I loved you on purpose. I was open on purpose. – Ntozake Shange
Sometimes it feels like I have pocketfuls and pocketfuls of love, but nowhere to spend more than a penny or nickel of it at a time. As a currency, my love has always fallen short. I am a pauper. . .holding out an abundance of spare change—an embarrassment of coins—in a world of clean, crisp checks torn from a book I’ve never owned. – Excerpt from Elephant Girl
Could it have finally happened?
Have I have learned to love myself on purpose? To be open with myself and others on purpose, without fearing failure? To spend my pocketfuls of love wisely instead of tossing all my coins into a murky wishing well?
A few months ago, I surprised myself with the realization that, even though my life is as unsettled and uncertain as its ever been, I haven’t felt unhappy for quite a long time — not in a way that diminishes my sense of self or that shakes the foundational core of who I am — not in any significant way.
This revelation was surprising to me because the past two years have been filled with new challenges and life experiences, including a few that were painful, and that caused me to question my most deeply held beliefs about love, loyalty and relationships. There was a time that I nurtured, breathed, imagined and exalted those beliefs. I held onto them as if they were sacred ideals that would somehow, one day, tangibly fill a vacancy.
I cherished those beliefs and still do in some ways, but the difference between now and then is that beliefs aren’t all I have. The wide gap that once existed between my reality and my beliefs has narrowed considerably. I’m living the life I want to live, even if it’s sometimes difficult. Like children that have grown up and left home, wishes aren’t my sole focus anymore — I carry them in my heart, but they’re no longer my biggest reason for getting up in the morning. I’m excited about possibilities now — things that stand a chance of becoming real.
I’ve grown in the last two years, in the last few months, and even in the past few weeks. It seems I’m on a path of quick turns, slow transformations and gradual realizations. I’ve made some life-altering personal changes — too many to recount here (and reason enough to write another book) — and the ones that have come the hardest have also been the most gratifying. Here are three of them:
I’ve Let Go of My Expectations of Other People.
For years, I wasn’t secure about anything in my life. I never knew what tomorrow would bring and had great, big fears that my carefully patched together world would unravel at any minute. I think this is the reason I held tight to my expectations of other people. I felt like I needed some sort of anchor — something I could count on — and if it couldn’t be a stable home, a paycheck, or even my own life, then it had to be other people. I expected friends, family and even acquaintances to share my beliefs about loyalty, love, truth, respect and consideration. If they did, then I felt valued as a person. If they didn’t, then I felt defeated in a very personal way — as if I’d been betrayed or totally disregarded.
There’s no question that people can act poorly and be hurtful, sometimes in surprising ways. In the last year alone, I’ve been lied to and about, been the target of someone else’s need for internet drama and had someone I deeply care about show me how very little they cared about me. At one time, these hurts would have consumed me. My fragile sense of security with other people would have felt broken. And all that was truly good in my life — all those people that had shown love and support — along with all of my bright moments and achievements — would have faded into some distant background.
I can’t pinpoint the exact moment of change because the process was gradual, but my expectations of other people no longer exist on a grand, all-or-nothing, thought-consuming scale. If someone acts in a poor, dishonest, or unloving way, I no longer consider it a reflection of my own worth. If someone lies to or about me, I don’t wonder what it is that I have done to make them uncomfortable with telling the truth. If someone is disloyal, I don’t internalize it to mean that I failed to do something to engender their support. In other words, I stopped thinking that the choices other people make are really about me. They’re not — even when they think they are, they’re not. Character is character, caring is caring, and love is love. How other people choose to act, think and express themselves has everything to do with their own spirits, and not a thing to do with mine. It’s a lesson that took me 49 years to learn, but I’m finally free from the self-made burden of having my sense of personal value or security hinge on people’s actions or approval.
I’m Speaking My Heart & Then Consciously Moving On.
I used to debate interpersonal issues and argue for my beliefs — a lot. I’ve always been a very passionate person, especially where it concerns fairness, relationships, love, social structures, empathy, thought processes, politics — well, everything really. And it all felt so very important to me that I not only wanted to share my beliefs, but also to convince others that hey, I’ve given this considerable thought. . .and this is why you should agree with me.
The passion that has served me well in writing has worked against my personal relationships. While I’m very fortunate to have close friends who love me despite my occasional philosophical outbursts (or rants if you prefer), when it comes to the rest of the world I’ve realized that trying to change someone else’s already made-up mind serves no higher purpose: it’s simply an exercise in frustration and futility.
