I’m having an affair with Fear. He’s been with me for a while and I’ve come to depend on his voice and assurances like a drug. He’s raised my kids with me – he even attended a few parent teacher conferences, good fellow that he is – and he usually sits alongside me while I drive. He goes to doctor’s appointments with me and he always accompanies me to social gatherings where I am bound to meet new people and he spends the evenings whispering sweet nothings into my ear. Heck, he dropped what he was doing and followed me around the world when I moved to Asia. He can’t keep his hands off of me. We’re like that obnoxious couple making out in the dark at the movie theater or staring longingly into each other’s eyes while roller-skating to love songs. We are entwined, Fear and me.
Here’s what dating Fear offers me.
He keeps me from making dumb mistakes: When I am ready to leap before looking he says, Do you really want to ask that woman you just met if she’d like to go for a walk or coffee? She might think you are a friendless loser. When I consider initiating intimacy with my husband, he steps in swiftly with, Just turn off the light and roll over, Sweetie. Let’s not have you rejected tonight by a man too exhausted to think. Also, he’s probably noticed those extra pounds you’ve put on. When I want to offer my services as a fashion consultant, he steps between the woman and me and says Shhh! She’s going to think you are one of those pushy pyramid scheme people. Just let her go to Nordstrom! See, if he weren’t my boyfriend I’d go around making a fool of myself all the time.
He keeps me safe and the same. With his voice in my ear, I am able to plan, strategize, consider, ponder and talk, but I never need to act. Action takes risk and he has a no-risk rule and I’ve learned to follow it. As I lean toward a new direction, he forms a knot in my stomach. Lean back, the knot disappears. Forward, knot, back, no knot. Fear hates failure and he is always keeping me away from it. Don’t try that new exercise program because you’ll probably quit by the end of the week. Don’t attempt a new leadership plan for your team; no one will follow it. Don’t travel to that country; you’ll catch a disease. So I stay safe and just dream.
He helps me focus on the future. Fear is very in touch with how it will all turn out. He is sure and positive and firm in his predictions. And I believe him. He doesn’t need to wonder, hope or trust because he can see into the future and just knows. It’s spooky sometimes how right he is. I mean, we never really know for sure how other options might have turned out because we always follow his plan, but it’s because he knows best. He’s been a parenting coach for me in always looking ahead and deciding what particular scenarios mean about my kids’ future. He was definitely present and in agreement with the coach that said she’d never play in high school if I didn’t let her join a travel team in fifth grade and he was speaking as loud as my heart was banging about how the bullying would never stop for the rest of my son’s life. He’s keen like that.
There are some downsides to dating him, I know. My girlfriends think he is a drag and are so sick of my showing up with him at my side. And they swear, if I talk about him to them one more time …
He gets boring after a while. I have a taste for adventure and novelty and I want to experience everything the world can offer me. He’s a downer when it comes to exploring new places, new relationships and new opportunities. Always yap yap yapping in my ear about the what ifs, the shoulda-coulda-wouldas, the ways it might possibly tank, the embarrassment and shame I might feel, and how I might be financially vulnerable if I proceed. His routine is so predictable it gets old.
Giving my heart to him closes it to others. He likes to occupy my whole heart and makes sure there is not a lot of room for anyone else in there. He helps me read signals and cues that indicate others don’t like me, think I am dumb, are laughing at me or see right past me. Honestly, when I give him my ear it makes sense not to let anyone in. There are good reasons to be suspicious and I don’t like having a broken heart anymore than the next gal. I keep it closed and watch people walk by and sometimes I just wonder how my life could have been enriched if I let them in.
But the biggest downside to loving him is that I don’t grow. There is no need to attend any lectures or courses for personal development; they won’t amount to much anyway. Because I don’t seek out new experiences or meet new people, my viewpoints and perspectives are never challenged or enlarged. I have a hunch that there is more out there for me, but he keeps holding me back, keeping me safe.
I’ve heard Fear’s voice for so many years that sometimes I forget I have a choice. Sometimes my own voice offers up words I know would make him proud. Occasionally the people who love me want to keep me safe and whole and so they speak some of Fear’s best lines too.
I dream of breaking up with him. I wonder what would happen if I played the field and dated around. I dunno if I’m up for it though. Could be fun. I hear Hope and Trust are currently single, available and looking for dates.
Ten years ago, my friend Judith leaned out of her car window and shouted, “Hey, I heard you turn thirty today! You will love your thirties. You finally get to enjoy who you are!” I was standing on the curb at preschool pick-up with one child in a stroller awaiting another to come bounding from the building. I was overweight and worn out. I resented my work-all-the-time husband and I awoke many mornings planning the bedtime routine for that night. The idea that something was going to change that would allow me to enjoy myself in this life of responsibly and exhaustion was hard to believe. But, Judith was right! Although the last ten years have had hiccups, a little thyroid medicine corrected the constant tiredness, some therapy and a lot of work sorted out the resentment, and the kids turned out to be my greatest pleasure. Go figure! Here are a few other random things I know about myself now that I didn’t know ten years ago.
