The voice in the essay may be that of my literal guides or may be the Inner Light that shines inside each of us.
You say your boundaries are too porous. If you would strengthen your boundaries appropriately, you will ask yourself why you are erecting barriers between you and others of God’s creatures. It is not really barriers, or boundaries, that you seek. It is a stronger sense of self.
how to achieve that stronger sense of self? The way is by knowing your values
and needs, as well as those of others. Sometimes it is hard to tell what is
fair, but the only way to judge is by looking inside yourself and asking, “Am I
trying to give more than I have to give at this particular time?” If the
situation is an emergency, you do all you can and more. But most situations are
not emergencies, and you have time to think and plan: how will you renew
yourself sufficiently so that your soul and body are able to flourish and grow,
along with those of the person you are trying to help?
It is not much good to help another and harm or destroy yourself. God wants all of his creatures. You are not more important than the next, and not less important. Give all you can but not more than you can without draining your reserves and denying your gifts to the world, for we all have gifts, every creature, heavenly and on Earth; we are responsible for saving and healing ourselves, as well as others. We don’t rob Peter to pay Paul.
Remember the Parable of the Talents, and think of those as literal talents, your talents. They are not to be buried under arduous work or sacrifice that robs them of their value and gloss. Build your talents to serve and serve through your talents, not by denying them and burying them in the burden of every day. Your kindness and love are talents, too, and giving them helps them to grow unless you are giving more than your body and mind can afford from their store of energy and time. This is the way the Lord wants you to reason—not that you must give and give and give so that there is little left in you and you are half destroyed from fatigue and exhaustion of your nerves and patience.
your guides are with you and will help you to understand if you are not doing
your share. Generally that is not a problem with you, but we know that it
worries you. You think you are not being fair, not doing your part, not helping
enough. When you are exhausted or have not released your creativity through
valued outlets, say so and do so, rather than plowing ahead. This is the way
the Lord wishes for you to do so that you help others and respect yourself at
the same time.
in prayer if you are uncertain, or come back to your journal and write, for
that will free you and sort out your mind so that your spirit is unencumbered—so
that you are able to give without pain and receive from God your talents and
their multiplying on your behalf and that of others. You are not a slave. No
human being was made to be a slave, literally or figuratively, and do not
enslave yourself through your own misunderstanding of who you are and what you
must do to give to others balm for their needs, their worries, and their
We are with you. We care. We are not telling you to be selfish, and being selfish is not your nature even though all people are selfish from time to time. But we are telling you that treating yourself right according to your gifts and your physical limitations and possibilities is not selfishness. The adage of paying yourself first is appropriate, if we may return to the money metaphor. More accurately, we would say to be sure to pay yourself as you are giving to others—not in the sense of payback or bribe but in the sense of adding to your fund of energy, enthusiasm, ideas, and inspiration. This is our recommendation, and it has stood the test of the ages.
So try, even if the advice does not seem easy to follow. Actually it is easier than you think, and the guidelines are here. If you are too tired physically and/or spiritually, and if your creative outlets have not been followed sufficiently to stem your frustration and sense of self-denial, you need to “pay” yourself before continuing unless a true emergency situation exists for another. And even then you must return to yourself as quickly as you can—to renew yourself for your sake, God’s sake, and that of others. You will give far more from a base of fulfillment and physical wellbeing than you ever can from an empty vessel of self.
We speak truth, and we will help you to follow it if you turn to us with your doubts. We leave this subject now but can return to it when the need arises, after you have given these principles your full attention and effort. Blessings to you and to all of God’s creatures. We love you. Love both yourself and others.
Update: I shared the letter in this blog post with the deacon who is leading the RCIA sessions for me. In spite of my views, he has responded very kindly, telling me that I am welcome in the Church. I’m grateful to him for easing my mind about a great source of worry and fear.
My letter below represents the next stage in the thinking shared in “Church Bells and a Riptide,” which describes my struggles with the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) process through which I am possibly converting to Catholicism. I feel great affinity with some groups within the Church but have deep reservations about many of the attitudes and teachings of the more traditional, conservative Church powers.