I’ve learned to speak my heart, share my feelings, and then consciously move on. It feels good now to say whatever is on my mind — to release my thoughts and emotions — and then choose not to dwell on the matter. After all, I know my passions inside and out. I know why I feel the things I do. I know how I’ve reached whatever thoughts I have. As I’ve become more self-aware and confident, it’s become less important to debate with others. I am who I am because of my own life, spirit and experiences and others are who they are because of theirs. Live and let live. It seems we all learn what we need to learn, when we want to learn it, and not before.
I’m Setting Boundaries & Realizing That Being an Open Book Doesn’t Mean Being Open to Everybody.
I’ve made some really bad decisions in my life, but I don’t think that being open about my life is one of them. As a blogger and writer, I’ve put the worst of myself out there as well as the best. I keep the book of my life open for the most part, because I believe that keeping secrets adds to a sense of shame. So I’m gay and out of the closet. I’m fallible and talk about my many mistakes. I’m a woman who’s had a lot of experiences and when I feel compelled to write about them, I do.
There’s a difference though between putting the stories of my life out there for public consumption and letting myself be daunted by the criticisms and beliefs of other people. For the most part, writing has been an affirmative experience for me. I have the privilege (often sacred) of hearing personal stories from other people, particularly women, who resonated with my work in some way. I am humbled nearly every day by my interactions with readers, some of whom have become good friends.
It wasn’t always this way. As in other areas of my life, whenever something “bad” thing happened with my writing, it overwhelmed the good. I used to pretty much cower when I was hit with harsh judgments or hurtful perceptions about my writing. My tendency was to absorb criticism rather than to consider its meaning and source. If someone told me I was a lousy writer or human being, part of me believed them.
In the past couple of years, though, I’ve come to realize that the most wounding critics are those who don’t really read my stories (or other writer’s stories) at all. Maybe I was naïve, but I never knew that there were people who read articles on domestic violence just so they can tell women that they brought it on themselves with their poor choices. Or who seek out posts on poverty so they can rail against the laziness of the poor. Or who troll the internet for stories about obesity just so they can tell overweight people how gross and undisciplined they are. Instead of reading for understanding or knowledge, the wounding critics search in-between an author’s lines to find something to bolster their own preconceived beliefs and sense of superiority. If someone’s in pain they must have a victim mentality; if someone is sad or grieving, it’s because they don’t have the right attitude; if someone is sick it’s because they didn’t take care of themselves. All of which provides the wounding critics with a narcissistic ego boost that’s meant to convince themselves that they’ve done a better job at life than other people.
I realized I turned a corner in the way I view criticism when a reader of Elephant Girl wrote me to tell me that I’d gotten it all wrong. She was raped by a family friend when she was 15 and didn’t turn promiscuous like I did. She also found all sorts of support for healing when she screwed up her courage and told her dad about the rape. “Your book sends the wrong message to other survivors,” she reprimanded. At first, I didn’t know how to respond. The account of my rapes is factual — they occurred decades ago and I was a child — and the past is already done. Even if I could rewrite my history, I wouldn’t do it just to make other people feel better, or to make them like me more as a person or an author. Elephant Girl is my story and I own everything in it, even the ugly and uncomfortable parts. Other people’s stories, thoughts and experiences are their own.
I finally wrote the woman back. “Tell your story,” I encouraged her. “There’s room in the world for all experiences, including yours and including mine.” And with that, I was done. I didn’t dwell. I didn’t absorb her words, take them to heart, or feel like I had to apologize for her disappointment.
I’ve learned that being an open book doesn’t mean I have to be open to every judgment, perception, or criticism. It took me all these years to finally “get it” but this basic lesson has taken root. Take whatever is valuable, meaningful, and well-intended and leave the rest behind.
Much of my life has felt like a game of roulette. I’d bet on as many people and situations as I could afford and wait to get lucky. I’d give my heart, love, efforts and even possessions to anybody who expressed an interest in them and hoped that I’d win loyalty, love and care in return. I’d throw all of my chips into a game of chance and pray that at least one would hit the right number.
I’ve learned that the best odds of being happy don’t come by way of accident or luck, but by having a clear and strong sense of purpose. It’s late in the game, but I’m beginning to see the value of my own life and spirit, instead of relying on the words and actions of others to tell me what I’m worth. By loving myself on purpose, with a fully conscious mind, I can love others on purpose, with reason and intent, instead of haphazardly or by chance. I can love more fully, more openly, and with more just cause.
By choosing to be open with myself and others on purpose — instead of by accident, impulse or passion— I’m less likely to feel stung by hurt, rejection, or misunderstandings.
I’m owning my own life, bright and dark, triumphs and mistakes, scars and beauty. I refuse to be a pauper anymore.