Bitterness looks ugly on me.
My husband has a few pet names for me, and one that hits close to home describes the ugly seeds of resentment I sometimes let take root in my soul. He calls me Total Recall. Trust me, if you wronged me twelve years ago I can describe what we were wearing when you said what you said that changed everything. I can quote you verbatim, and I add emphasis when I repeat the story to show how wrong you were. I wake up in the mornings and remember things that happened that I still have not made peace with and I feel the anger and hatred all over again before I even throw back the comforter. But no more.
Now I welcome the amnesia that getting older brings. When I see you, I want to see a fresh start. This change from bitterness to grace was not (and still isn’t) easy for me, but one major habit change has made it possible: I’ve learned to forgive myself. In the way that math of the soul never really makes sense, when I added A, let myself off the hook, to B, recount all the wrongs ever done to me, they equaled C, forgive everybody. Sometimes when I realize I am still licking a wound and enough time has passed that I should have moved on, I have to force myself to examine my heart and find something to accept forgiveness for. And then boom, it doesn’t seem so hard to forgive that thing I’ve been carrying around against another person. In Christian lingo I hear, He forgave me, so how can I not forgive her? Another helpful tool is to realize that I have no idea what events or experiences led a person to that point when we had our misunderstanding. Context is everything, and often it’s missing during confusing, hurtful situations. Now I am trying to resist my knee-jerk go-bitter reaction, and choose forgiveness and grace instead. And whaddaya know? I look younger and more well rested for it!
Get myself to church.
Here’s a video that best expresses my churchy advice. (You’re welcome! I knew you’d like it!) I finally accepted that this side of death, I am unlikely to have all my faith-related issues sorted. I will dance and spin through and around tough questions with regularity. I will bang my head on the wall, throw my hands up and shout “I dunno!” and sometimes throw the Bible or concordance across the room in frustration. But, now I see that gathering with other believers and seekers is the best thing I can do to sort through those things. All the other good-for-Sundays kinds of things – brunch with friends, sports games for the kiddoes, sleeping in, biking with the family, cleaning out the garage, surfing the internet – will not challenge me to keep thinking, growing or engaging with the questions. On a given Sunday in my forties, you can find my unsure-of-much-but-going-with-my-hunch-self warming a pew. Is it a perfect church with the exact theology I can sign on to? Nope, not even close.
But each week I stand and let the words wash over me, I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.
I walk forward and take the manna of communion into my mouth, This is my body given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.
I stand and sing Here is love, vast as the ocean, and for a moment I can feel myself buoyed by all that is good, filled with hope and full of love to offer to those around me.
Strangers turn to me and say Peace be with you. And peace enters in.
I have to love my body no matter its shape or size.
Here’s the dealio: It’s a must, and no one is going to do it for me. In my profession I see all types of bodies in their underwear and after helping a thousand or so women find clothes, I can attest to an epidemic of self-loathing in our ranks. The size sixteen wishes she were just a twelve and the size zero wishes she were better proportioned. The small-chested woman goes on and on about how her friends can fill out a top better, and the endowed has hated her boobs since puberty. The woman with “perfect” measurements looks in the mirror and obsesses about her hair and won’t try on anything else until she adds lipstick. I’ve heard with my own ears, “I hate myself so much,” said quietly while gazing in the mirror. It’s called “fat talk,” this female bonding ritual we do to connect. No stranger to this angst, I too can pick apart my body piece-by-piece and name what I wish were different. After a fashion show a few years ago, five women were discussing the new clothing line we’d just seen. Turned out those of us with big thighs had only stared at the models’ thighs the entire time, and the women who struggle with their waist lines had been obsessing over the flat tummies on the runway. None of us had actually seen the clothes for what they were because we were too busy comparing ourselves and coming up short. But no more.
Girlfriends try to help, but I am a master at deflecting compliments. “You look fabulous, Joy!” “Ugh, I hate the way this shows my middle,” I’ll respond. Fat Talk. But no more.
The husband makes attempts to be supportive and loving, but I am so suspicious that I discount anything he says. (Do I think he is lying? That he just wants action? That he, too, wishes I were a leggy blonde? What keeps me from believing that he finds me beautiful?) When he compliments me I’ll roll my eyes with a you’ve got to be kidding signal. But no more.
Our culture is really lousy at helping me feel good. Seems no matter where I look – at magazines, movies or even in the school drop-off line – I encounter desperation to look younger and thinner. A friend in her fifties told me recently, “It’s a scientific fact that a woman looks her best at thirty.” What a defeating idea to believe!