“Dear Deacon” restates a few of the points in the longer essay posted earlier, but it also reflects new self-understanding: The key to my converting is the Church’s acceptance of me as I am and as someone who can add my own gifts, however limited, to the Church’s wisdom, insight, and understanding. Equality and mutual respect are the basis of all healthy relationships, whether within an individual friendship or family or within a vast country or religion.
You have been very kind to me and have listened to my opinions with great courtesy. I nevertheless am uncertain about the answer to this important question: Are you able to welcome me into the Catholic Church as I am, with my 69 years’ experience, spiritual reflection, education, strengths, and weaknesses? In other words, are you able to feel that through joining the Church, I will, in my small way, bring gifts as well as receive them?
Or do you, in contrast, believe that the Church’s formal teachings are the sole and complete answers? Do you see the RCIA process as one of pouring the Truth into me as if I were an empty vessel?
I cannot accept having any human being set out to change me through the conviction that he or she comprehends the Truth and I don’t.
As a member of the Church, I would have the opportunity to gain immensely from the examples and insights of countless Catholics. For instance, many Franciscans will be—and already are—mentors to me. Certainly as a Catholic—or as I am—I would/will change over the coming years, evolving through ongoing conversion and continuing revelation.
At the same time, if I join the Church, I will bring with me my lifetime of wisdom, mistakes, and understanding. I want and expect all of me to be welcomed. I have much to gain, and I also have something to give.
Here is what I would like to ask of you: I hope you believe and will explain that through the RCIA sessions, you are sharing the traditional views of the Catholic Church and your own interpretation of those views. I am eager to learn more about the Church, and I value hearing your perspective. But I also hope you acknowledge that every human being must seek her or his own understanding of the Gospel and God. I ask you to recognize that my own spirituality, while as flawed as the next person’s, is also as worthy of consideration and respect.
No one, and no human religion, grasps all the answers. There is room within the often-magnificent Catholic Church for a wide range of sincere and carefully considered perspectives. And there is room—and need—within the Church for evolution and change through ongoing conversion and continuing revelation, through deeper and deeper insight into God and Christ’s teachings. I want to be a part of that process. I want to give to the Church, as well as to receive.
So I’ll rephrase my opening question: Is there room in your Church for me as I am, or only as the strictly conceived RCIA teachings would like for me to be? If there is room for me as I am, I am eager to continue with the RCIA process.
Thank you for your contributions during our sessions and for your thoughts on my concerns.
Here is another of my short stories about an older woman who is determined to stay fully involved with life, in spite of the challenges. I envision Montreal as the setting for the story.
Emily felt a little stiff as she climbed the steps to the restaurant, but she made a point of keeping up with the young couple ahead of her. Saturday evenings were lovely at the restaurant. Musicians came to entertain the patrons. It was only a cafeteria, but a nice one with wholesome food. Emily liked cafeterias because she could eat just what she wanted and not feel self-conscious about staying long after she’d finished her meal.
Two young men played flute and guitar duets. Some of the melodies were familiar, though she didn’t know the titles of most of them. The traffic on the street below was muted; the melodies drifted above the soft clattering of dishes and whispered conversations. The flute player looked like the sort of young man she’d have liked for a grandson. The smile he gave the audience between pieces was not conceited, and his flute had a sweet tone. If she had been young, she would have hoped he’d notice her.
Over the musicians was a garish painting of a woman with two heads. The pictures in the restaurant changed every few months. Emily studied them to see if any would speak to her, but most were hard to understand. Sometimes she could admire the colors or a whimsical figure. Both faces of the two-headed woman grimaced, although one was young and beautiful. The artist must have been very angry, thought Emily.
Emily placed her book and umbrella conspicuously on the table so no one would take her seat while she went for a second cup of tea. She always had three cups of tea with her dinner. Her little rituals, like the sliver of pie with the third cup, were part of the joy. “Don’t you feel guilty taking up a whole table?” her neighbor Laura had asked recently. Emily had told Laura she’d feel more guilty not getting out to enjoy life—and what was she supposed to do, stand all through her meals?
