There’s an awful lot to be brought down by throughout the year, whether it’s the personal stresses that complicate our everyday lives or the bigger, often scarier things going on in the world at large. There’s always something that prompts our heads to shake, our eyes to turn downward, and our shoulders to sag under the weight of an invisible but emotionally tangible burden. Sometimes you just want to cry. Sometimes you just need to cry. That’s okay. (I’m stilling learning this.)
The holidays have always been special to me in part because they offer a bit of wisdom in dealing with the things that can weigh our shoulders down; rather than avoiding, escaping, ignoring, they teach us to shine a light. The holidays don’t symbolize turning away from what’s difficult, but rather turning towards it, letting the unsightly dark spots of life be seen; witnessing them, accepting them, and most importantly, sending love and peace where it’s needed. What the holidays symbolize, as it turns out, is remarkable instruction on how to live.
It’s no coincidence that light plays a big part in this season, whether it applies to a religion or a tradition or a personal inclination (a menorah, a Christmas tree, a candle, a Yule log). The most basic truth of light is that it is illuminated by darkness. Light can alter darkness, but darkness can’t snuff out light. Even the night comes only because the sun chooses to set.
What this symbolism of light during the holiday season means to me is the practice of peace, joy, and constancy. Not a perfect practice, but a hopeful one. In my experience, it’s about simply endeavoring. I believe that life is about doing the best we can, and the holidays – this season of light and peace, of comfort and joy – help me define what my best is.
Peace and joy are stalwart qualities when they’re nurtured into positions of power within us; which is to say, when we cultivate them and help them grow to a size that cannot be overlooked. Feed them more often than anger and resentment and the difference will amaze you. But we do essentially have to coexist with all the different atmospheres of our emotional selves, just like we have to coexist with all the atmospheres of the emotional world in which we live. I’ve learned that peace and joy help with that, too. Gradually, whenever I’m met with a difficulty that burdens my spirit, my spirit does its best to acknowledge the darkness with the patience of peace while the compassion of joy sends love where it’s needed. I’ve also found that my motivation for sending out love can be so strong that it overpowers that instinct to turn away. This practice has proven to be strong and valiant for me and I’m grateful that the holidays come around every year to remind me, and to help me celebrate it.
We tend to think that the existence of fear (particularly in abundance) means we must have a lack of courage. Despite having heard countless times that courage is always found within, there’s still a governing part of our minds that believes courage has to be acquired. I believed that for most of my life; I believed it a year ago when I decided to finally pursue courage once and for all, and I believed it seven months ago when I really began to put that decision into action. But somewhere along the way I’ve realized two things: one, courage looks different on everyone. Our idea of what courage is, what it looks and sounds like, varies. Widely. And two, that part of me that was misunderstanding courage had a name: that part was fear.
I know fear all too well because it’s loud. It flails its arms helplessly and pleads against the outlandish creativity and its little offspring dreams to stay quiet, stay where it’s safe. It pleads with courage to stay there, too, because as far as fear is concerned you just never can tell when courage will do something foolish and get you into a situation that will cause you untold embarrassment. And once that happens, courage will leave you there, and fear will be the only one to keep you company. Oh, except shame. And regret. And anguish. Its kin.
But courage doesn’t really leave. It just does what fear, in its blind panic, has trained it so well to do: it gets quiet. The work, then, is to call it back out, gently, and to grow valiant in the knowledge that it’s just as strong and just as reliable even if it doesn’t shake your bones with its volume.
Mary Anne Radmacher wrote, “Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes it’s the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.'” I’ve written that down, memorized it, and developed it as a sort of mantra, something of a courage-philosophy. But one thing I’ve learned is that it’s a practice. I don’t say those words to myself and think I’ve won or lost my struggle based on their ability to make me instantly more comfortable. Instead, I say those words as a way to acknowledge courage in its solitude, to call it out a little bit each time, and as a reminder to myself to get to know the place where it lives.
My courage may be a spectacularly well-trained quiet courage, and learning that has brought me closer to it.
I have a habit – and I know I’m not alone in this – of looking for validation from others. Whether I’m writing an e-mail or weighing a big life decision, I’ve always felt the need to ask, “Does this sound okay?” or “Do you think that’s a good idea?” I always knew it was an insecurity, but I never considered that it was anything more than a quirk; certainly not a harmful one. But despite how common the insecurity is, I’ve realized that it can be harmful, because the more we feed it, the more it grows. And the more it grows, the louder it gets. And the louder it gets, the quicker we are to let the fear run our lives. Sooner or later insecurity owns us, and it doesn’t know what else to do but be insecure.
