Returning to a Sense of Worthiness

O, my friend, if you are longing to be written on, become a blank page – RUMI

I generally don’t have a problem with Change in my life. I need to clarify that statement by saying that positive change is always welcome; and, over the years, I’ve learned to ‘surf’, rather than be drowned by, unhappy changes. But today I was reflecting on how many (many!) changes I could have encouraged, and discouraged, just by becoming more aware of my own self-worth.

To my mind, there’s a clear distinction between Worthiness and self-worth. Worthiness is something we’re all born with:  we’re inherently lovable and therefore deserving of care, nurturing, and all of the good things that life has to offer. Self-worth, on the other hand, is a collection of beliefs and attitudes that we accumulate over time. At first, our self-worth comes from our earliest relationships with our parents and care givers.

But as we grow older, self-worth grows or shrinks in accordance with broader interactions. If we get a lot of positive affirmations, we learn to expect there’s more of that to come. In the reverse, being overly-criticized, or (worse) ignored can establish patterns of low self-worth that seep into the nooks and crannies of our adult lives. The choices we make and the paths we follow are certain to be influenced by what, in the most tender areas of our subconscious minds, we feel we deserve.

I’ve known both kinds of people over the years:  those who grew up in nurturing, stable (even wealthy) homes, and those whose childhoods were filled with uncertainty, deprivation and angst. It’s strange, but those that I was sure had enormous stockpiles of self-worth (in comparison to me) didn’t necessarily enjoy happier, more successful lives down the road.

It’s as though (so it seemed to me, during a recent get-together with a woman I’ve known since high school) that the initial sense of certainty my happiness is assured” —  might be the culprit. An ironic situation of too much confidence in positive outcomes. Not that I wouldn’t be tempted (for a minute) to trade my own rough childhood (just about every classic family dysfunction you can think of) for the option of more positive ‘advantage’ and influences growing up.

But I’ve come to understand – one of the distinct benefits of becoming older and wiser – two important Truths about how I can guide events in my life in more positive ways. The first Truth is that my sense of self-worth is in-gear at all times, driving even the most minute decisions that I make every day. The second, and most important Truth, is that my original Worthiness – what I was born with – can never be taken away, unless I allow it. I’m returning to the ‘blank page’ that poet Rumi describes. I’m creating a clean, clear space for the changes I desire now: what my heart wants, and what it’s deserved for a long, long time.

Mistakes Will Be Made

While waiting for a friend today, I scrolled to an interview with a high-profile and internationally known celebrity. She described a recent ‘health scare’ she’d had, amplified by the failure of her doctors to correctly diagnose her issues. Which caused her to believe she was seriously ill, when she actually wasn’t. It’s comforting to believe that medical professionals have super-powers; I fell into that habit for decades. It took the pressure off of having to be accountable for reading, learning, and studying up on my own body. But, as this very famous, extremely wealthy woman (who could obviously consult only the best physicians) discovered, even the most intelligent and well-educated professionals can get it wrong. In reality, smart, sensitive, aware and responsible people get it wrong all the time. It just doesn’t feel good for anyone, giving or receiving, to admit that.

It’s for sure that, as we enter the adult realm, others begin holding us to higher standards of knowledge and behavior. How many times over the years have I heard “You should have known!” Buying a particular car; moving to a new city; taking a certain job; entering into a doomed relationship. The less-than-stellar choices I’d made meant, in the opinion of others, I’d ignored The Signs.

And how many times have I rolled my own eyes, when a friend tells her story about putting a loving heart (as well as years of commitment, not to mention tangible assets) into the hands of a liar and a cheat? Someone who had raised Red Flags all over the place, multiple times. How did she did not see them?

There are two key Truths that I stumbled onto, just through the act of living, with the only ‘toolkit’ I was born with, and with the best intentions for myself and those around me. The first is that Life itself is a Progress Toward Perfection in our minds only. Mistakes are not only bound to happen, they’re completely acceptable and even necessary. ‘Failure’ is not supposed to feel, or become, fatal:  we only experience it in that way, in our darker moments. Repeated mistakes (“I always choose the wrong people to fall in love with”) are important lessons that are – sad to say – going to continue until and unless personal work (inquiry) happens, and the ‘message’ comes through in a way that just can’t be side-stepped.

Despite our best efforts to ignore it – or to put the responsibility onto to someone (a messed-up parent) or something (bad luck, or fate) — each one of us has to ‘deal’ with our own stuff. The second Truth I stumbled onto (after getting knocked on the head with repeated ‘learning opportunities’) is that telling  someone “You should have known” is not helpful. Not even a little bit. People are much smarter than we give them credit for. Most of the time, S/he did, actually ‘know’,  but chose to look the other way, as disaster of some kind was oncoming.

If, to me, another’s miscalculation feels like a “Well, duh!”, there are a few things I can say, but How Could You Not See This Coming ?! shouldn’t be one of them. As part of my own process here on Planet Earth, I have to assume that most everyone (I concede that there are exceptions) is doing the best that they can, with the ‘toolkits’ they have. No one needs to hear my criticism, in order to live bravely; but I’ll definitely share my mistakes as I continue to make them, which is going to be a lifelong gig.

