Sometimes You Get an Actual Sign
Walking a new beach in a super heightened discovery mode (like a dog just let off leash); I came upon a sign, in the form of drift wood with a magic marker message. I took a picture. It says: even if you are lost, you’re here now & that’s good enough.
Being lost is familiar to me. Loving people who are lost has been a favorite hobby. Believing being here now is enough is a radical concept I’m only beginning to embrace.
I had a conversation just last week with my friend Jen about this subject and how, for most of my life, I have been auditioning for the part of human. I have lived with this idea of myself as a decent,whole and accomplished woman. I was her wanna be, her almost but her not quite there yet. In my mind, I was a totally potentiated self entirely “over” my past, with no scars from the ugliness of childhood and absent any untidy emotions spilling out. This imaginary self was what I used daily, as a hammer, to beat the hell out of my actual struggling and imperfect self.
The former me would have laughed at this driftwood sign, would have stood in the sand and said, “It’s not enough to just be here. You need to make a difference, make a mark – you lazy four-eyed fuck.” This yelling would have been at myself just in case I was in danger of believing the world would offer any pillow and tempt me to put down my guard. I would have thought, “You can’t just take up space on the planet.”
Jen not only understood she could relate and shared how she too had been trying to perfectly execute her roles as mother, daughter, sibling, friend and spouse. She wanted to be “good” above all and to get life “right.” She wanted to exceed the expectations of others. She was proud of what a hard working soul she was, how good she was at helping, giving and exerting A+ effort. We both prided ourselves in anticipating the needs of others and were gifted at judging ourselves for personality defects and character weaknesses.
We didn’t see ourselves as people pleasing, co-dependent or even acknowledge how afraid and exhausted we were. We saw ourselves as activists; sensitives willing to make life easier for others because we were tough and others were in need. Dire need. It was an identity and a lifestyle so deeply ingrained we thought it was who we were and would always be. We didn’t know exactly what we were trying to accomplish or gain. But the desperate and excruciating effort of wanting to be productive and caring had a self-denying relentlessness that became a machine that never stopped to rest. It operated on autopilot without having a destination.
It took root in childhood. The details aren’t necessary except to say, though different, we each experienced and survived two or more of the following: Abuse. Abandonment. Neglect. We didn’t become addicts or criminals. We weren’t materialistic or blatantly narcissistic. Our pain was mostly internalized. We appeared to be kind, responsible, sweet and upstanding. We were the type named to guardians in wills, go-to people who could be counted on for advice, rides or loans. We would never be caught doing anything dishonest or “bad.” If all of those ways of being had given us pleasure and were the deepest expressions of who we were meant to be – so be it. But they weren’t. We were anxiety ridden, trying to justify our existence, to prove we were worthy enough to take up space and air.
Jen recently found a note she had written to herself that said “I feel guilty for even being here on Earth.” My mantra used to be, “Who cares if you feel bad, who have YOU helped make feel better today. Why don’t you focus on that?” I tried to bully myself into mattering.
We didn’t see being human as a birthright. We didn’t see ourselves as lovable or even likable. We were terrified that who and how we were was deeply flawed, wrong and bad. We were trying to “sell ourselves,” not just to others, but to ourselves. Despite our desire to break family cycles, and how good we seemed to others, we were cruel to ourselves. We abandoned our own desires, abused our bodies and neglected our needs.
The reason I bring Jen into this is that she, like me, didn’t question her way of being in the world until life exploded at midlife. We both thought we had paid our dues in childhood and would be spared future hardship. It wasn’t until “the plan” failed that either of us drastically changed. For both of us, it took major relationship betrayals and shocks to wake us up and force us to re-examine ourselves, lives and assumptions. It took career changes, moves, depression, divorce, post-traumatic stresses and varied heart breaks to teach us we needed to learn how to be there for ourselves. It took seeking, creative discovery, self-exploration and endless lifestyle adjustments to begin making new lives.
We realized being good wouldn’t protect us from life’s hardships and being “bad” didn’t cause bad things to happen. Those were old childlike beliefs that helped us survive childhood. We thought: If we are better, life will be better. If we are good, life won’t be bad. If life is bad, we must not be good enough. Do better. Be better. Try harder was the antidote as though it had ever worked. It wasn’t true in childhood and it’s not true as an adult. Pain, change and loss are part of life. There’s no outrunning or outwitting those experiences or emotions without shutting out joy, love, creativity and adventure.
Our lives look less white picket fence but we both feel more honest, connected to ourselves and authentic. We are kinder within, more supportive and gentle. We both agree we would rather be disliked for who we are than loved for who we are not. Still, the process of reclaiming the abandoned self can be painful as hell. There are many people who loved us better before, when we met their needs more and our own less. Others feel abandoned or betrayed, that our lives and priorities have changed, that we’ve gone “off” script and we no longer match their image of who we are. Some see us as going from self sacrificing to self absorbed. They aren’t wrong.
They loved the only version of us they knew. It’s harder to embrace a more honest and complicated person who is less predictable and apologetic. than it is to be with someone who tries to anticipate your wants and needs before you even verbalize them. It’s a big adjustment.
I still believe in changing the world and caring about others but it’s not an activism born of self hate. What can I offer the world if I’m not at peace with myself? In the past, I tried to “earn” love and support doing some unspoken exchange, hoping giving myself away to others meant they would give me back to myself. That version of caring used to seem kind to me. Now, it seems manipulative, controlling and a way to avoid the intimacy of being real when adult needs conflict. I don’t want to do that anymore.
Maybe what I’m going through is common at midlife or post transition. Maybe it’s a new level of healing as I shake off old survival skills in favor of finding new ways of living. I’m not sure it matters. There’s a cosmic rightness to it all I’ve not felt before which is why the words on the beach written by a stranger meant so much to me. I am grateful for getting a sign, that sign, because, “Even if you’re lost, you’re here now and that’s enough.”