So, it appears the job’s on me. In addition to offering this body some nutritious meals and physical activity, I need to hear it being loved as well.
I look at my size nine feet and say thank you for holding me up all these years. I know you hate high heels and I don’t blame you. They hurt! You’ve walked me wherever I’ve wanted to go and whether in ballet flats or doc martins you always keep me going. Thank you.
I look at these thighs and calves and say it’s ok that you aren’t the best fit for skinny jeans or that the zippers of tall leather boots usually won’t go all the way up– you’ve moved and carried me around the world and I am grateful.
It’s gets harder, but now I can touch my soft torso and say thank you for carrying two babies and helping me bend and lift all of these years. You’ve done a great job of keeping all the limbs connected and my whole body centered. You let me know when you are full and when you are hungry. I apologize that I don’t do sit-ups often enough for you, but somehow you still maintain enough strength to keep me upright.
And these arms of mine are so useful at hugging my friends and pulling the husband close and also carrying groceries for my family, so I say thank you for all the lugging and hugging you do.
Finally I reach my head and I toss my graying hair out of my eyes and peer close into the mirror and whisper, You are beautiful.
That’s the job of loving myself. Lather, rinse – and do it often.
I need to loosen my grip.
Yup, I’m a control freak and operate as if the more invested and engaged I get with something, the more I can turn it into what I want it to be. These last ten years have taught me to take a step back and let the thing be what it is supposed to be and stop trying to dictate or invest in particular outcomes.
Health – I’ve seen yearned-for infants, twenty-year-olds on the brink of launching, active and involved fifty-year-old fathers, and ancient beloved grandparents all pass away. None of those deaths came easily, and no amount of my wishing them away made any difference. I will have my health and life for some amount of time and am determined to cherish and honor it. I have no promises about tomorrow.
Money – I’ve lived in abundance and in worry. No longer will either define my worth or my outlook on life. I agree that money can make life easier, but it brings the possibility of a crapload of dysfunction along with it. Beyond providing the basic necessities (for us this means housing, food and education) it doesn’t do much for self-confidence, family love, or identity building. I say, Easy come, easy go, Miss Money. I’ll enjoy you while you are with me, but I won’t grieve very long when you take a vacation from my bank account.
Friendship – I am wired to need girlfriends and I thrive on female energy flowing through me, helping me self-examine and guiding me toward my future-me. I stand by the advice I heard many years ago: “Look for the best in a friend rather than a best friend.” Though some women come close, I don’t need any single friend to be my perfect soul mate. If I start measuring her by a standard in my head, she’ll certainly fail. When women come into my life – and new ones appear all the time – I try to figure out what part of her is the best fit for what part of me. Should we connect about mothering, wife-ing, walking, faith, books, travel, or will she challenge me to grow in a new direction? While I am trying to discover what is a piece in her to fit with a piece in me, I am also trying to offer my best. This approach guarantees that an amorphous cloud of friendship holds me at all times. I still struggle with rejection, though. Even I can feel like a left-out middleschooler while scrolling through face book and looking at party shots that do not include me, or watching two women giggle in a way that neither does with me. Those pangs of exclusion serve as a reminder to peel my fingers back again and recognize that for whatever reason – insecurity, mis-reading cues, rough patches of neediness – I’ve begun to cling too hard to that particular friendship.
My Children – Well, I wish I could add them to this list, but I am still learning to hold their sweet souls in an open palm. I know they are on loan from God to me, I know their lives do not reflect my identity, and I know that if I do my job well, they will find their own path and it will be headed away from me. I am still processing this one.
I can’t wait to see how life treats me now that I will be a lady in her forties. I hear that all sorts of fun things will happen to my body. I’ve already had the pleasure of experiencing a few personal summers, and I can see that the rumor about eyebrows disappearing and showing up on chins might have some truth to it. Over the next ten years I’ll be saying goodbye to two kids as they fly the coop and I hope I am able to do it with equipoise. (Current trends indicate I might have a rough time with this, but I am betting on grace to reign when needed.)
Whatever heads my way, you can be sure I’ll be writing about it, because that’s another thing I discovered during the last decade. I love to write! Stick around; it’s going to be a fun ride.
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I was sitting in her kitchen trying to comfort her while she cried. “If this turns out to be true,” she said, while emphatically jabbing her finger in the air, “I will want a personal apology.” It was springtime in Washington DC in 1998, and we were learning more each day about Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton. My idealistic friend, Genevieve, had volunteered for his campaign, had never met him, but had placed her hope and dreams firmly in his camp. Now he was receiving blowjobs in the oval office and lying about it. Like many young Americans, Genevieve had adored him from afar and felt her optimism rise each time he gave a speech. On the day I was visiting her, her heart was breaking apart bit by bit.
