Suffering and Silver Linings
The Struggles that Formed Me
To keep me from exalting myself, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh (2 Cor 12:7)
Whether from our parents, a stranger, or just our culture in general, we all have wounds that form when we’re young, and which shape our thoughts, actions, and desires well into adult hood. For me those wounds took on two primary consequences: Self-condemnation and pride.
You'd think these two things were opposites, the presence of one necessarily excluding the other. In reality, they are a vicious circle.
Where I got the idea I’ll never know for sure. It was most likely a combination of the demands imposed on me by our culture to be perfect, and the need to know that I was someone worthy of being proud of. Either way, I began to believe that the only way to be deserving of love was to be perfect. Obviously, I was not (and still am not to this day) anywhere NEAR perfect. This led me to a few conclusions. The first was that I was obviously flawed at my very nature--that something was wrong with me--and that I would have to perfect everything I did to purify myself of my inadequacies. The second was that I was unworthy of love, and that no one but God and my parents (those people who, in my mind, had to love me) could ever find anything positive or good in me. Obviously, these two conclusions had me hating myself most of middle school and high school.
I hated myself. Of course, I’m a human, and a masculine person, so instead of being “content” with hating myself, like most people I decided (probably subconsciously) to compensate. Adding to my self-condemnation was the fact that I’m a short man. Even today at the age of 23, I stand only 5’ 3” on a good day—even more to compensate for. The one thing I had, that I could invest in and lord over people, was my relatively exceptional intellect. In elementary school I had been in the “Gifted and Talented” Program, I could memorize and recite things without ever studying, and everyone in class came to me for the answers to the homework. I was smart, and I knew it. This of course caused me to think myself better than others and even bully people who I thought were “stupider” than I was. In addition, I became more prideful in general, judging people according to their sins and adopting a “holier than thou” attitude. This continued through my senior year of high school.
The problem was the more pride I had, the more I hated myself for being prideful, and the more I tried to compensate for hating myself.
The Comfort of a Mother
“Hail, favored one… the Lord is with thee (Luke 1:28)”
As it does for most people, college changed things for me. When I went to Saint Mary’s University in Winona, MN for my freshman year, I found that I had to start fresh. I didn’t know anyone, and so had no reputation. I was lonely and felt as though I didn’t belong. Eventually I became involved in campus ministry activities and found my niche there.
It was at the feast of the Immaculate Conception when God decided that I was finally ready to start healing some of these wounds. It was a day when my self-hatred and pride were unusually severe and since it was a Holy Day of Obligation, I decided to go to Mass. During the Gospel, when the Angel Gabriel says, “Hail, favored one… the Lord is with thee” I got an intense feeling of both love and sadness. I tried to hold it in, but during Communion I broke down in tears.
I sought spiritual direction for this experience, and after months of prayer and discernment I finally realized that I was suffering from a Spirit of Condemnation. During the Gospel that day, Mary had wanted to know that I WAS beloved by God and He WAS with me. It’s still a daily struggle, but I have developed devotions to Humility, Mercy, and affirmations. All three of these have helped me love more purely, both myself and others, as well as (hopefully) help others do the same.
"A humble, contrite heart you will not spurn" (Psalm 51:19)
Humility is the virtue that moderates our self-evaluation of worth. It is recognizing the gifts and dignity God has given us, and who he created us to be as individuals. It is recognizing both our strengths and our weaknesses and failings. I have come to realize that humility is the path to holiness, for in realizing who we are in God, we are able to love more purely and become less biased against God’s will for us. Hence, I have developed a deep devotion to humility. The Litany of Humility prayer is especially effective in recognizing the essence of this virtue and in asking God to give you opportunities for it. If you desire to love as God loves, you must desire humility.
"Be merciful as your Father is merciful" (Luke 6:36)
Humility begets mercy—the virtue of giving someone more than they deserve. When we realize our faults and failures, we begin to see that we cannot judge or condemn others for their sins. As Jesus said, take the beam out of your own eye before removing the splinter in your neighbor’s (Mt. 7:1-5). Jesus also says, “Judge not lest you be judged”. Is there any doubt that mercy should be a cornerstone in our faith life and relationships? I’ve written previously on judging, so for a more detailed explanation about how mercy manifests, please read that. When pondering on mercy I often remember a quote from Blessed Pope John XXIII, “overlook much, correct a little”. This does not mean ignore the wrongs that people do to you, but it does mean that if someone messes up, makes a mistake, or forgets to do something, pray and think first about whether correction is really needed. Will correcting them help them in their salvation, make a difference in the world, or make them a better person? Alternatively, will it feed their spirit of self-condemnation and just make you feel better? Prayer should always be done before any sort of critique. Just because you are a perfectionist, does not mean that everyone else needs to be.
Use only helpful words that build up (Eph 4:29)
The Bible repeatedly tells us to love one another and build each other up in the love of Christ. I have come to believe that a wonderful way of doing this is through affirmations. To affirm someone is to relate to them a positive characteristic or action that they do. If I had had more affirmation as a child, I may have avoided my Spirit of Condemnation (although I would have been even more prideful!). When someone interacts well with a child, does an act of service, or exemplifies humility, it is charitable and uplifting to say to them, “I really like how you ____”. This will help people (especially those who suffer with self-esteem) realize that they are indeed worthy of love and have positive things about them. It also helps people to relate positively to each other and foster love. I believe that there are so many people in the world wounded and suffering from low self-esteem, perfectionism, condemnation, and self-hate. Even one daily affirmation can help heal those wounds.
© 2011 rdlang05