At a nearby table, a young family with two children finished their dinner. The girl and boy had started a game of rock-paper-scissors while their parents listened to the music. Emily had played the game when she was a girl, all those years before. The woman was sturdy, not beautiful but healthy and self-possessed. Her husband watched her as she watched the musicians. The little boy, the younger of the children, whispered to his mother, and the family cleared their table and left. Emily saw them pass on the sidewalk below, each child on a parent’s shoulders.
Three girls sitting in a corner of the room stared worshipfully at the young musicians. One of the girls was heavy, with long dark hair; she wore a startlingly skimpy pink top over her jeans. Her companions were slim and attractive, a gift of their youth. Emily wished the heavy girl would realize that she was lovely, too; it pained Emily to see young people trying too hard to be accepted.
Among the many couples were a man and woman of nearly her own age. The man had plenty of white hair; Emily liked a good head of hair on a man. The woman was smartly dressed in a blue linen suit that didn’t even look wrinkled. She had artistically draped a gauzy scarf around her neck and anchored it with a gold sunburst pin. To Emily’s mind, the most fashionable women were the ones who used scarves and jewelry dramatically. Emily felt her own attempts at fashion flare were notably unsuccessful. She always looked so prim: the perfect slim little old lady whose only extravagance was her refusal to wear sensible shoes. Oh well, she didn’t much mind. She was hardly unique.
During the day Emily saw many other older women alone. Independent old men were somewhat rarer. This morning, walking along one of the city’s most fashionable streets, she had passed a woman with jaundiced skin and dirty, torn clothes. How long could the woman survive—certainly not through another long northern winter. How long had the woman survived in the streets, with nobody?
Strictly speaking, Emily had nobody, either. Most of her friends had moved in with children or found a retirement home to suit them. Emily kept up with her friends, but she rarely got to see them. An only child who had never married, Emily didn’t find it strange to be alone.
On Saturday mornings in mild weather, she visited the open-air market near her apartment. She never tired of seeing the rows of flowers and lush fruits and vegetables, or of watching women from the city’s ethnic neighborhoods buy the ingredients they’d combine in a thousand different ways. She had so many places she liked to visit, especially the bookshops near the university. Tonight they’d be open late.
Fifty and more years ago she’d walked near the university with her young men. She’d had her opportunities, but in the end she chose none of them. Without a husband and children, she’d had more freedoms than most women of her generation. Summers she had traveled, teaching herself to read a map and to make her needs known in other languages.
Young women who live alone have an easier time as old women, Emily believed. She knew women who wouldn’t leave their apartments after dark, who were afraid to ride the Metro. Until they were old they’d never been alone. They didn’t know how to learn self-confidence now.
The evening world was a world of couples and companionable groups. If she wasn’t on her guard, the useless melancholy would find her. She was lucky not to be hiding in her apartment like so many of the others.
The young men were playing another familiar melody. Her parents would have liked it here this evening. Her father had loved music, and her mother had loved people. It would be easy to be sad; they’d been gone so long. The hardest times were early in the morning and late at night, just before sleep. The trick was knowing which memories to let in.
When she was twenty, she’d had long hair, and at least a couple of boys had thought her pretty. One had wanted to marry her. They’d picnicked by the river and played duets on her parents’ old upright. Silly girl—it had seemed so important to her to be pretty and to have a fiancé. But he’d had a temper that she knew one day he’d turn on her, so she had broken the engagement.
Her parents had paid for her to go back to college when she was twenty-five. Already she had a teaching degree, when many girls of her time never had a chance to go past high school. The master’s degree made her more determined to be an independent and strong woman, but then she turned thirty and the longing for a child grew more instead of less. Still the men were not right for her, and she turned forty and moved forward into spinsterhood. She had a career and parents who loved her and never pushed her to be like other daughters. Nearly every fair Saturday night up through the summer of her forty-fifth year, the three of them had gone together to hear the orchestra play in the park. The smell of warm August nights still carried on its fragrance the memory of her family and those Saturday evenings.
It was better not to walk down the street where she’d grown up, at least not to pass the house after the lights were on and Emily could glimpse the life going on inside. It was too easy then to believe her life had ended in another era.
