"When you ask people about love, they tell you about heartbreak. When you ask people about belonging, they'll tell you their most excruciating experiences of feeling excluded. And when you ask people about connection the stories they told me were about disconnection."
"I ran into this unnamed thing that absolutely unraveled connection in a way I didn't understand and had never seen."
"It turned out to be shame. And shame is really easily understood as the fear of disconnection. Is there something about me, that if other people know it or see it, I won't be worthy of connection."
"The people who have a strong sense of love and belonging, believe they are worthy of love and belonging."
From Brene Brown's TEDxHOUSTON Talk on The Power of Vulnerability. For more check out her candid interview with Chase Jarvis, or her books (I've read Daring Greatly)
I can't help it. Every time an acceptance speech starts with, "First, I gotta give all the glory to God…" I shake my head. These are usually artists or athletes at the pinnacle of achievement, the culmination of countless hours of preparation, and yet they defer…why? I think it is a high-road technique (the HIGHEST road). It is a stunt-double for humility when the usual "awww shucks* won't cut it. Most of us struggle to gracefully accept a trivial compliment let alone navigate the minefield that awaits in the award acceptance speech. There is certainly social utility to demure and spread the credit around but that, "glory to God" part is a vestige of church and Christian culture.
Every time we screw up, we bare the full brunt of the pain and sorrow we've caused. We strayed from the path. We missed the mark. We have to deal with the consequences. Yet every time we succeed, well…we couldn't have done that on our own. "To God be the glory."
We are not worthy. There is non righteous, no, not one. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
Between church, Sunday school, Youth Group, and the 90 minute round trip commute to Christian School where we carpooled with the Pastor's wife - there was no escaping this message. I think it was intended to normalize shortcomings but as a teen, struggling with feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem, I can't help but wonder if being steeped in Christian culture magnified these feelings.
Fulfillment and meaning were derived from determining God's plan for our lives and sticking to that. Simple, right? This profoundly important purpose was revealed through a process strikingly similar to the childhood "Hot and Cold" clue game. Friction & hardships generally meant we were headed in the wrong direction and/or God was trying to teach us a lesson. Cold, colder, ICE COLD! Blessings generally meant God felt like giving us a treat and/or we were on the right track. Oooo getting warmer!
In short: bad stuff = we missed the mark, good stuff = God.
This worldview can be liberating for those who want to put some space between themselves and important decisions. Let's call them the, "Jesus take the wheel" types. If you aren't driving, life just happens to you. I know many devout Christians who prefer this arrangement. As someone who doesn't even let the car decide when to shift gears (I drive stick), this notion did not sit well with me.
If we rely solely on faith and do not determine our own path - except when we stray - how can we ever feel successful? How can we derive a sense of purpose? It seems that in our vigilance to vanquish arrogance, we kept pride and self-worth outside the gates for bearing a passing resemblance to their uglier cousin. If at the first sign of success we deflect all credit to the big man upstairs, we're just left holding the scraps. How can we not feel perpetually like a worthless failure, or at best, a charitable drone?
When I asked some believers about this they were quick to point out scriptures that portray God as loving, caring and deeply concerned with every aspect of our lives; the lilies of the field and so on. Still this suggests worth is only derived from the extent to which we have a "divine" lineage (made in God's image), are fulfilling our divine calling (God using us as helpful puppets) or are valued and loved by God (even though we don't deserve it).
How can we accept love from God -- or anyone for that matter -- if we don't feel worthy? Most Evangelical Christians believe that accepting God's love (His sacrificial gift) is central to salvation but the very idea runs counter to the notion of grace. Grace is getting something other than what we deserve. And I was told time and time again that I don't deserve God's love and forgiveness but I get it anyway. This was supposed to provide comfort. I was supposed to be grateful. But to me it sounds more like a tyrant scattering food on the ground for the peasants. "You are not worthy to be here with the Supreme Leader, but he has taken pity on you and provided bread. Be grateful."
Whether or not this is a distortion of the scriptures, it is a reflection of the Christian culture that surrounded me during that time. The depravity of mankind is a central pillar to Christianity and is crucial to establishing the need for salvation. While it serves this purpose well, the collateral damage is a crisis of self-worth. If we're just a bunch of screw-ups, why would God even bother with us? Why do we bother?
