Last year, I wrote a year-end post about the importance of community and bearing each other’s burdens. You can read it here.
It’s now officially almost 2018. Another trip around the sun. And after a year of work, family, life, counseling, grief, celebration, and strife, I want to sit down with my 2017 self and tell her, “You don’t need more community. What you actually need is more comfort, more confidence, and more acceptance of you. Just you. Within you.”
You see, the irony is that after I made that post last year, and the clock struck midnight, and 2018 made its entrance, it was as if God chose to place me in the most isolating position possible. Close friends who had always been within arm’s reach stopped returning my calls. Emails went unanswered. My husband’s new job occupied his calendar and mind. The cold weather made social outings unappealing. Motivation drained out of me like dark viscous sap, and I felt myself wallowing and drowning in an unshakeable sense of loneliness. My life, once vibrant and full of the voices of others had suddenly gone dark, and my spirit seemed to drift away with it.
Wallowing is not really my style, so of course I tried drowning it out with activities, forced trips and outings with friends, banana bread (there’s a whole separate blog post on that if you’re interested). I sought advice. I prayed. The only consistent answer I got was, “The only way out is through.”
So I resolved with myself to continue showing up even if I could only do so with minimal effort. I gave myself grace to not answer every email every day. To sleep late sometimes when it felt warranted. To make myself do one healthy thing every day for myself and let that be enough sometimes. You’d think sleeping in and slacking off would be a no brainer, but perfectionists hate grace, this part wasn’t fun for me.
In late spring at the recommendation of a Bravo reality TV star’s Instagram story, I picked up a copy of The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer. It’s not a light read, and if you’re unable to get into a woo woo frame of mind, it’s simply not for you. The book rests on the key idea that when we disconnect our emotions from reality, we experience freedom. That most of our problems come from how we feel about reality, not from reality itself. If you can disconnect your sense of worth and happiness from how you feel, and instead ground it in what’s real and true, you can experience real, lasting happiness.
It’s Buddhist in nature, but it relies on many of the ideas that you would find in CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) or other religious/spiritual thought, just presented in a different way.
“The only permanent solution to your problems is to go inside and let go of the part of you that seems to have so many problems with reality.” ― Michael A. Singer, The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself
It felt uncomfortable and wrong to want to disconnect from my emotions. I’m an artist, isn’t the soul crushing melancholy where I’m supposed to draw all my creative direction and motivation? It felt a little bit like I was rejecting a close friend. My emotions, in their capricious and volatile state, have always been there with me, I can’t just leave them behind!
But while The Untethered Soul is a highly spiritual book, it’s by no means fluffy–it’s blunt and honest and hits you where it hurts. I walked away from the book with a deep knowing that what needed to happen next was that I needed to take care of me first, and that sometimes taking care of yourself means doing things you really don’t want to do.
Self care is way less about sheet masks and splurging on a latte every Friday morning, and way more about having difficult conversations, being disciplined, and being unafraid to sit with discomfort when it comes.
And so I, the person who was just preaching the gospel of giving yourself to others and carrying each other’s burdens just a few months prior, set out with a new mission: look out for number one first.
“Only you can take inner freedom away from yourself, or give it to yourself. Nobody else can.” ― Michael A. Singer, The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself
I started speaking my mind more and giving more opinions to my spouse. I confronted or walked away from people who were hurting me. I told people what I was feeling deep inside, and I cried in restaurants a lot.
With every “no” or “this is not okay” or “this is what I think” I threw out there, there was immeasurable guilt. And it became clear that for a very long time, I’d been using that guilt to guide my every move and decision.
grace I will let it go.
I am letting it go.
I have let it go.
I am trying to let it go.
But I thought I was letting go of something like a balloon,
and I would watch it disappear,
racing away from me on the breeze
to meet the clouds.
When I really let go, I saw:
I am the thing that floats away.
Ashley Buzzy (@arbuzzy), A Practical Dictionary
This word, grace, it kept coming up for me. This idea, that all the weight I’d been carrying, the feelings of inadequacy, of guilt, of shame for not being enough, that I could just set them down and walk away? Insane.
But God has a way of grabbing your chin and forcing you to look the right direction. After a summer of ambiguous health issues, I spent the Fall dragging my vacant body back and forth between celebrations and crises over and over again.
My friends had babies, I had panic attacks. I celebrated my five-year anniversary and lost my grandmother in the same week. I checked off a massive bucket list item and had the opportunity photograph an elopement in Olympic National Park. I drove myself to the hospital with kidney stones. My own life was flashing by at warp speed and all I could feel was guilt because I couldn’t be everywhere and do more.
I think God was like, “Gurl please calm down. Carrying the weight of the world is my job, not yours but nice try.”
This is grace. The unmerited favor we receive when we recognize that we’re not God. The reward that comes out of the brokenness when we understand we can’t carry it all alone.
I now understand, that I’m the best possible friend/spouse/daughter/artist/etc. when I have energy and motivation and focus. I can’t have those things when I’m walking around with extreme feelings of guilt.
I can’t give when there’s nothing left. I can’t help when I’m depleted, and I can’t love when I hate myself.
This is just another chapter in a lifetime of learning my way around the magnitude of grace. Amazing amazing grace.