Posted on September 17, 2018 by Jenn Zatopek
Upon opening a book recently, I found a bookmark which reads “The heart which gives freely is never lonely,” one that I’ve had since childhood. Dressed in old-fashioned clothes, drawstring gray boots, white tights, and a little red coat with a white frilly dress underneath, a beautiful little girl is holding an apple toward you. Her long hair blows in the wind, and she is incandescent, beaming with joy at giving away her food.
I have a love-hate relationship with this bookmark but have kept it around for years because of my love for anything related to book. But now I know why I have kept it: it represents why I believed as a twentysomething that I had to fix the world’s problems and save others.
This myth is why I joined a Catholic work program up North in Indiana, right after university, wanting to save the world except they placed me in a lawyer’s office, filing papers. Feeling devastated, I wrongly believed I could not change my work placement.
I didn’t understand then that I could have found a bit of work helping others outside the law office. I was only twenty-twenty, a fearful young adult who didn’t have the necessary life skills to consider things in a nuanced way. It never occurred to me that filing papers could be a way to help people indirectly. Back then, I lived in the land of the black-and-white, the all-or-nothing zebra thoughts that consumed me, and if what I wanted did not meet my expectations, then I was in for emotional tumult.
How I wish I could go back and hug that girl. She was so young, impressionable, and kind.
When I found the bookmark the other week, I recoiled as if I had touched something repulsive. I slammed it down on the sofa, next to my elder cat who scampered away. Lamenting about my reasons for choosing the helping professions as my vocation, I shared with my husband about my compulsive need to fix others and for it to turn out perfectly, just according to my expectations.
As my husband took in the bookmark, with the pretty child giving her shiny red apples away, he remarked to me, “But look at how she gives. Do you see it?”
And then I wept with grief, longing, and frustration because I finally saw the truth. The girl’s basket that she holds is overflowing with apples. My husband said softly, “She gives out of her abundance and not her lack.” How could I have missed it all these years?
Now I grieve for all the years I thought mistakenly I had to give until I couldn’t anymore. I am deeply saddened by the years lost to the locusts of perfection, performance, and people-pleasing. I think of the young woman I was university who believed that she had to be stunningly perfect and give sacrificailly to others, no matter the cost. This girl believed she had to be an evangelical Christian and win others for Christ as the cost of herself and relationships. I felt pressured to believe as my Christian friends did and gave up my love for seeing the similiarities between religions, the belief that we are all deeply connected, and signed up for a Catholic program to help others, while not even being Catholic.
Sometimes I wish I could give the girl an informative talking-to in addition to a hug. I would warn her that giving to others perfectly is completely impossible. I would tell her she is a gift to the world and that her father’s alcoholism, manifested in his complete inability to maintain emotional sobriety, makes her a fine candidate for Al-Anon or ACA. I would encourage her to go to the meetings, save money, and make plans to move out of her father’s house as soon as possible. I would, in essence, nurture my young self.
This tiny revelation found in an old bookmark marks a new chapter in my life: it is the first time that I have compassion for the girl I once was, and not egregious self-hatred. It has taken me a few decades to understand that my desire to give to others perfectly came from my childhood desire to be loved by my parents. And it has taken about that long for me to realize that radical self-care, as Anne Lamott coined, is one of the most dangerous and dissident practices a woman can engage in.
So while I’m not yet grateful for having a physical issue manifest my burnout, I am thankful I have the opportunity to practice radical self-care today. I can take exquisite care of the one person I have power over: me.
When it comes to self-care, it’s best to start off small. Eat healthy food, listen to relaxing music, pray, meditate, walk in nature, spend time with people who are uplifting and minimize time with people who believe the world is a dumpster fire and it is their job to complain about it every chance they can.
I say this in the nicest possible way, of course.
Another thing to remember is that our worth is not dependent on what we do but who we are. If Christianity is true, then our worth is sacred; we are beloved children of God and can release puritanical notion that work is the only reason why we are here.
What if we are here to enjoy life? To live freely? To enjoy the gifts that God gives us, including healthy work and rest? To relax and heal from helping others? What if it is true that when we stop listening to the inner critic we begin to hear the calming voice of the Lover instead?
The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing. (Zephaniah 3:17, NIV).