*Background Information: When I was a sophomore in high school, I wanted to be a nun. We weren’t Catholic. This didn’t matter. I saw a group of nuns at an amusement park and immediately became fascinated with them–especially the young one wearing grey. My mom was dismayed at the news but having survived my fascination with death the year before, I think she counted on this being another phase. And while I may have decided the clothes and abstinence weren’t for me, and though my dissertation research along with this film left me with a nasty taste in my mouth where nuns and developmental disabilities are concerned, I still really like the idea of nuns, and I admire and respect women who choose that path. So that I’m openly disagreeing (even disagreeing-ish) with a nun who was later deemed a saint is a pretty big frickin’ deal.
Saint Teresa de Avila said “Be gentle to all and stern with yourself.” I know this because I’ve been doing some light research lately, looking for affirmation from people much wiser, older, and more published than I. I want someone whom I respect (or could learn to) to express in an articulate, fancy way an idea that I’ve been rolling around in my head like a rough boulder in one of those manual rock tumblers: that while discipline, hard work, perfectionism, and the like may lead young people to become conscientious, contributing citizens, once they become adults, what people really need is to be gentle with themselves.
Sorry, Sister. Ya got it wrong. . . at least a bit.
I hold myself to much higher standards than I hold others. I don’t necessarily believe that’s a problem. In fact, that’s probably as it should be. But the microscopic critical lens with which I evaluate every single moment of my life is turned up to much too high a magnification and consulted far too often. Existential insomnia is an almost nightly ritual around here. . . which makes no sense considering I’m not a middle-aged balding male who’s never owned a cherry-red convertible. And I know I’m not alone in this. There is a type of person (I happen to love many of these types) who will lie awake at night for hours reflecting on something stupid he/she said. . . and it’s not so much productive reflection as it is just plain battery. People beat themselves up, worrying about things that are completely inconsequential to everyone else in the world (which is the real problem, this inability to find anything close to a reasonable perspective).
On some level, this penchant for self-analysis and the corresponding desire to be excellent at pretty much everything has its benefits. (Duh. We don’t pick up bad habits that are all bad. We started them because they did something for us at some point.) And I could go all economics analogy here and draw out a lengthy explanation of the law of diminishing returns, but that’s no fun, so instead, I’ll just say this: at some point, Saint Teresa, we all need to be gentle with ourselves as well.
On the phone with my mom last night, I reported, “I got the cabinetry and the walls painted in the bathroom. I still have to do the trim. And after I finished with the cabinets last night, I got another flower bed cleaned and Preened. I’m doing my last load of laundry right now, and then I’m going to start planning classes.” This was not listing of accomplishments in search of praise. I know it looks like it. But it wasn’t followed up with an, “Isn’t that great?!” or “Can you believe it?!” Nope. This was my bemoaning the end of my little break between semesters because I hadn’t gotten nearly enough done. It was followed up by a long list of things I wanted to get done over break that just weren’t going to happen.
Seriously, Bee? Sounds like someone needs to put on the head removal boots and apply them to her own arse.
I know a lot of moms do this, but I’m not even a mom yet and already my self-flagellation is way out of control. It’s not just a woman thing either. I can think of three males without even trying who do the same sort of thing. And I want to grab them all (myself included) by the shoulders, shake them severely, and yell, “Snap out of it, you assclown**, and give yourself a break!”
Look — being stern with yourself works when you have a major deadline. It might get you out of bed an hour early to get that morning jog in. It might keep you up an hour later at night to get the laundry folded and the kitchen sink shiny. But stern is not a way of life. Correction. Stern is not the way to live.
I think we’d all be a lot happier if we were gentle with ourselves the way Saint Teresa wants us to be gentle with others. What if we accepted our own flaws, shortcomings, insert-Chucks-in-mouth moments as graciously as we did others’? Well, most of those things would probably stop being categorized as flaws. And then we’d probably like ourselves a little more. Oh, and sleeping. . . there would be more sleeping. Or, at the very least, we could spend those insomniac hours doing something more productive with all that brain power. Like planning the week’s menu, dreaming up ways to stop a really big oil leak, or just reading really good books.
I know the first rule to learn is to treat others as you would like to be treated. It is important vital that we see everyone around us as humans, more like us than not, deserving of humane treatment. I think at some point, though, we may need to be reminded how to treat ourselves as we treat others.
Then again, I’m no Saint.
**Assclown is my favorite word that Stef uses. It comes to mind often when I’m thinking about giving someone I love a “snap out of it” talk.