Wednesday, February 17, 2010

You Are Special

I am really, really good at starting things: small businesses, creative projects, and the all-too-familiar self improvement plan. Finishing, however, is another matter entirely. I am always (and I do mean always) in one of the following places: jumping out from the gate in a ball of fiery passion, meandering slowly through an idea that now bores my every cell, or pausing briefly to think of a new ‘kick’ (before I start again at the proverbial gate). It’s a continuous cycle. Recognizing the pattern is one thing, I suppose. Doing something about it, well that’s another route entirely.

When it comes to creative process, the concept of “finishing” has always seemed somewhat foreign to me. There is always something else that could be changed or altered; there is always at least one crack in an otherwise glassy appearance. It was Leonardo Di Vinci who said that “art is never finished; only abandoned”, and oh what a comfort these words have been. There is freedom here; that I can only do my best until I can do no more; that I am not the only one in an artist’s tumult. In recent years, I’ve had to make some seemingly minor (although drastically effective) changes to the way I perceive my own process as an artist. First: to accept that I am, in fact, artistic. Isn’t it the case that most artists don’t recognize how truly gifted they are. Second: to admit that I might have something to offer the world through my gifts. Finally: to accept that my artistic side is entirely unique, never perfectly copied, and never entirely like someone else’s. Comparisons are ludicrous, especially in the realm of giftedness. I have been given the gifts that I have been given for a specific purpose; my means and end are unlike those I see around me. So are yours.

The concept that “comparisons are ludicrous” expands far beyond “the art world”. In everything, each human is as unique as their own fingerprint, and the cost of Comparison is high and dangerous. I can say this with authority because I have been there, unrelentingly, from birth; I have either been the one doing the comparing, or I’ve had the unfortunate role of becoming a weird sort of measuring system for people around me. I have not always been stuck here; and in recent years the temptation to compare myself has grown less and less appealing. But as I’ve shifted my focus from outward opinions and back to the One that matters, I’ve begun to notice a few things. I’ve observed that those who are the least comfortable with themselves are the most likely to be vocal and brash with their comparisons, especially if you are the target of their resentment. I’ve become increasingly aware of the fragile state of human independence: I know of not one person who has escaped the temptation to measure themselves by the standard of their neighbour. Finally, I’ve learned and re-learned that confidence and validation can not come from external, human sources.

Eleanor Roosevelt famously said “no one can make you feel inferior
without your consent” – beautiful words. Words I have often read and re-read and repeated to myself as I’ve grown throughout the years. But I think it would also be fair to say that we are often too quick to give ourselves over to feelings of inferiority; within our own minds and in regards to our own decisions. The weirdest part about this self-inflicted feeling of inferiority is that it is often a comparison of ourselves to…ourselves. Sure, we do compare to others. But what I have seen in so many individuals is that the consent to give way to inferiority is provided solely by that person’s own self-constructed mindset about who they are. “You are not a good enough mother”; “You are unattractive”; “You are not smart enough”; “You are not a strong enough husband”; “You are worthless”. These kinds of statements can be made without ever having to compare ourselves to another, and often, our comparisons in this realm are far more dangerous in that they have become the truths we know, instead of the lies we question.

Where does this pattern start? It starts when we believe the lies we’re told, instead of counteracting them with the truths about who we are. Once the lies become comfortable enough to feel like truth, we no longer need the outside comparison – we simply believe them as though they were sewn into our soul’s very fabric. There are countless factors that come at us from all angles, telling us what we’re probably worth; images and messages and measuring sticks. Despite these bombardments, however, there is only one person who can actually do something to change your self perception: YOU. You can not wait for someone else to come along and heal you. Stop where you are, let yourself grieve the pain of the many wounds you’ve received. And then, even if it is one baby step at a time, start moving. Give yourself permission to move past the obstacles that other people tried to put in your way. Stop agreeing with what they said. If you agree and don’t like it, then make the simple decision to change.

You are the only person who can give yourself permission to have a purpose beyond your current situation. If you want to be the kind of person that eats better, then eat better. If you want to be the kind of person that reads more, then read more. If you want to be the kind of person who spends more quality time with their children, then spend more quality time with your children. If you want to get back into a lost passion or skill, then start practicing. These are not unreachable goals; they are simple decisions. Why must we coddle our negative emotions, our self chosen labels, our excuses (legitimate or not) for being stagnant or insecure in one area? Drive yourself towards personal growth. Expect heartache and challenge, but at least get going.

I can say this so readily because I AM that person. The labels I had growing up (self inflicted and others-inflicted) included (but were definitely not limited to): painfully shy, awkward, un-likeable, unpopular, unloved, loser, friendless, ugly, talentless, afraid, weak, etc. To be honest I lived with those labels for years, and eventually lived with them by choice for years, until finally something clicked and I decided not to be that person anymore.