She wouldn’t let herself feel like an intruder in the young people’s world, in the world of couples. From where she was sitting, Emily could see the old couple holding hands under their table. She turned and looked at the girls. They had so much life to get through.
While Emily was finishing her third cup of tea and slice of walnut pie, the musicians put away their instruments. Maybe in one of the shops she could find a good copy of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. She’d never read enough from the reclusive poet who shared her name. In her master’s degree, she’d concentrated on Wordsworth and Coleridge, Keats and Shelley, never realizing then that no man, no matter how perceptive, can prepare a woman for the life she will live.
Near the bookshops she would watch young people milling around outside their music clubs and hear their rhythms spill out on the sidewalk. The floating flute and guitar melodies mustn’t make her forget that life still drives forward.
Sometimes I’m pretty wise about other people. After all, I’ve been hanging around earth for quite a while, and I’ve been paying attention. My powers of observation, however, substantially exceed the example I set. In this post, rather than citing others’ work, I quote some of my own advice from my list of “Forty Guidelines for Becoming a Classic.” But then I explore the gaps between what I say and what I (am so far able to) do. This essay is in the second person because I am giving myself a good talking-to. Perhaps some of my self-talk will also be relevant for you.
The Point of It All
I’ll begin with a piece of advice that is both an obsession and a challenge for me: Have a sense of purpose in life and keep that purpose shining in your heart and mind.
Winnie, since your earliest adulthood, you have sought a sense of purpose, a way to serve, through writing. But you have wanted the heavens to open and present you with the perfect project, the golden one that will engage you for the rest of your days and give meaning to your existence. Even if the heavens did give you what you seek, would you be able to move forward, or would your fear of not being equal to the task soon send you back to procrastination and distress? You have had dozens of adequate ideas for major writing projects, but you have sooner or later rejected nearly all of them as either defective ideas or as ideas for which you are defective in your ability to bring them to life. Finally, however, your editing your parents’ memoirs, publishing your own, and finishing your novel are evidence that you are not irredeemable in your inability to move forward in your writing.
And as you are beginning to recognize, your writing is a flexible way for you to serve and to express yourself. Just as you have sought and pursued a wide range of experiences in your life, you will do best and find greatest peace of mind if you accept that you will write in the service of many different subjects, people, and areas of expression. Yours is a life about broad, varied activities and not about devotion to a single area, such as virtuosity on an instrument—or repeated excellence in novel writing. This is not to say that you can’t write a novel, even a good novel—and, of course, you have already tried your hand at a novel that expresses some of your heartfelt interests and values. But your life is not designed to parallel, say, Jane Austen’s, Elena Ferrante’s, Isabel Allende’s, or J.K. Rowling’s. And so: Understand that your sense of purpose doesn’t have to be flashy, obvious to others, or highly specific (such as “become a bestselling author” or “sing Aida at the Met”).
Dance Skirmishes and Other Melees
Another situation preying on your mind right now is the kerfuffle in your dance session on Friday. Let’s figure out what happened, why you let yourself get upset with a member of your amateur dance troupe; we’ll call her Hilda. You have, for years, objected to Hilda’s sometimes imperious (in your opinion) ways and railed against what you perceive as the unfairness of her dictatorial (in your estimation) pronouncements. The obvious question is: why associate, when you don’t have to, with people who upset you—and, at this point in your development, inspire responses ranging from headaches and stress (the usual outcome) to letting your feelings fly, as you did on Friday. You were reacting rather than attacking; it was a defense that you mounted, but an ineffective one that certainly did not inspire Hilda to engage in self-reflection or decide anything other than that you and your views are (in her estimation) worthy of rejection and resentment.
You can and need to find the lessons in the situation, lessons you have not yet mastered from earlier such occasions. From the past several years, we can think of two to-dos with similarities to Friday’s. That’s not a lot, but you’ll acknowledge that you’ve also had many, many episodes of saying to yourself, “Let me out of here—I’ve got a terrible headache!” The causes are similar.
