"These same voices are not unfamiliar to me. They are always there and, always, they reach into those inner places where I question my own goodness and doubt my self-worth. They suggest that I am not going to be loved without my having earned it through determined efforts and hard work. They want me to prove to myself and others that I am worth being loved, and they keep pushing me to do everything possible to gain acceptance. They deny loudly that love is a totally free gift. I leave home every time I lose faith in the voice that calls me the Beloved and follow the voices that offer a great variety of ways to win the love I so much desire.
Almost from the moment I had ears to hear, I heard those voices, and they have stayed with me ever since. They have come to me through my parents, my friends, my teachers, and my colleagues, but most of all, they have come and still come through the mass media that surround me. And they say: 'Show me that you are a good (girl). You had better be better than your friend! How are your grades? Be sure you can make it through school! I sure hope you are going to make it on your own! What are your connections? Are you sure you want to be friends with those people? These trophies certainly show how good a player you were! Don't show your weakness, you'll be used! Have you made all the arrangements for your old age? When you stop being productive, people lose interest in you! When you are dead, you are dead!'"
-Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son
Look, the truth is, I am a recovering perfectionist, and I am just beginning to dare to believe that people can love me--and possibly more importantly, like me--even after they've witnessed my messiness. Even right in the midst of that messiness. For a long time, I accepted those voices that insisted I needed to prove my worthiness: through my GPA, through my extracurricular involvement, through constant busyness, through my musicianship, through my dedication to juggling a million friendships, through my attempts at a hip and polished appearance, through my clumsy attempts to have all the answers.
Although I have, quite literally, quit many of these exterior commitments, no longer using them as a crutch or a badge to prove my honor, internally, I still struggle with the ancient impulse to work for acceptance. This is why small talk with strangers is excruciating for me at times: I cannot rely on old ways of impressing them, of indicating to them, I am a person. People who know me love me, so you might, too.
And that's what's at stake, isn't it? Personhood. I've been in situations where I have become invisible when I have not been able to answer the questions correctly (What do you do?), when my weakness clearly makes other people uncomfortable. (My therapist suggests the people who are most uncomfortable with my messiness and weakness are probably the ones who are most afraid of facing their own).
So mostly I practice with people who already know and love me. I practice by letting myself fall apart on occasion, by confessing my fear or my anger to them, by refusing to pretend I have everything figured out. I practice by not saying what I imagine they want to hear, but telling them how I really am or what I really think. And even though I am so, so afraid to do this, it's the only way to practice letting the mask fall and seeing that not everyone wants to leave--that the love of some precious people in my life is not conditional on my performance.
The other night I confided to Chris, with some wonder in my voice, that I think people may actually like me more now than they did when I mostly had things together. He said he thought I was right, that authenticity is refreshing. And isn't that just like God and God's upside-down kingdom? The thing that feels most counterintuitive often is the path to true living. The acceptance and love we crave comes not when we're attempting to put our best foot forward, but when we let the masks fall and find one another in the glory and messiness of our real, broken, good selves.
"Keep open house; be generous with your lives. By opening up to others, you'll prompt people to open up with God, this generous Father in heaven." Matthew 5:16