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A case of vanity or self-love?

When you get to my age you finally learn that whilst certain external agents are necessary, vital at times, to lift us out of anxiety, depression, loss or any other soul-destroying circumstance, in the end the only thing that can rescue us from the darkness is truly ourselves.

If there is one lesson I have tried to teach my kids time and time again is this one, because I know that the biggest battles we fight in our life are always the ones we win within, wrestling with ourselves.

I have fought many of these internal battles over the years. When I was young and easily influenced, I relied on other people’s opinion of me to give me a sense of worth and confidence. As an adult, I learnt that even the closest of friends can one day become enemies and that many people who come into your life dressed as sheep are in fact foe; that there are individuals who come into your life for a season to gain something from you and then move on when they got what they wanted. There are others who also identify themselves as friends and are so for a time, but then just like the wind blows in one direction one moment and then in another the next, they change alliance with the blink of an eye and once again, you get put on the shelf or back in the shadows as they move on to the next fool who cannot see them coming. And then there are the kind of friends who genuinely see the best in you, want the best for you and would drop everything to help you out when you need it. And yet, not even those can save you from yourself.

I have learnt that what I thought was vanity is in many instances self-love. When I was younger, I was judgemental, proud, arrogant. Now I know that we all have our own reasons for behaving the way we do. I am not seeking to justify any particular behaviour. I am simply saying that in the later part of my life I have learnt to respect other people’s space and freedom to do as they please. I guess when I was younger my outlook was limited, full of prejudice and blind spots. Now, at 51 I myself have been driven to tight spots I did not know existed, and I have had to alter my behaviour in order to survive, to move forward; a behaviour that my younger, naïve self would have considered totally inappropriate or undignified perhaps. It’s funny how life teaches us time and time again to never judge a book by its cover, and time and time again we ignore that advice and we fall into judgement and rejection of others based on our own prejudices and narrow-mindedness.

I have learnt that it is not worth giving of myself to those who have no empathy, interest or kindness to open the book of my life and read through the pages of the highs and the lows that have led me to be who I am today, before they pass judgement or give their opinion.

I have learnt that the only opinion I should trust when it comes to who I am and where I am going is my own, because even when given with the best of intentions, others’ counsel or guidance is based on their own convictions and experiences, and so what may suit them, does not necessarily suit me.

I have learnt that whilst friends and family are a really important part of a person’s life, the one constant we need to thrive during our time on earth is self-love. The advice given during the safety briefing on a flight to put on your own life jacket or oxygen mask before helping others is for me one of the essential keys to safe living. Sometimes we can be so caught up in looking after others, trying to help others or gaining direction or seeking validation from others that we forget to listen to what our own judgement and gut instinct is telling us; we forget to extend that lifeline to ourselves and in doing so we spend our life wrestling, perpetuating our predicament of a square peg in a round hole.

Today I am practising self-love or vanity, call it what you will. I don’t really care. It helps me to appreciate who I am and how far I’ve come. It reminds me that I am not who or what others may think of me, but I am the truth I see in the mirror every day, warts and all! I am imperfect, unfinished, scarred, blemished and very flawed, but I am authentic and beat only to my own drum.

Comfortable being afraid

‘Comfortable being afraid’ is something I read this morning on https://after-the-rain.org/ and it truly struck a chord deep in my psyche. I can totally relate to that notion! Years ago, a bunch of women including myself who were members of the same church, went on a ‘Ladies Weekend Away’. It was ‘advertised’ as a team-building weekend full of physical and emotional challenges designed to push us beyond our own limitations; to overcome our deepest fears; to build courage and trust. Blinded by years of indoctrination, I swallowed the bait and marched on so proud of myself for putting myself in ‘the line of fire’. I have in my later years grown very afraid of heights, and one of the very first activities we were faced with that weekend was abseiling off a very high bridge above a river. This was it. This was the one: my demon. I let others go first in the hope of watching how they went about leaping over the side of the bridge and beginning their descend. My turn came and even before starting, I was already struggling to breathe; shaking beyond control. Everybody else who had completed the task cheered me on, as did those waiting to have a turn. I put one leg over the side of the bridge, then the other and held on for dear life not daring to look down. The instructor started giving me a pep talk to build me up so I would finally start my descend, but I already knew I was not going to do it.

With every second perched on that bridge ledge came a new wave of suffocating dread. I was utterly paralysed mentally and physically. Couldn’t bring myself to move either way, even though I was already trying to get back on the safe side of the bridge. I burst into tears. I guess it was the huge release I needed to bring me back to myself; I was totally inconsolable once I stepped back into safety. I don’t remember ever crying like that before. Afterwards, I felt dead inside, numb.

As I stood there beaten, ashamed, watching others march on without any fear towards what had been for me a horrific ordeal, I heard one of the ladies ask a question to the vicar’s wife, who happened to have organised this weekend away and had been to this same Activities Centre previously and was therefore well rehearsed in all the activities and confident in her ability to ‘conquer her fears ( didn’t have any)’. I heard this lady ask the vicar’s wife: What happened to Mercedes? Did she do it?, and the vicar’s wife replied with great pride and a shockingly disgusting lack of Christian spirit and empathy: ‘No she didn’t, she chickened out‘.

I don’t know what broke me more int that instant: the realisation that I was always going to have certain fears which I would never overcome, or knowing that so many in the ‘Evangelical Squad’ can be so profoundly clueless as to use an opportunity like this to exalt themselves (not the God they preach to others about), ridicule another person, and further beat them when they are already down.

It took me a while longer to abandon the church system for good, but I know it was in that very instant that I realised the God I believe in was not to be found around those who claim to have all the answers; those who claim to have been called to leadership of any kind; those who proclaim one thing but do quite another. I realised God’s Spirit (and I use that term loosely because I accept that it means very different things to different people) lives within me and it is that voice and that alone I need to heed to and trust.

I also learnt at that very moment a huge lesson about fear. I am not to be ashamed of being scared of doing the things that others can or want to do; ashamed of letting fear stop me from taking on certain new challenges. Who is to say the challenges that are right for you must also be right for me? I do hope, however, that I never lose the ability to be paralysed when tempted to trample down on another human being in their moment of greatest weakness in order to make myself look grandiose to everyone else; to validate my self-perceived greatness. I hope that for every person I encounter in my life who is struggling in any way, I don’t use their weakness as a chance for point-scoring, but rather as an opportunity to lift them up, offer them comfort and a shoulder to lean on; to cry on.

Our biggest fear shouldn’t be not being able to do certain things; to miss certain opportunities; to fail at certain things. Our biggest fear should be becoming so caught up in our own sense of advancement, righteousness and knowledge that we forget we are just human beings not Gods. Is it really courage that makes us overcome our greatest fears or is it pride that makes us think of ourselves higher than we ought to; pride that gives us the determination to beat our own limits, because we cannot bring ourselves to accept that we are after all limited beings?

There is a reason why we experience fear. We are imperfect beings without all the answers. We are lost creatures in the midst of a vast unknown. Being fearless means losing sight of that awareness and dangerously inflating, stroking our egos; it means we forget ourselves and set ourselves above others whom we no longer see as equals but as the rivals we need to beat in order to protect our own and others’ notion of our superiority.

I am very comfortable these days being afraid. It keeps me grounded. It keeps me humble. I take risks and chances like everybody else, and of course sometimes I make mistakes, but I remain rooted in the awareness of my many limitations, and when I do attempt new scary things, I always try not to trample on others in my pursuit for self development, self-fulfillment, self-discovery.