"OK, turn left at the next intersection."
"Are you sure?"
I'm not great with directions mostly because my wife is a human GPS but this wasn't the first time she'd questioned my instructions. In fact this was the third time this ride. For once, I knew I was right. I was using my phone's GPS to navigate.
And I'd had enough.
"So I'm too stupid to even pass along navigation from my phone!?" I screamed.
This was just the beginning of a multi-minute rampage about how people think I am stupid, incapable or otherwise ill-equipped to be a successful, contributing member of society.
Of course, my wife was just trying to make sure we got to the port in time for the soon to be departing ferry. She didn't mean anything by it. She didn't deserve my response. She deserved (and got) an apology. But as I reflected on why I responded so aggressively, these words kept bouncing around in my mind: "to whom much is given, much will be required." This scripture-turned-motivational-axiom had become the anthem of my inadequacy.
In a hero obsessed culture, we cheer for the underdogs. Those who, against incredible odds, go on to achieve at a high level. Whether it's overcoming poverty, discrimination, handicap or just a good old fashioned "David & Goliath" story, we can't help cheering for the little guy.
But I am no underdog.
I have privilege, in every sense of the word. I am a white, middle-class, college educated male, living in the United States. I was an honor-roll student. I was adequate enough at sports to avoid mockery (most of the time). I mean...the ferry we narrowly caught was Nantucket-bound! The closest thing I have to a disadvantage is that I am a very, very slow reader. But make no mistake, no one would ever root for me. On the spectrum, I am closer to a Goliath than I am to David.
As we left the harbor I sulked off to a frigid but isolated corner of the boat to be alone with the sea spray. Much is required. Those words echoed in my mind. As they steeped and stewed in the deep and distorting pool of my insecurity the message grew sharper, "You're not allowed to feel bad about failure. You are pathetic. I mean, really? People have overcome far more than you to be world class performers. You can't seriously be feeling sorry for yourself?"
Even as I write it, I think: "that cranky voice in my head was right". I would not be surprised to learn most people agree with that voice...which is the core of the problem.
That shame; the feeling you are not allowed to feel a particular way, is crippling. It does not allow you to properly process those feelings. Pressure building up with no outlet leads to one thing: explosion. I couldn't share my feelings without fear of judgement; fear of disconnection. So they came rushing out with only the slightest poke to an area of vulnerability (in my case: being directionally challenged!).
To those eager to dismiss this whole thing as yet another hallmark of the entitled, coddled millennial generation, let us remember that depression and anxiety thrive in the most developed parts of the world. Liberated from the more basic physiological & safety needs, we have the opportunity to work our way up Maslow's hierarchy of needs into the far less visible but every bit as real need for love and belonging, self-esteem and self-actualization.
Many are quick to dismiss mental illness - especially anxiety and depression - as "first world problems". There is a tendency to view items further up the hierarchy as more trivial. This is inaccurate. The hierarchy is intended to emphasize the all-consuming nature of lower level needs; especially the core survival needs. Complex relational problems do not often come to light until we have secured food and safety.
Most citizens of the first world have been liberated from daily concentration on these most basic needs. This creates enough space for higher order issues to emerge. Those who apply the "first world problems" label are seeking to trivialize these problems by lumping them in with, "my phone cable isn't long enough to reach the bed" or "my 2-day shipping got delayed by a snow storm". These do not belong in the same category as depression and anxiety. Anyone who puts them in the same list is misguided.
Still, we sort of think these people have a point. There are people who don't have food or water. It is very common to compare our pain to that of others. This can lead to a healthy sense of perspective and empathy for those who are worse off. But more often than not, we use this as a litmus test. Are we experiencing real struggle like starvation, epidemic, or war? No? Then our pain must not be real.
Of course this is absolute nonsense. Our pain and struggle doesn't make the pain and struggle of others any less real (and vice versa). We don't diminish their pain by validating our own. It isn't as though there is a set amount of pain in the world and we are hogging it all.
I am grateful for what I've been given. I know I have it good. But out of respect for "real" problems I was drowning under the weight of "much is required" and feeling as though I wasn't allowed to ask for a life raft.