One all-out to-do involved your crying in a post office in Rome, Italy, and telling Sylvia, your traveling companion, “I resign. I quit as translator and tour guide. I don’t want to have any more responsibilities for you or anyone else for the rest of this trip. I’m going for a walk.” And off you flounced in the opposite direction from the convent where the two of you were staying. When you did finally return, you and Sylvia tenuously reconciled. But during the night, she called friends and family back home to update them on what a rotten time she was having with you. Fortunately for you both, you managed to part ways two days later.
And then six years after Italy came the time you sat crying and distraught in the office of Mattie, the acting CEO where you worked. She had, by anyone’s estimation, been truly out of line and unbearable, but she was your boss, and distraught crying is not, as you know, an effective career strategy. Nor is it an effective reaction to any sort of bullying or other unfair behavior, no matter how egregious. And now, ten years after your work meltdown, you have had your encounter with Hilda.
To repeat an earlier point: Minimize contact with energy vampires and other people who don’t make you feel good about yourself. If being with someone is stressful and no necessity exists for being with this person, make the choice to stay apart. Obviously you would come to Hilda’s aid if it were your place to do so, and certainly you will look on her with good will, but you don’t need to dance with her. Yes, you love dancing. Yes, people in your community expect you to dance in the community’s annual talent show. But also yes, you can stop dancing with Hilda. You have other ways to practice and perform your dancing. But even if you didn’t, you need, as your wise mother sometimes phrased it, to take your sails out of Hilda’s wind.
Before boarding the plane to Italy with Sylvia, you should have, as you now know, established clear, mutually understood ground rules—such as, “We will each be free to go different places and pursue different activities.” In other words: In relationships, act from the beginning according to the principle of mutual respect; it can be exceedingly difficult to change the relationship dynamics later.
Better yet in this case, you would have recognized the ocean of differences between your interests and personality and hers and would have avoided trying to travel together at all. With Mattie, your job prevented you from avoiding her. But you could have surmounted the fear, the sense of being threatened, that led to your upset with her, as well as with Sylvia and Hilda. You believed you were about to drown under the tsunami the other person represented for you. While each tsunami was different in its size and perceived power and danger, the image holds true for all such cases in your life. But instead of being tsunamis, most challenging relationships represent a series of smaller waves that—if you act from a base of confidence, resolution, and mutual respect—you will be able to navigate calmly and justly, one at a time. Of course if you can simply step away from the water, why not do so?
An Age Full of Possibilities
Other areas of your life also need attention. You watch House and Garden Television and relish the transformation of other people’s homes. But your own woodwork has black stains; the veneer on the kitchen cabinets is peeling, and the curtains need washing. Again, however, your all-or-nothingness intrudes. You are so overwhelmed by the volume of things that need doing in your little apartment that beyond keeping the place neat, you usually only act when necessity becomes profound—such as when guests are coming. Do you also feel you don’t deserve a pretty home?
Certainly granite countertops are not one of life’s necessities, but your failure to upgrade your home in small ways that could be attainable is evidence of your unvoiced belief that life has passed you by and that you don’t deserve the possibility of having your small and large dreams realized. Of course your life is blessed exactly as it is—particularly in the parents that were yours, in your friends and community, and in the education and life experiences you have had—but you have not fallen out of possibilities, not aged out of worthiness to hope, whether for pretty cabinets or for a return to Italy: Know that it’s not too late. Know that you’re not too old.
Let’s directly address the issue of aging. While you are, for now, considered relatively young by your friends, you are not young, and most of the world does not look at you as youthful. You subconsciously think you have slipped up somehow by letting yourself age. While you would prefer an unlined face, your wrinkles are not enormously distressing to you, but you don’t like the “such a sweet old dear” reaction from younger people who hear that you tap dance and study French and Italian.
You sincerely believe that your older friends have enormous possibilities open to them and are inestimably valuable human beings. But perhaps because you’ve always felt that you’ve failed in so many ways to meet life’s expectations, you struggle to avoid feeling tossed out of the circle of life and into the bleachers to look on for the rest of your days. So instead: Practice being fully present in the moment.
