided for me. What this story represents is one of many examples of how, very early in life, I learned to compare myself to others. First, it was their possessions: what did they have that I didn’t, or more dangerous, what did they have that I wanted? Later it was deeper: what do they have in their personalities, in their characters, or more tangibly, in their bodies, that I don’t have. What am I lacking? What am I missing? What’s keeping me from being whole?
There's no such thing as complete when it comes to stories.
Stories are infinite. They are as infinite as worlds.
― Kelly Barnhill, Iron Hearted Violet
One of the first aspects of my Enneagram type I studied was my vice. Want to guess what it was? Yep. Envy. As a Four, it’s insanely easy for me to get trapped in this mental and emotional cycle of feeling different, outcast, unwelcomed, or unbelonging. That cycle is nearly always cemented in some internal idea that my lack (more ontological than material) makes me so different from everyone around me, and because of those differences, because of that lack, I’m somehow less worthy of love. I would learn later that every Enneagram type has a similar mental message that manifests itself differently. We all have something we think we need to do or be in order to be worthy or deserving of love, and because of this, we all have some coping mechanism or skill we develop to make ourselves feel safe and protected.
Some types thrive and are motivated by perfection, by following the rules. Some want to feel needed or helpful. Some want to appear successful to those around them. Some think that knowing things will keep them safe. Some look for all the possible outcomes and cling to that which feels safe. Some try to stay busy. Some try to always be in charge. And some try to keep the peace and maintain balance and harmony in their environments. Personally, I often try to exaggerate the ways in which I’m unique or special in order to earn love and acceptance. But the way in which I do this is pretty counterproductive. You’d think I’d always put myself on display, pointing to my awesomeness, my creativity, my uniqueness. Instead, I often withdraw to test those around me and see who will come chasing after me, to see who will notice that I’m gone. Newsflash: this is NOT the best way of coping with already feeling outcast, alone, isolated, or otherwise different. It’s actually a really effective way to feel all those things even more intensely.
It is the story that matters not just the ending.
― Paul Lockhart
Skip forward to now. It’s been five years since I graduated from seminary and four years since I completed my pastoral care residency (CPE). In that time, I’ve gotten divorced, stopped and started smoking more than once, lost two jobs (entirely of mistakes I made but at the time refused to acknowledge), racked up several thousand dollars in credit card debt, and left the country to go do something insane (albeit insanely rewarding). Despite the number of times friends have remarked on my bravery and courage, my tenacity and resilience, it’s all too easy for me to witness my friends’ lives with an ever-present sense of lack in my own…
I went to seminary but am not (yet) ordained. I completed an amazing CPE residency only to lose my first job as a chaplain, unlike a couple of friends who have since then become CPE supervisors themselves. I’m single and living in a studio in South Korea while other friends have purchased homes, had children, built families. Some friends have been insanely successful, writing books, becoming well-known in their respective fields. Some friends have completely transformed their bodies, unlike me who usually takes 3 months to complete a 1 month long yoga series. They’ve gotten ripped while I’ve gotten round, which often (in my own head) feels like saying they’ve become more attractive while I’ve become more repulsive.
Did you notice how I framed that entire paragraph? Did you notice the tone of it? Not very pretty is it? Certainly not kind. Here’s a question: how often have you framed your own story the same way? How many times have you observed another person’s story in parallel to your own, only to treat your story with a sense of disappointment, contempt, or most destructive, shame? I think it’s safe to say we’ve all done it at some point in time. This comparison game, however common, is counterproductive at best and self-destructive at worst. By choosing (and failing) to witness our own lives and stories with grace and compassion, opting for envy and discontent, we build up this cycle of “I wish/why them/why not me.”
Please don’t misunderstand. There are circumstances in which we have a right to be discontent. In situations when people deal with chronic illness, with tragedy, with systemic oppression, I think the tone is different. I’m not implying some universal “Suck it up, Buttercup.” I’m suggesting we all take stock in how we observe and characterize our own journeys, especially in tandem with the journeys and lives of the people around us. Sometimes, it’s easier to focus on the ways in which our lives and stories different from others. Sometimes, however, we must challenge ourselves to see the similarities, the common threads, the shared universal truths.
Every story is us
― Jalâl ad-Dîn Rûmî
What if we revamp our stories? What if we unweave the narratives we’ve threaded together in our synapses and reform them into tapestries of resilience, of self-compassion, of significance and of a different kind of success? One not rooted in titles or fame or prestige, but rather one rooted in persistence, in integrity, invulnerability?
What if I see myself as someone able to turn a lost job and a mountain of debt into a brave new adventure and into financial diligence and responsibility? What if my multiple attempts at quitting smoking and at exercise are not failures, but are a willingness to see and experience my body through my own eyes instead of the lenses of social media and pop-culture, realizing that beautiful comes in many forms, that internal beauty is just as valuable (if not more so) than outward “desirability”? What if the time I spent in seminary and in CPE were not a means to an end of becoming a pastor, a chaplain, or a CPE supervisor, but were milestones in a desire to become integrated, to recognize my own wholeness and Belovedness as a child of God, giving me tools and skills applicable far beyond the pulpit or the hospital bedside? What if my years of therapy and now spiritual direction are not a sign that I’m crazy or broken, but rather are a sign that I view mental and spiritual health as things to be tended and nurtured with time, patience, and grace? What if I view family and relationship as something different from a certificate and a ceremony, 2.2 children and a dog? Something no less meaningful but also not constrained to the boxes created for us by culture and society? Something I discern and discover alongside the many amazing people who I already count as “family”?
Rewriting our stories takes patience. And it takes time and discipline to learn how to stop envying and comparing ourselves and our journeys to the people we encounter. How can you witness your own story, your own journey with grace and compassion today? How do you need to revamp the way you tell your story, the way you travel your journey? Whatever you need to do, know that I hold you with love and with hope. After all, we’re all on this path together. Might as well enjoy the company.
photo credit: Andrew McCoubrey (via Flickr)