The search for validation, as I’ve come to know it, is the offspring of insecurity. But it’s not just about the need to be accepted: it’s the belief that we are unable to validate ourselves. When the weight of that realization fully hit me I thought: You, self, need to give yourself permission. You need to give yourself permission to see, to discover, to hold, to understand, to be okay. You need to give yourself permission to be your own validation. You also need to give yourself permission to make mistakes, to fail and to look foolish. Because it is going to happen. Most likely – and with your track record, let’s be honest – you are going to fail at some things and you will feel embarrassment and shame and regret. And that’s okay. Give yourself permission to know – to trust – that it’s okay. Maybe even, if you can, strive to give yourself permission to accept that those mistakes and failures are wonderful, because when the dream-house you’re trying to build crumbles all around you you’ll be able to stand on the ruins and reach higher, and you’ll learn things, and eventually you’ll be in the right place with the right tools and all four walls will stand. But you have to give yourself permission to get started so you can finally stop toeing the dirt and you can finally look up, and see, and estimate, and hope, and try.
Of course, if it took just telling myself that speech only once, I’d be a lot farther in my life than I am (wouldn’t we all?). It’s like everything else: it’s a practice. It’s a process of once again relearning this thing called life and unlearning all the self-shame we’ve carried with us, all the things we’ve allowed because we thought that’s just how it was supposed to be. It’s so hard for so many reasons, namely the fact that it takes time and we live in an age of super-mega instant gratification. Who wants to wait for results anymore? We just want to see them. But the first step is the first step, and it leads to more success, more peace, more awareness – more permission.
At some point this year, three words began popping up in my mind at random intervals. They were compassion, courage, and creativity. I was drawn to them as a trio, their collective briskness and the way they fitted together with other favorite words like cozy and comfort and connection. Life in the dependable Cs. Consistency. Completion. Consideration. But it was compassion, courage, and creativity that came around most often. I was seeing and using “compassion” a lot as I began trying to make more ethical choices in my style of living, and I picked “courage” as my word of the year back in January; through my work in therapy I began to understand that “creativity” is my constant mode of expression and conversation, my greatest wish for my own life. It’s a sign to myself that I’m doing okay, so long as I’m creating, because that means I’m continuing to grow and learn.
Eventually, I realized that the three words are interconnected and it dawned on me that each one symbolized a part of my life that I wanted to work on. Not just wanting – these were parts of my life that I was just starting to understand the importance of. They were necessary parts of my life – vital, even. And as the fullness of each began to take shape I recognized in them the refuge and the source of meaning each could hold if I would take the time to tend to them like little gardens of the soul. That would be very important, very lucrative work. It required patience and dedication, and a gentle, hopeful spirit.
The compassion element was first to dawn on me. Compassion means some of the hardest work for me, yet somehow I mistakenly thought it would be the easiest. This is the broadest because it includes self-love, and self-love contains a multitude of struggles. Self-love pertains to body image – a saga of its own – as well as acceptance, permission, and comforting the frightened inner-child. That’s powerful work, and it’s profoundly challenging. Compassion also includes my spiritual practice – whatever that may be – and the acts of giving, caring, sharing. The compassion of the self and the selfless alike. How I treat myself and others, essentially.
Courage is its own small-big practice, but it also serves as an umbrella for its other companions, because the fact is it takes courage to be compassionate and it takes courage to be creative (goodness knows). But on its own, courage exemplifies the taking of action – what I think will be the hardest, and so avoid, but what time and again proves to be not so scary after all. It’s taking the chance, exposing myself to a scary situation. That can be literal (anxiety-provoking), but it can also be hypothetical, as hypotheticals are less scary by nature but sometimes just as big of a deterrent. Courage is the commitment to the whole shebang.
Creativity is the letting out, it’s the expressing and the doing. Frightful business. It’s also about reminding myself that every creative doing is an opportunity for mindfulness, for praying through my hands and finding inner-peace in the stitch of a knitting needle, the pen scribbling on the paper, the stirring of a pot of soup, or the colors layering themselves in the intricacies of a mandala. The creativity is also about the sharing; the act of allowing oneself to be vulnerable by exposing one’s most personal possession (one’s art) to the world. Because if you want to do creative work, you can’t keep it in the four walls of your self. You must put it in the window, at the very least. Sharing it allows you to test the waters of the self-kindness you’ve been nurturing. It helps you to build up your vital truth of being okay with who you are and what you can do, however limited.
