I spent a lot of last weekend in doubt. This is not an unfamiliar place for me. I frequent the land of doubt on a regular basis. The source, this time, was my last two posts on running. Should I, as a CFS sufferer have written about that? Should I have admitted that I can run now and again? That right now I am choosing to run, even when there are many other things I cannot do? When, on a good day, I can only work about four hours?
I felt strange when I started running again in August. I almost didn’t want to see my sister on my run because I was scared to admit that I was able to do it again. The fear came from two places 1)I didn’t want anyone to think that this meant I was all better, and now could do anything and everything, i.e., I didn’t want people to expect more from me, because I knew I couldn’t give it. And 2) I was ashamed. I was ashamed that I was choosing to run rather than do something that might make money or make someone else’s life better.
And when I shared my two posts about running on this blog, I again felt conflicted and scared, and yes, ashamed because I am always scared of what people will think of me. I am scared that they will think I am weak, stupid, free-loading. I am scared other CFSers will get upset because they aren’t able to run, and my posts might give the impression that they should be able to. Or maybe people will think that I don’t really have CFS or any other illness since I can exercise at all. CFS is a highly variable—not only among the afflicted population, but also in an individual.
On Sunday, I listened to a wonderful dharma talk from Tara Brach about how we try to control so many aspects of life and how these attempts ultimately remove us from those things that most make life enjoyable, namely connection and presence. I realized that (once again) I was trying to control what others think of me—my family, my friends, and all the good people of the internet. And the truth is: it’s a fool’s game. There is no way to win. No matter what any of us say or do, no matter how perfectly we curate our feeds and our public lives, someone—perhaps many people—are going to take issue with some aspect of our behavior.
And it’s not always about us. As a senior in college, I took a class that was meant to integrate all that a student had learned within his/her major. At the beginning of the semester, we were given a list of about 75 names and theories which we were instructed to look up and study independently. At the end of the semester, we would be given a test on the information—20 questions, matching. We were warned how challenging it would be and that often students did not excel at it. I (for some inexplicable, bloody-minded reason) decided to attempt to ace it. I spent hours looking up the names and making notes on whatever I thought the professor might think was pertinent enough to test us on. And then I carried my little index cards everywhere, pulling them out whenever I had downtime. When the professor gave back our tests, he told all of us that someone—not naming any names—had gotten a perfect score—something he hadn’t seen in a while. I didn’t show anyone the 100 at the top of my exam paper, but as we filed out of the classroom, the other students looked at me knowingly. One woman, who I had hitherto considered a friend asked, “Did you sleep with him?” I didn’t even know how to respond. I was so horrified and confused. “How could sleeping with the professor have helped me on an objective test?” I wanted to ask, at the same time wanting to demand, ”How dare you? Is that really what you think of me?”
I am convinced now that it wasn’t what she was thinking of me that caused her to lash out in that moment. It was what she was thinking of herself, how she was feeling about whatever grade she had or had not gotten. In that scenario, I did everything right. I worked hard and I achieved success. And somehow, my behavior (or her reactions to my behavior) still caused pain. If I were to get it twisted, I would think that I maybe I should have dimmed my own drives and accomplishments to make her feel better, but I think we can all agree that that would have been ridiculous.
What’s the answer then? I don’t know what it is for others, but for me, it’s to forget about trying to control others’ perceptions, and, instead, whip up as much daring as I can in order to be authentic—because I think that’s one of the ways we help each other (and ourselves)—by being vulnerable, being honest, and sometimes, admitting that which is difficult to admit.
As I think about these things, my eyes fall on a candle that lives on my desk. It’s from a line called Secular Saints by philosophersguild.com. It looks like the regular seven day prayer candle with which most Catholics would be familiar, but instead of featuring the Sacred Heart or Saint Jude, it bears a portrait of Frida Kahlo. I have long felt a deep connection with this Mexican artist, not only because she composed fascinating and bold paintings, but because she did not shy away from letting people know what she was feeling—the physical and emotional pain that walked with her throughout her life. She did not try to be perfect—if anything, she exaggerated her perceived faults. And though she is not a saint in the Catholic sense, I feel myself wanting to invoke her audacious spirit. There’s a “prayer” on the candle which I like well enough, but my personal petition goes something like this:
O feisty Frida, help me to embrace my flaws and everything that is wrong with my life. Help me to know my true self and to show that self no matter who is watching. Help me to be brave and bold and to act with resolve and passion.
What keeps you from being authentic? Do you call on a saint (secular or otherwise) to help?
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