Back in the summer I read this post about a book called Safe People: How to find relationships that are good for you and avoid those that aren’t. I haven’t read the book, but the post shared some of the red flags about the character of your friends and/or some of the flaws you may be revealing in your relationships. As I scanned the list, I remember feeling blessed because I didn’t see any of my close friends as having any of the traits. I’ve got a safe circle of friends.
As for me, well, I admit to being my own worst critic, but there was one item that made me wince when I read it:
They only apologize instead of changing their behavior.
Oh boy. How many times have I said the wrong thing, talked more than listened, emotionally dumped on a friend who might have been in a needier place than I was, or just royally goofed up in some way or another? Next question: How many times have I apologized, asked for forgiveness, even stepped into the confessional and looked for mercy and understanding?
Almost every single time.
On the surface, this sounds like a good thing. I screw up. I ask for forgiveness. I make a few character tweaks. I move on. Only I don’t.
I’m rather good at saying, “I’m sorry.” But I’m not so good at accepting forgiveness or changing so that I don’t have to keep on apologizing. There’s plenty of asking for forgiveness in my life, but there’s not much atonement.
I remember apologizing for some offense to a friend long ago and he said, “Would you stop saying you’re sorry?”
To which I grumbled, “Sorry.”
On any given day, I’m apologizing for something. I’m well aware of my failures as a friend, a mother, a human being.
When I first read the post, I remember thinking, I don’t want to be a lousy friend, someone others should avoid. I told myself, something has to change. And that something is me.
Then I put on my hair shirt.
That long ago post forced me to examine why I suffer from the incurable malady of too many “I’m sorrys.” Was I really that lousy of a friend, or was I just some anxious nut who spent way too much time over-analyzing everything she said or did? Or was I somewhere in between? Or was I looking at the whole idea of “change” the wrong way?
A few weeks after thinking about all of this and coming up with no real answers, my mom, my oldest daughter, and I were flipping through some of my old things when I found a jaundiced note that I’d stapled to a page in my journal probably when I was about 13. The note was scribbled in my young handwriting; I hadn’t quite refined my style. Its words were written to a boy I had a crush on for several long, agonizing years where unrequited love was my thorn in the side. I surmised from the note (of which I’m not sure I ever actually delivered to my love interest) that the boy had apparently not returned my affections for the umpteenth time and so instead of telling him what I might tell one of my daughters in the future to say should some lame guy reject them – i.e., he didn’t know what he was missing or that like Etta, my love would come along and my lonely days would be over and my life would be a song – at last, at last, you stinkin’ loser – I penned an apology letter to him instead. Yes, I asked (begged was more like it) him to forgive me for not being the person I thought he wanted me to be, the person who might be worthy of his love and attention.
My mom and I chuckled. “Remember So-and-So?” I said. “I was so enamored by him.”
“Yes, you were,” Mom agreed.
After I rolled my eyes at the acute emotion of my lovesick note and the absurdity that I’d take something like a school girl crush so seriously (no matter that this crush on this particular boy, who, to be fair, was a very nice guy and always responded kindly to Kate the Stalker, lasted for a long, long time), I felt a twinge of sadness. I watched my oldest daughter as she immersed herself into her own little, imaginary world where she was queen and no one was going to make her apologize for anything, and I wondered why when we grow up, it becomes terribly difficult to be humble enough to know when you are wrong and wise enough to know when no apology is necessary.
If I could tally and identify the millions of apologies I’ve made during my lifetime, I wonder if I’d see a theme begin to surface. I wonder if I’d see that too many of my apologies in life have been rooted in my inability to accept myself for who I am.
During my bout of postpartum depression, I was talking with my midwife, whom I also consider a friend and a spiritual mentor, I confessed that part of my despondency – the part that wasn’t caused by the raging hormonal cocktail coursing through my body after being pregnant and/or nursing children nonstop for over five years – stemmed from my inability to trust God or to accept that He would trust me to the blessing of a big brood. I told her that while I had the desire in my heart to be open to life and that I saw my children as great blessings, I was afraid my personality wasn’t right for the job and continually doubted my aptitude for raising a bigger family. I knew I was questioning God’s judgment, but I also was afraid He might trust me too much.
“I’m so type A,” I bemoaned as a terrifying mental image cluttered my my mind. I saw piles of dishes encrusted with crumbs and globs of peanut butter barnacled to the sink, walls decorated with finger smudges. I heard the thundering of little feet and voices. I imagined all the clutter a big family would surely bring. I had a hard enough time living in the moment now without turning into a frazzled stress ball; a gaggle of kids would surely turn me into stressed out crackpot.
Then I blinked and returned to the examination room and was grateful for its sterility.
“I just wish I wasn’t so anal,” I told my midwife after I’d come back to reality.
“You are what you are,” she said.
You are what you are.
