“Don’t make an identity out of suffering,” the bemused and quiet voice in my head repeated, enunciating clearly for the second (or was it third?) time, as though speaking to a friend in hushed tones in the back of church during a silent bit. An insistence underlay the bemusement; “No, really. Don’t make an identity out of suffering. There’s no need.”
On thinking back to what I was like as a child, I remember a buoyant optimism, and grounded conviction that the commandant to “love one another, as I have loved you,” was something that was a simple given. A fallen out friendship with a boy in second grade brought about matter of fact pronouncements to my friends that it was okay, that sometimes people still loved each other but couldn’t be together anymore because they were unhappy, but it would all be fine and they could go about living quite contentedly. It’s puzzling, then, and I’m not quite sure how it happened, that I spent much of my teen years, twenties, thirties, and yes…forties living the antithesis of that early optimism and grounded contentment, the connectedness to The Whole seemingly absent.
I went through seasons of depression, waves of despair. I clung to every negative story or event like a sticky burr on felt, weaving the experiences together into a thick and sticky cocoon. I stubbornly refused to forgive, even if I pretended I had on the surface, or to myself. It felt safe. People listened to my stories as I retold them again and again, further matting the threads of my cocoon into an impenetrable fortress, pretending to myself (and everyone around me) that I was a hapless prisoner. It’s an easy way out. You get to not really own your stuff, and people around you say kind things to reassure you. Nadia Bolz-Weber said it well: we are the small sheep because it feels safe and comforting.
Sometimes we repeat things enough that they become blindingly obvious, even to us: an elephant sized backpack of grudges, fears, personal opinions and beliefs is, well, elephantine. If we can move beyond our internal eyerolling and self castigation at that realization to a place of honest compassion and non-resistance, they are our most excellent teachers. The tougher an outer shell, the more obvious a hole becomes, even if it’s tiny, and especially when it lets the light in. Our egos have done their best to keep us safe, even if it was in a way that really makes no sense.
There is a subtle aliveness that we can sense inside our bodies, and it’s always there. There is space between our cells into which this aliveness fits, like a matrix. The aliveness is expansive and difficult to describe; on asking if it would be large though to haul around all my stories and beliefs, that same clear, bemused voice asked, “What on earth for?”
We are not our stories or beliefs. We are not our achievements. We are not our jobs. We are not our failures, our miseries, our clothes, our friends, our social media profiles. We are not even our physical bodies, and we are not our thoughts. We simply are.