Look at the beautiful day you have, this very day: Notice the interesting small details in nature and all of life. The sky is bright blue, and red buds are beginning to appear on the trees. The region had a ferocious nor’easter at the end of last week, and another is expected this week, but now the sun is coming in your window, which is rare because your apartment faces north. The light is reflected from the building across the way, rather than shining in directly, but you can be grateful, too—and you are—for light however it comes to you. Remember: Define the present moment as meaningful and interesting. And it is.
I imagine the “we” in this essay (used after the first paragraph) to be spiritual guides or similar sources of wisdom. The piece looks at an ongoing problem for me, one that I’ve addressed in other posts on this blog. I suspect that many people confront related doubts and troublesome thoughts—and also struggle, as I do, in the effort to overcome them.
The American psychic and philosopher Edgar Cayce spoke of spiritual ideals, or the central values by which we live our lives. He advised examining the ideals we are following to see if they are leading to problems for ourselves and others. Hindering values can then be replaced by spiritual ideals that will attract the best of our nature and potential. Here is my two-part question leading to the guidance below: What are the mistaken ideals by which I am leading my life, and what is the positive spiritual ideal that will guide me in making my life more meaningful, creative, and serene?
Your reigning ideals are to be accepted, to be acceptable, and to reach perfection in the areas you tackle so you will be “good enough.” And since perfection is impossible and you so often either don’t know what is expected or don’t know what you could possibly offer, paralysis—rather than productivity and contributions—results.
You are so afraid, so smothered by fear and frustration, that even those rivulets of creativity and giving that sometimes flowed in the past appear to have dried up permanently. You sit in your moment of time, your now, and feel that you, yourself, have evaporated, sucked out of your body by the years, experiences, and your overwhelming sense of inadequacy.
With friends, as well, you fear—you believe—you have little or nothing to offer beyond occasional opportunities to help. These opportunities are, at least for a while, deeply welcome because they allow you to have a place, to be acceptable, to have a reason for your presence in the other person’s life. You feel empty—inept, gauche, boring, devoid of that within that could make you able to serve in a more sustained way, to amuse, to be worth being around. You live with the constant fear that you are being found out—that friends who initially saw value in you as a companion are discovering the truth: that you are hollow and without merit. You fear, too, that you are not fundamentally a good person, are not sufficiently caring and giving, are flawed at heart as a human and so as a friend.
Of course you also have nothing to write, no flowing source. You know—or anyway, you hope—that writing as you are now is one way to remove the fear and simply write, but yet you continue to be afraid that even this approach to expression exceeds your ability to sustain. The essence of you has fled to the farthest edges of your psyche, has hidden in inaccessible layers of your subconscious, has curled up into such a tight ball of worry that the bud is blighted and about to fall off the stem.
You have lost touch with who you are because you have been away from yourself for long spans of time and because you have allowed fear and desperation to grow and grow and grow like some horrible creature in a science-fiction movie that threatens to destroy life. This creature has almost sucked the oxygen and hope out of your spirit and sense of self. You feel connected to others and to God, but you believe you are a weak link in the chain.
Even though you dislike being used beyond the far reaches of need, you truly do like to give, and not simply for a pat on the back. So you are a decent person, in spite of your confusion. You are still alive, and so hope continues to exist that your spirit in this life can yet revive and blossom. What can you do to recover? What is the ideal by which you can find creative, serenity-filled, giving, and satisfying days—while realizing that life gives ongoing challenges and while meeting these challenges with courage, gratitude, and growth. Our answer is that you must, you absolutely must now, change your ideal from being acceptable through being perfect to serving others through being yourself.
The only way to overcome your intense psychic and spiritual pain is to release every single should from your life, for shoulds are—or feel as if they are—imposed from the outside. Instead, substitute choices, decisions that you calmly make, one after the other, as each day unfolds, decisions reached based on your Inner Light and the genuine needs of the moment. Become an integral person whose life grows and flows naturally among the rest of creation.
Within your spiritual ideal is experiencing the unity of humanity and all the Universe, seeking to understand how life looks to others, expressing what your heart and soul are telling you, helping and encouraging as you can, loving and being kind, remembering all you truly love rather than all you have for so long thought you had to be, and trusting that your spirit and inherent ways are decent and acceptable.