I’ve been thinking about change a lot in recent weeks. In fact, I was 99 percent sure that “change” was going to be my word for 2011. But it seems this may be a year of epiphanies because upon further reflection, the word “change” started to feel like too much to take on, and it even seemed like something that God might not want me to take on, not right now, not given my lifetime, tireless project of recreating Katie.
(As an aside, some loyal combox participants suggested “epiphany” be my word for the year, which I thought was a great, generous suggestion, especially after I read that epiphanies are made for sharing; see quote from Quick Takes # 1. But truthfully, I’m afraid to make epiphany my word just in case I’ve used up my sudden sagacity allowance for the year. I don’t want to set myself up for failure. Then I’d just be apologizing again.)
As I mentioned, I wanted to use my Saint of the Year (Saint Teresa of Avila per the Saint Name Generator) to help me come up with my word. I know a fair amount about this popular saint and Doctor of the Church but as I was perusing her bio here, several things struck and initially I thought these were a sign that change was indeed meant to be my 2011 word.
I read, “For years she hardly prayed at all ‘under the guise of humility.’ She thought as a wicked sinner she didn’t deserve to get favors from God. But turning away from prayer was like ‘a baby turning from its mother’s breasts, what can be expected but death?'”
The first quote reminded me of how my old spiritual director (I haven’t met with my new one in our new town yet) once told me that a chronic case of “I-am-not-worthy” is nothing more than false humility. Woe is pitiful me, a true, horrific sinner. Enough already. Stop beating yourself up and start building yourself – and the Kingdom of God – up.
Okay, so no more hair shirts. But the second quote forced me to think about changing myself again. I just have to change. Or do I? I’ve spent a good deal of my life trying to change. I’ve wanted to be thinner. I’ve wanted to be better at this and better at that; mediocrity was not an option. I’ve wanted to be less bubbly and more intellectual at times. Other times I’ve wished I was more carefree and less brooding. I’ve wanted to be less Type A, more perfect, less of a perfectionist. Other times I’ve wanted to be less morose and more lighthearted. Sometimes I’ve wished I was more serious, other times less serious. I’ve always wanted to be something I’m not at a moment when I’m not.
The other night after I kissed one of my daughters, I whispered, “I love you just the way you are.” Cue lightening flashes! Yet another epiphany to share! The way I love my children is a lot like the way God loves me, too: just the way I am. Only His love is more perfect than my own.
I’m not suggesting I have no power to change or shouldn’t even bother trying, but changing your behavior, prayer habits, how you react to the joys and sorrows in life is different than trying to change your makeup. Maybe it’s time I stop pursuing a trade-in and focus on a personal upgrade. Even during metamorphosis, the caterpillar keeps a few of its cells intact before emerging as a winged beauty. God made you you. He made me me. I’d better stop questioning His taste. That’s what my midwife, spiritual director, and St. Teresa were getting at, I think: Stop apologizing for who you are; enough with the self-flagellation. Change. Not whom you are. But whom you can be with God’s grace. Don’t wish you were some other way. Be obedient to Him, and trust that He knows what He’s doing (um, maybe He’ll bless you with those gaggle of kids to soften your edges). Pray no matter how wretched you feel, no matter how great your offenses are. Say you’re sorry when a humble apology is called for and by all means, try to change your behavior, but don’t feel guilty for being you.
Blossom. Bloom. Grow.
There it is. My word for 2011:
For this year, I have no intention of being a sad, little bud on a flowering tree who, on the verge of opening, falls to the ground and dries up before anything at all happens. I want to pry those stubborn sepals open and to keep them open and to share the beauty that is me. But I won’t apologize if I’m not the fairest of the blooms or if I blossom in a way that’s different than my neighbors.
I’ll apologize for my behavior (when I really do behave badly) and will work to change it too, but I won’t apologize for being me or for not being what someone else wants me to be.
I’ll evolve, but I won’t wish I could change my DNA, the core of my soul.
I’ll strive to be a good, true, and safe friend who apologizes when she is wrong and who tries to not make the same mistakes twice but who also remembers that her true friends love her for her and all of her idiosyncrasies.
With God’s grace, this year may be a year where I grow in my understanding of His calling in my heart. My heart, no one else’s.
I’ll pray for more epiphanies, more a-ha moments, more wisdom, but I won’t let my soul atrophy even when I don’t understand anything and it all seems pointless.
As St. Teresa advised, I won’t meditate on hell or my personal dark side. Instead, I’ll focus on my goodness, others’ goodness.
And like a plant, I hope to always grow in the direction of the Light.
Hair shirt now defined in comments section for those of you who don’t have a dozen of them hanging in your closet among your flowery sundresses and cozy sweaters like I do. (Only kidding, of course – about owning the hair shirts, I mean.)
Also, I just noticed that red flag number 11 on the post about safe friends I mentioned in my post’s introduction is: “They are stagnant instead of growing.” How fitting. I hope to always be the friend who blooms and grows.