Genevieve was no stranger to heartache. The youngest of six children, she was the kid everyone forgot when her parents finally called it quits. Her Jewish father found an inexpensive fundamentalist Christian sleep-away camp and sent her there for an entire summer. When August rolled around, he never came to pick her up and she entered the foster system for a few years until he was ready to parent again. I asked her why her bitterness rested so much on her father and not on her mom. “He was the parent who tried, at least,” I reasoned. “They made a race for the door and she won,” was all she would say about her Mom.
Somehow the saxophone-playing, smooth talking president caught what was left of the pieces of her spirit and filled her with expectations of a better life for her daughter and hope for all mankind. Instead, she was left holding the stained blue dress, the sound bite of his lie, and his new definition of “sexual relations” that caused parents to have uncomfortable conversations with their ten-year-olds who were catching whiffs of the news.
Last month, I attended a writer’s conference. As I was waiting for a session to begin, I recognized a face in the crowd. There, just a row behind me, was my very favorite as-of-yet-unpublished writer. I discovered her blog about a year ago, immediately subscribed and devoured everything she’d ever posted. If I noticed that a new post came through email, I would pull my car over and read all one thousand words right then. I really dug her honest, funny, slightly sarcastic, devil-may-care attitude. I felt inspired every time I read a new piece by her. I was so excited to see and recognize her, so I turned around and said hello and told her how much I loved her writing. We chatted for a few minutes and then again during the next break. All together we shared about twenty minutes of conversation.
As I was walking back to the hotel that night I couldn’t get rid of this feeling of disappointment. I had homework to do before the morning session, but I kept stopping and thinking about her. She was tooooooootally different in person and it wasn’t sitting well with me. I couldn’t put my finger on it exactly, but meeting her felt hollow. She came off as, well, I hate to say it, but… shallow and insecure. She wasn’t at all like the gal I had stalked for a year. In her nervousness at having been “recognized,” she talked a lot about herself and gushed a bit about which agent was representing her, disclosed her struggles to finish a book, and somehow started on a tangent to describe how her husband had shaved off his beard recently. She never asked me where I was from, what I write about, whether I had children, even whether I was enjoying the conference. I could be wrong, but I don’t think she ever asked me my name.
I tried to brush it off – What did you think, Joy, that you’d become slumber party girlfriends or something? But I can’t let it go. I knew she was just a regular gal – that was part of her charm! – but I am still so bummed out to discover that she is not nearly as confident and interesting as I made her out to be.
Just before Christmas of last year I sat in on a lecture by Chuck DeGroat. He spoke for a long time about the “false self” we build around us. The idea goes something like this: We think people expect us to be something and we like the affirmation we receive when we fulfill their expectations, so we throw our energy into being that thing. The only problem is that we are so much more complicated and whole than only that thing, and we can accidentally ignore important parts of ourselves when we give all our attention to being that thing. I like to be funny. I think my friends expect that in any given situation I will have a great one liner to throw out that will make us all laugh. I looooove being the funny girl, but here is where I can run into trouble. Sometimes I cannot even relax and enjoy a moment because I am stressing out about what funny thing I am going to say to make everyone laugh. It’s like they are all waiting for me to say it and omg, what if I can’t think of something funny to say?!? Who am I then? The funny gal, although a piece of who I am, is not all of who I am. And If I begin to place my worth and value in being only her, she becomes my false self. I may have this whole theory wrong, so you might want to subscribe to Chuck’s blog, or buy his book to get the real story.
The disillusionment Genevieve and I felt was so predictable. Of course the people we admired were just regular people! I can only imagine that with fame comes more temptation to live in a false self. (And overnight fame can really tweak someone – look no further than the sad story of Jason Russell.) I really cannot blame Bill Clinton or my blogger gal for giving the public an image we were looking for. I guess it’s a lot of work to be so perfect and inspiring, and by the time one has a public following her, she’s pretty much sold out to the false self we are asking her to be.
I think in the future, I will try very hard not to meet my idols face to face. I’ll attend their lectures, read their books and leave it there. I will stay away from the book signings and won’t rush the stage to gush over them. I’ll leave the false image I have of them intact, and hope that the news won’t start reporting about inappropriate uses of cigars in their offices.
Right now, I am grateful Anne Lamott has never responded to any of my letters!
And when I become famous someday, I will try very hard to remember the words of a wise CAbi colleague: Be more interested than interesting.
Welcome to the new writing home for the old Joy Libby. My 39th birthday is in a few days, it’s the beginning of a new year for all of us, and this is something I have wanted to do for a long time. No time like the present, it seems. In addition to the writing I do for shepherdresource.com and pausesf.blogspot.com, I’ll also be posting here at joylibby.com. We’ll see if all this writing might lead somewhere. Welcome aboard, all and blessings for 2012!