 For a discussion of Cayce’s concept of “spiritual ideals,” see Kevin J. Todeschi and Henry Reed, Contemporary Cayce: A Complete Exploration Using Today’s Science and Philosophy (Virginia Beach: A.R.E. Press, 2014), chapter 6, “Working with Ideals: Your Creative Spiritual Partner.”
You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. -From “Wild Geese,” by Mary Oliver
Dear God and Universe, guides, and loved ones, what is your message for me today? Thank you.
Your message for today is to love yourself in spite of all the flaws you see, some of which are real, and some of which are not. The flaws that are real are most likely to disappear if you love yourself, not if you berate yourself as defective, awkward, and unworthy. You are merely human, and generally you are trying your best to do what is right. Sometimes you are actually trying too hard, rather than simply being, listening, absorbing the world around you, and radiating kindness and love—toward others, and toward yourself. As you well know from experience, when you try too hard, you build up anxiety and sometimes resentment; you create tension so that eventually a reaction will come that is neither in your best interest nor in that of others.
Today you are tired because you did not sleep enough last night. And you did not sleep enough because you did too much yesterday and so strained your body—and your mind as a result. And yet you think that today you must be perfect, in spite of how you are feeling. In Italian class just now, you did well to try to express yourself in Italian, both orally and in writing. Your error is in focusing in shame on your mistakes, thinking, “I knew better. Why did I make those stupid errors? Next time I must be sure that I’m rested so that I can think clearly before each word I use. The woman I was talking with must think I’m ignorant. How can I have made that mistake . . . or that one? I’m out of practice in speaking.” And so on, and so on. You didn’t hear the quieter voice saying, “That was fun. I’m getting a little more relaxed,” and “Just keep talking, Winnie. It’s coming back to you.”
The clunk on the head that you had earlier this morning when you stood up under the open dryer door was a message that you are continuing to try too hard, to tackle too much, to set overly harsh and demanding expectations for yourself. Do not worry: that fairly minor clunk has not set you on the road to dementia. But if you continue to strain your body and mind, your spirit and soul will go on suffering, as well, and you will continue to be incapable of serving as you would wish.
You do not have to be perfect. You have merely thought perfection is a prerequisite for your acceptability in the world. It is not. But what if it has been in the eyes of some? That situation would not make the expectation justified, or added perfection to God’s expectations or those of the souls who love you. The purpose of life is to experience, to learn, and to grow in insight and in the expression of kindness and love, not to be without flaws and mistakes. How can you develop if you have nothing to learn? Why would you need to be here in this earthly garden of beauty, joy, sorrow, and sometimes-harsh opportunity for growth?
Your striving for perfection—and the approval you hope it will bring—has kept you burdened since you were in the second grade. But you don’t need to continue to live under the weight of your self-issued commandment: “Thou shalt unceasingly seek perfection and approval.” And if you continue to feel guilt and shame for all the problems you have caused and experienced, you will have missed the point and simply prolonged your misery: you will go on haranguing yourself for your supposed want of kindness, empathy, acceptability, and worth as a human being. Yes, you could have been kinder and more understanding, but these deficiencies came from a lack of insight into yourself. You did not recognize that you valued others’ judgments above your own, and so you sought reasons outside yourself for your unhappiness. It is sad that you hurt your dear ones as a result. But hurting them was not your goal; your goal was stopping the distress within yourself. Your dearest ones now understand. You must do the same and move forward, seeing your errors as lessons and not as indelible sins.
Notice that we did not simply say, “Move on,” which implies amnesia regarding what has come before. Rather, we ask you to remember each lesson learned, keeping it in the forefront of your mind but letting the details of the schooling that taught the lesson sink into the river of life. As you make your way downstream, give thanks to every droplet, every rock, all the torrents and storms, all the beauty, and the lovely tranquil pools and eddies. And give thanks to yourself for your ability to love and learn and your desire to be kind and to serve, in spite of your human frailty and your flailing about from time to time in the rapids of your own creation.
Love and respect yourself and you will then better encourage, assist, and sustain others.