Birthdays sometimes have a funny way of making you look at yourself, especially as we approach our golden years. We start to ask ourselves some funny questions. What is my legacy? What will I have accomplished when it is all said and done? Was I good person? Such were the thoughts I kept to myself as wrapped up the leftovers of my half-eaten cake a day or so ago.
Lately I have been trying to get at the root of something that had plagued me all of my life. It all started with a blog post I read at Godless in Dixie, a popular atheist site. Actually, it started before that, but it's funny sometimes how events occur together to get you moving in that certain direction in which you need to go. The post I stumbled onto was entitled, "Evangelical Christianity and Low Self-Esteem" written by Neil Carter. The piece was about how contemporary Christian music, popular with evangelicals, always seems centered around our worthlessness as human beings. After having been exposed to a veritable overload of this musical genre in public places all across Mississippi, the author felt it was time to just vent a little about how destructive such a constant theme can be. The article made its point and I naively contributed to the discussion posts which followed the story before I realized I was on an atheist's blog.
About that moment I read the commenting guidelines and realized that I may have just violated every one of the posted rules: "No preaching, no proselytizing, etc." Ouch! The amazing thing was that the moderators didn't throw me out and we all learned a few things about the world and the people in it. I might even say that some of the atheists I met at Godless in Dixie were nicer than some other people of faith whose only mission is to bash Catholics. My chats with the atheists lasted for more than three days and I never once was spoken to in a bad way about sharing my beliefs. Sure there were lots of questions about believing in something I cannot prove exists and about how I could support the Catholic church after the sex abuse scandals, etc., but as I told one of the commenters, "I'm not as emotionally invested in proving that God exists as you are in proving that he doesn't." So after we shared about the things that make us tick, and elevated our understandings of one another, we parted ways on a relatively amicable basis.
That same weekend I realized I needed to prepare my assignment for the upcoming catechism class in which I am enrolled at my local parish. It was about the beatitudes and freedom from sin. Now this is a little tricky to explain, so bear with me. Question six if this particular lesson asks, "According to the Catechism, what is freedom"? The answer: "Freedom is the power rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act...to perform deliberate actions on one's own responsibility. Freedom obtains its perfection when directed toward God." Maybe not so tricky after all.
The Christian worthlessness bemoaned by the atheists seems to be misunderstood by them in some way because, rather than seeing the joy and freedoms that the God-inspired life brings, they see a message meant to deprecate and demean us. And I jumped into the fray, incidentally, because the Catholic message focuses us more on the joy that God's love brings than the weakness we suffer without it. That was my point in going there: to balance out this criticism of apparent negativity surrounding Christianity.
But back to my birthday reflections, for a moment. This thing that has plagued me all my life is a kind of anxious restlessness that feels like self-loathing at times. "I've got to stop this," I've often said to myself. The anxieties I have suffered for decades never seem to leave me. They are like some ubiquitous, annoying friend that I can never seem to get away from. So I started looking around the topic of self- hate in search of what causes us to feel "not good enough" as the atheists would say. What I found was that each of us carries around certain childhood scripts that guide and inform our thinking. If we have any negative scripts (and these may be false messages that we have mistakenly written for ourselves), we go about our lives feeling as if the people around us are about to jump on us for who we are or what we believe. We compensate by over-achieving at every chance we get. We draw attention to ourselves by being the smartest one, the richest one, or the proudest one in the room. It becomes an addiction and, sadly, a way of life. And like any addiction, the ways in which we choose to self-medicate are never enough.
What is the cure for self loathing? First we need to get a handle on what our life scripts are and if there is any truth in them. For anything that is a lie, we need to get rid of it; the quicker the better. For our real shortcomings, the healthy thing to do would seem to be to deal with them honestly. Put them is perspective and stop hating ourselves for the things we can never be or change. Lastly, if there are genuine failings that we have never made right in our lives, now we be a good time to start working on them. This system is embodied in the twelve-step programs and serenity prayer given to us by Alcoholics Anonymous, "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to accept the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." How often have we all heard these words but failed to understand that the "things we cannot (or can) change" are interior things as much as they are circumstances around us. These "things" about ourselves are what we must focus on.
Once we get a healthy perspective of who we are and how we are, we can stop overachieving and overcompensating for the negative concepts that have made us feel unworthy all our lives. We will no longer have the need for pridefulness because we will have forgiven ourselves for our self-loathing and we will have accepted God's grace for our failings. When we reach that point we can offer our time, talent, and treasures for the greater good; because they are good in and of themselves, not because we need a balm for our wounded egos.
Ending our addiction to pride brings humility in its place. We will suddenly know that the love of our creator has enabled us to open our eyes to right behavior. If we cling steadfast to God's word our paths will be righteously made straight and our encounter with truth will most assuredly set us free.