One of my favourite books in the whole wide world is a book called You Are Special, by Max Lucado. In the book, a town of little wooden people (called Wemmix's) spend their days sticking gold stars or black dots on the other villagers. You guessed it, the stars are given to the most beautiful, the most talented, the most lovely townsfolk. The dots, of course, are reserved for the lesser in society; those that trip or stumble, those that sing off key, those with misshapen heads. One day, it is discovered that there is a person in their town who has no stars or dots on her at all – and when someone tries to give her one, they don’t stick! We learn that it’s because she visits her Maker every day, and she listens to what He has to say about her and eventually, her stickers don’t stay stuck any more.

I love this story because it works on so many levels, and though it was written as a children’s book, I discovered it first in adulthood and found comfort in its pages even then (and still do). One thing I’ve noted, though, is this: the stars and dots stop sticking to her not because she visits her Maker every day, but because she believes the things He says about her. She chooses to believe the truth about who she is, and in that belief, nothing else matters…or sticks.

Maybe it’s counter cultural to say it, but confidence is a decision. You can’t buy feelings of self-worth at a store or borrow them from your friend. At its surface, this statement feels very juvenile – have we not heard this very thing since our first day of elementary school? We have. And yet, so many of us still permeate our minds with the idea that if only we ____________ (lost five pounds? had more money? had a spouse?), then we would know self-worth; then we would know confidence. Really and truly, though, this isn’t the case. Dropping a pants size won’t affect your worth, and neither will the friend count on your facebook profile.

Should you live a healthy lifestyle? Sure, absolutely. Eat lots of veggies, join a running club, take the stairs. Go on a date, dance in the parking lot, join a book club; meet new people, build relationships. But you should do these things from a place of self-worth, not towards it.  You live a full life because you know you are worthy of living a full life; you enjoy life because you have been given this life to enjoy; you laugh with people because you are worthy of laughing alongside them. You don’t do these things to try and obtain self worth along the way. You’re already there. You’re already worth all that. And the best part about all of this living is that you get to be you the whole time.

My own journey, much like yours perhaps, is a constant cycle around the following question: who am I, and what the heck am I doing here? It is an intrinsic part of my personality to constantly redefine the answers to these questions. Perhaps you aren’t the same in this regard, but I would cease to believe that you’ve never pondered the reasons for your existence. My knack for redefining what defines me has actually been something of value (although it feels, at times, quite cyclical). Suffice to say, I have not always been as sure of myself as I am now; and I guarantee you that in a short amount of time, this cycle will start over, and I will be asking myself those same questions all over again (sure of myself or not).

I have spent so many years of my life wishing I was better at remembering details, that I could small talk with ease, or that I was the kind of person who enjoyed center stage. I’ve wished I wasn’t so darned shy when I first meet people, and I still can’t stop clinging to the hope that one day, I’ll be able to do simple math in my head. The truth, though (that liberating truth) is that I am none of these things. I have a horrible memory for details, and if it weren’t for the invention of the calendar, the Day-Timer, the paper and the pen, I would get nothing done and remember very little. I get so nervous when I have to make small talk that I actually spend most of those few short minutes telling myself not to panic – but you know, I’m an excellent listener, and I love deep conversations. As far as worrying about math and numbers, I have decided instead to embrace my dependency on the calculator.

I learned quite awhile ago to enjoy my position in life as a helper; behind the scenes, away from the front-middle. Not only has it relieved a lot of stress and self-critique, it has opened doors I didn’t think were there in the first place. I have discovered that I am not only really good at helping people, but that I actually love it. Menial tasks are the new imperative. The mundane is now significant. All because I stopped believing that I had to be something or someone else to live life well.

The people I admired, when I did not admire myself, were happy. It took me awhile to realize that they were happy because they liked who they were; it took me a bit longer to realize that both of those things were simple decisions that I too could make.

It’s alarmingly abnormal to be unwavered by the opinions of others; I know this because I’ve experienced it. Like the characters in Max Lucado’s book, the little stars and dots aren’t sticking anymore. They don’t stick because I don’t care if they do or not, because I am only looking for my Maker’s voice to define me. I’m not saying I don’t forget who I am on occasion, and I am certainly not saying I don’t admire those little golden stars every now and then (or wear the dots on purpose). But what I am saying is that most of the time, I am stickerless.

My name is Ashley, and I am really, really good at starting things. I can’t do math in my head or remember what the date is. But I know Who defines me, and that is enough.


alisha said...

Ahhhhh. (That's a deep, comforted sigh, by the way.) I needed to hear that, Ashley. This entry is spilling over with truth that just nourishes the soul. I hear you when you write that we often compare ourselves to our self. I struggle with expecting perfection of myself, and really, what exactly is perfection anyway?
Thanks so much for your honest expression and wise, wise words. You're pure gold, Ash. :)

Bonnie said...

Agreed Miss Ash, you've just won your self a goodl medal in my books, and you are an amazing listener and you helped me more than you know with cleaning my room last week (mundane i'll say). So amazing to see your heart grow, so good to be able to stand along side of you with the Lord at the helm!!

Love you, I'll give you Gold stickers everyday....

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written! We read this today at church and both the sermon and your article are so brilliantly applicable to my life it's not funny. Keep up the great work, God bless!