Every once in awhile, I look around me and realize that everything is good. Not perfect, but good. And when I have this feeling, it’s almost always because I’ve stuck with whatever plan I had for the day, maybe accomplished something I really wanted to do, and feel as if I’m on the road I want to be on. On the surface, it might seem as if all it takes for me to feel happy with myself is doing a few loads of laundry and writing for a couple of hours. But really, it’s something much less concrete than that. In short, it’s all about telling the truth and letting myself just be who I am on that particular day.
I’m a big fan of Brené Brown, so of course I think of her when I say this, but what I’m discovering is that it’s all about letting myself feel more vulnerable. For most of my life, I have fought hard to avoid that feeling, the one where you think something is going to come crashing down on your head if you even think of putting yourself out there to engage in the world. So, you don't. You stay quiet, scared, hidden. I remember walking down the hallway of my school in 7th grade with the sense that every one of those kids was staring at the awkward dress I was wearing and was criticizing me with each step. It wasn’t until I was in my 40s that I fully grasped the notion that most people feel so worried about how they're being perceived that they can barely consider another human being. Oh, how I wish I'd been braver back then.
It turns out being a good person has nothing to do with what we’ve accomplished on any given day.
In the almost three years I've been retired—with a few go-backs in between—I have been looking closely at how much heavy protective gear I wore all those years I worked. Each layer was designed to keep me from harm, but it also prevented me from being in the world with pure honesty and courage. I know that armor didn’t all come from potential workplace disaster; much of it was left over from 7th grade (and all the grades before and after that) and from dumb relationships, and childhood, and every therapeutic topic imaginable. What I’m discovering is that not only is it easier to move without all of that protection, but I don’t actually need it. I’ve found that if I breathe deeply and relax my shoulders, I can slide into this comfortable place where I just feel OK about being the person I am.
When I can manage that—which is more often all the time—it’s actually one of the sweetest spots I’ve found. I don’t have to spend my time looking around to see who might be rolling their eyes and criticizing me. I don’t have to worry about the thing I said yesterday that might be misunderstood and now someone feels bad. I don't have to be perfect at anything. And, I don’t have to fret about whether I got enough done today to warrant considering myself a good person. It's probably no surprise to lots of people, but it turns out being a good person has nothing to do with what we’ve accomplished on any given day.
Now, before anyone gets too carried away here, let me be the first to say that I can’t pull this off 24/7. It’s a learning, growing thing, but I think that might be the point. Sometimes life is good and fun and enriching, and sometimes it’s hard and frustrating and scary. More than anything, this discovery of the sweet spot is the proof I need to remind me that things get better. If I stay true to myself, there's a grace to life I never dreamed of all those years I lived with my dukes up just in case something bad was right around the corner.
One of my big goals now is to remember this on the mornings when I wake up and feel set apart from everything good. On hard days like those, the idea of being open and vulnerable sounds crazy. The last thing I feel like doing then is letting myself experience life as it is and me as I am. Instead, there is a dread in me, a feeling that I want to protect myself, stay away from anything that might hurt me. But in these last few weeks, when I’ve gotten to experience such a big dose of this sense of openness, I’m determined to welcome it more frequently.
We’re primitive creatures. We do everything we can to keep from being hurt. But when I think about the actual definition of vulnerability, that it means we’re in a state in which we're capable of being wounded, I realize that being hurt isn’t going to kill me. It’s a reality that helps me understand my structure and how to take care of it. This doesn’t mean that I’m ready to take a lot of abuse or mistreatment. It means I’m OK as I am and I can withstand even the mean looks of 7th graders. I’m comfortable with myself on a deeper level than I ever remember being. The smallness and shame I felt inside for much of my life now seems like a long-ago message that has lost its power. So bring it on. I'm more ready than ever.