Have you ever been about to go into an interview or give a speech or meet with someone you don’t know? “Just be yourself,” a friend helpfully suggests, but if you’re like me you may wonder, “What’s that supposed to mean?” Which self should I be? So many of us have fragmented ourselves into various versions of ourselves that we “put on,” depending on the circumstance. It can take a lifetime before we realize that it is a whole lot easier to be one self. Easier said than done, and perhaps it takes some people more than one lifetime to get that. The educator and author, Parker Palmer in his wonderful little book, “Let Your Life Speak,” has a chapter titled, “Now I Become Myself.” It’s a quote from May Sarton. I love the sentiment, because isn’t life in part about learning to become ourselves?
That’s the theme of tonight’s post from April 2015. It’s about becoming who we are and being happy with ourselves. I still have a lot of work to do to pull the scattered pieces of myself back together into some semblance of a whole. But I am making progress. Just be yourself, as best you can, and know that is enough.
Forty Days, Day 37–Being Who You Are
It has taken me over 50 years, but I finally like myself. Don’t get me wrong, I still occasionally have times when I don’t treat myself very well, but for the most part I have developed an appreciation for who I have become. It has taken me a long time to get here. For some of us, self dislike begins at an early age. As a brown-skinned person who grew up in northern Indiana in the early 1960s, it didn’t take much for me to realize that many people didn’t like me simply because I had the nerve to live in the “wrong” neighborhood. The next door neighbors, kids at the Catholic elementary school where the only other “Negroes” in the school were my older siblings, and other people around me made it very clear to me that I was different and that those differences were not good.
You learn that to be a “tomboy,” was not a good thing–girls are not supposed to be good at basketball and baseball, enjoy climbing trees, or outrun the boys on the playground. People don’t necessarily say it, but you can feel that somehow they don’t approve. You know it in how people react to you when you’re the “only” of something in a classroom, in a restaurant, on the job. You realize that to be shy is to be misunderstood as aloof, antisocial, or less intelligent. Too fat, too thin, too dark, too masculine, too anything. If you’re it, you know it. No one has to tell you, though sometimes people do.
I’ve attributed a statement to my father that I don’t know if he actually said, though I seem to remember that he did: “Be who you is.” He used to say this half in jest, but the sentiment was clear: there are all kinds of people in the world who will take great pains to tell you the many ways in which you don’t measure up and therefore need to take some action to improve yourself, to become someone else. Your task is to ignore them and go on about the business of being your own, true, authentic self. Easier said than done, I’m afraid.
For many years I was people’s fix-up project. My hair, the way I dressed, how I carried myself came under scrutiny and corrective measures were taken to make me over. I was made up, dressed up, cleaned up in an attempt to turn me into something that was more acceptable and pleasing to the people around me. Unfortunately, many of these people were church folks, making me over for my own good. The very clear message that I received was, “You are not good enough as you are, you need to be remade.” The deeper implication was, “You are not good enough to come into the presence of God as you are. We need to fix you on the outside thereby effecting changes on the inside.” Needless to say, it didn’t fully take, although the damage that was done to my internal sense of worth was significant and I still suffer some of the side effects wrought by that period in my life.
Some folks who are damaged in this way come out hating God, the church, everything about it. And while I was really angry for a long while, cursing and fussing at God, I eventually realized that it wasn’t God with whom I had the issue, it was the people who used God and religion as the justification for trying to make me over. The words of Jesus come to mind in this moment, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” I have spent many years forgiving people, and I still have some work to do in that regard, but I’ve come a great distance and it has brought me to where I am today–a place of deeper self acceptance and self appreciation (dare I say self love?) than I’ve experienced in my life time. And while I still have yet more distance to travel on the journey to truly becoming fully who I am, I am grateful for this space I’m in.
As I ponder these various themes I’ve explored during these 40 days and thought about the life and times of my friend Jesus, I realize that he hung out with all kinds of riff-raff. I think perhaps I would have been safe spending time with Jesus; I’m not sure he wouldn’t have felt the need to make me over so I could hang out with him, be seen with him. That is a very good thing. I hope we all are striving to become who we really are. We receive so many messages constantly bombarding us that we are somehow less than the magnificent, wonderful beings that we are. Remember that is not how God sees us. I want to look at myself and everyone around me through the eyes of love and compassion as best I can. I want you to know that you are beautiful and to believe it. I want to know this for myself.
May all beings experience and know true happiness and peace and taste, savor, and enjoy the fruits thereof. May it be so for us all.