Their interconnectedness was what I found most remarkable. It takes the openness of creativity and the diligence of courage to be compassionate. And it takes both gentle compassion and creative expression (for tapping into authenticity) to be truly, effectively courageous. And without the sensitivity of compassion or the daring of courage we cannot reach the apex of our creativity.
None can really be accomplished without the others; at least, not to the level of wholeheartedness with which I wanted to live. So without much ceremony my three little-big practices were born; part of it has been writing down as much as I can, as often as I can, and even going so far as to share my journey. What comes next is anyone’s guess, but I’m convinced that it’s the attention you give your practices that make them successful. That makes it all sound much less frightening, doesn’t it?
When you struggle with a disorder of any sort, be it physical or mental, the process of acceptance can be stubbornly blocked by implacable fear. Fear of what others will think of you, fear of how the knowledge will change their perception of you; fear of how it will change your perception of yourself. This block, I think, can sometimes be caused by our fear of the clinical aspect of our struggle. We have been diagnosed. Someone has – as we might disproportionately think – put their signature to the fact that there is something wrong with us. And somewhere between the relief of getting answers and the space where we absorb this new understanding of ourselves is the fearful voice saying we have to keep this secret. Because to keep that part of yourself secret is to keep yourself safe; to make that newly discovered vulnerability as less vulnerable as possible. But as it happens, sometimes the process of harboring that vulnerability makes things worse. Good intentions become fear-based intentions. And as we scramble to keep our vulnerable secret we end up manifesting a whole bunch of unhealthy habits, behaviors, and attitudes along the way. With every protective step we validate what we mistakenly feared from the start: that there’s something wrong with us. We’re so busy protecting ourselves from the rest of the world that we don’t stop to think about protecting ourselves from our own reactions, our own behavior.
That, in a nutshell, is my story. A bit backwards, but I wound up in that place of being stifled by fear, which seems increasingly common. By the time I was six years old I developed the nervous habit of biting my tongue; before I was seven I bit so hard and so often that I punctured it. It was that early on in my life that I was saddled with the vulnerability: the diagnosis – only, I was too young to know or care what it meant. So I went along in my childhood with my nervous habits, bolstered by one of the most supportive families you could imagine and anchored by my natural introversion, my aptitude for creativity and play. But as I grew into a grown-up mind I grew into a grown-up awareness. I shouldered the grown-up misconception that vulnerabilities are safest when they’re kept locked away, when they’re kept reminded of their status as “weakness”. Now, though, I’ve come to understand the fatal flaw in that practice. It encourages fear – avoidance, shame, all the weighty struggles – and it manifests the perception of not being good enough.
This year, I’ve been on a journey to relearn my grown-up mindset and to correct the mistakes that my fear made in its attempts to do its job (keeping me safe). I stopped smothering the vulnerability; I faced, for the first time as an adult, the clinical aspect of how my anxiety had grown and what it had bred, and I’ve begun reshaping a clinical vulnerability into a vital truth. My vital truth is that I have severe social anxiety. It crippled me, but I learning to thrive.
The perceived nature of vulnerabilities is that they’re weaknesses, but I think that’s wrong. I think sometimes what makes us vulnerable is our greatest source of strength, because it teaches us strong things: like courage and how to love and what it takes to be kind. I’m grateful for my vulnerability because it’s put me on a path of learning self-compassion, gentleness, and living from a place of simple grace. It’s been the motivation to develop practices that let me connect to life in ways I never would have imagined. Even though it can sometimes be hard to leave the house and it’s always hard to make eye contact with strangers; even though at twenty-six big achievements can sometimes be seemingly small things like driving a car or making a phone call; even though it’s easy to feel stunted and fearful and embarrassed, the practices of learning to live in love rather than fear have made me feel just as in-touch with – and part of – the beauty of life as someone who travels the world.
These practices are, collectively, the process of nurturing the courage that was born within and encouraging it to grow large enough to someday become a place to dwell, a place to make decisions from. For me, as for so many people, that’s the journey. And the first step is to embrace our vital, vulnerable truths.