A Better F Word
and it isn't "foundation"
Why does it seem more important with each passing year to be able to forgive? I wrote this for O, The Oprah Magazine, remembering a time when forgiveness was a concept I was sadly unfamiliar with.
I used to feel as if I were living in a foreign country. It was as if I were an outsider, never comfortable with the customs, never fully understanding what was expected of me. And so I was always walking on eggshells: Did I do the right thing? Did I somehow unknowingly offend you with my last remark? Was my work not quite good enough? Were my friends, lovers acceptable? I felt as if I were being judged, and most often coming up short, like I was playing a game with a set of rules no one had bothered to explain to me.
The older I got, the more uncomfortable I became. One night I had a vivid, frightening dream. Motivated by the desire to untangle it, I began psychotherapy. In my sessions I talked about the many instances when, as a child, I felt as if I had come up short: showing a marked lack of graciousness, for example, about the arrival of my baby sister; my constant need to know my mother’s whereabouts at all times—perhaps suffocating to her. My therapist wondered aloud about how I, by then a mother myself, might feel toward any other child—my son, for instance—who demonstrated that behavior. It was a no-brainer, literally: My heart was instantly awash with compassion. As I remembered more of my childhood shortcomings, and forgave them, it became like a practice—the forgiving—and before long I was doing it with my adult self, too. Forgiving myself for past mistakes in love, in work, in the many daily interactions always open to missteps. I had to learn how to forgive the mistake, try to gain some perspective from it, and then, try to do better (or at least, different).
Is all self-esteem nurtured by mastery? I’m not sure. But it was mastering forgiveness that nurtured mine.
Come with me for a moment over to the mirror. Honestly, as I write this, all I can think is that it’s going to sound like a parody of self-help instruction. You might feel this, too, as you submit to my request. But do it anyway. Look at yourself. Look at your face and say the first word you think of. Then please think about the meaning of that word, the word you said about your face. Take a minute. I’ll wait.
I wonder if that word was critical in some way. It wouldn’t surprise me, because we live in the kingdom of objectification and we serve as its loyal subjects.
Now, again at the mirror, please look into your own eyes, as if you were looking into the eyes of someone—anyone—other than you. Keep looking till the critical scanning falls away and you are just looking into a pair of eyes. This might take a while (see here) but keep at it. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be switching your focus from eye to eye and your mind will be scrambling to find…a way out.
But stay with it long enough and you’ll give yourself a gift: the opportunity to see your face without objectification. What happens then? You’re no longer bound by the rules of a deeply critical, unrealistic, demanding, and unforgiving beauty culture. Refuse to see your reflection through that narrow, pinched, mean-spirited lens and you are free to begin to forgive yourself for all the ways you have internalized unwarranted disappointment or even despair.
Here’s a secret that beauty marketers don’t want you to know: Make a practice of looking at yourself with forgiveness and you will feel more beautiful every day.
Don’t take my word for it…
I worried a lot.
Will the garden grow,
will the rivers flow in the right direction,
will the earth turn as it was taught,
and if not how shall I correct it?
Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?
Will I ever be able to sing,
even the sparrows can do it and I am, well, hopeless.
Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism, lockjaw, dementia?
Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up.
And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
“Ask Val” answers your urgent questions, Vol. 18.
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Q: I’m not sure where to post my question. In the comments? What if I want to ask a question privately?
A: Questions, questions, “Ask Val” loves them! Sure, you can post a question in the comments, but you can also reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org, a special mailbox created just for you.
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