Lessons in Survival

Lily was almost 100 years old when she left this world, very peacefully. I hadn’t yet reached my 20’s, so she was like, (channeling my former self), this other-worldly relic of times that I struggled to imagine. Small, under five feet tall; pure white hair that looked like spun sugar, always worn in a topknot on her head (people said she stopped cutting it when her husband died 20 years earlier); a pink-cheeked Apple Doll face that spoke, “I’ve just seen stuff, alright? You don’t even want to know”. Except that, like many really old people, Lily loved to talk about her younger life and had an amazing – almost unbelievable– recollection of her teenage years. Her story began right after she was married at age 16. Traveling West, to California, in a Conestoga Wagon. Shot in the leg by friendly-fire, as the wagon train defended itself from prairie pirates (Lily claimed a hostile tribe of indigenous people, but lots of predators were out and about, during the American Westward Movement). There was a doctor in the wagon train, but he declined to operate on Lily. The bullet traveled down her leg and lodged in her foot, where it was eventually removed, in California. That she survived the wound, and potential blood poisoning, was incredible, so the operating doctor said.

Annie Oakley, the Female
Spirit of the American West

Lily’s travails put my teenaged view of my family-issues into perspective. Like a lot of people, my biological tribe was a mixed bag of “Stable”, and, “Not so much”.  After my mother’s (self-inflicted) death when I was 11 years old, my college-professor father married one of his students (that’s an entire story unto itself). Lily was my new step-mother’s grandmother. So, my step-great-grandmother? Although she wasn’t in my life all that long, Lily had an impact. Even as an impatient, erratic and impulsive teenager, I instantly grasped the meaning and importance of Elder:  a sometimes tedious blend of stories, neverending advice, a few lectures (rare, with Lily), and comfort. This woman had been married at 16 (not uncommon back then) and “rifle-shot”, at the age of 17, for God’s sake. How bad could my life be, so far? It felt pretty ‘cushy’, back then.

One of the major adjustments, moving on down the road in Life, is the way in which your Elders begin falling away. (I know, important people can leave at any time, but the ones with a little extra life-experience to share seem to leave the biggest holes in our lives). And as they fall away, you suddenly realize that – for a growing number of people in your life – you are now The Elder. If you’ve had a ‘Lily’ in your life, you wonder about the quality of your own wisdom. Do your stories carry the same value (not to mention, ‘shock and awe’)?

Thankfully, with age also comes perspective, which just might be the greatest gift of living. While I may not have survived the Westward Movement experience and lived to tell the tale of Homesteading as a 16 year old bride, I do know a thing or two about ‘grit’. Most importantly, that it’s pretty much ‘relative’. Life is Good, from all appearances, until it’s not. Rare is the person who hasn’t experienced some degree of tragedy. And if it hasn’t happened yet, it just might. Even those in the Spotlight, those we worship and envy for their ‘perfect’ lives, have things going on that are messy and painful.

‘Grit’ is also called resilience, which is so much more than just ‘persevering’. I’ll confess that I’ve become a little bored with hearing about it :  the result of the hundreds of TedTalks, books, articles and Agony Aunt columns on the topic. Nonetheless, I know that it’s essential to living bravely and just can’t be praised enough. If we’re lucky, we have an Elder or two in our lives that have flourished, despite tough odds. But hearing a gritty story’s not the same as living-through and triumphing over whatever bad times or mental demons threaten us. That courage, bravery and resilience come from the heart. Even deeper. It’s the sheer, tough, Will to Survive.  It can’t be taught; it has to be lived.

I’m feeling a little lost, without a compass, now that so many of my Wise Elders have transitioned to wherever spirit energy goes. On the other hand, I continue to measure my own responses to Life against things like the perilous Westward Movement, the Great Depression and World War II. I try not to minimize my own progress, by comparing it to these ordeals. After all, each beating heart faces unique trials. They may be external, and historic; but very often they’re very personal, and of our own making. With, or without voices and memories to guide us and reassure us, we struggle and manage to find our way through dark times. If we’re lucky, we live to tell some precocious young person about our survival. They won’t really listen, or hear, of course. But, they will somehow remember.

Ready to Forget

Lately I’ve noticed what powerful emotional triggers certain sensory experiences – especially my sense of smell – can be. My dentist  tells me (I know, a dentist?) it’s all about the aging process, but I’m not so sure. I think I’ve always been what people who know about such things call a Super Receptor:  the hearing of a bat; taste buds that seem a little too responsive to extremes of sweet and sour; and a reaction to certain smells/aromas/fragrances that can send me floating up into fluffy pink clouds, or hurling into a vortex of panic.

Yesterday, for example, I was heading into a Sephora as a person was coming out.  I looked up, as I always do, to smile a ‘thank you’ (it’s official:  younger people of all genders are now holding doors for me), while catching a subtle whiff of her instantly-recognizable perfume. A very sweet floral:  the same scent that my beloved maternal grandmother (so influential in my life, until she passed at age 91) always wore. My breath caught in my chest, and for a minute I spaced-out as to what I’d come there for. The fresh flowery fragrance instantly took me back in time; so comfortable in the presence of someone I loved dearly. My grandmother’s smile came back; the house in the country came back; parts of me, came back to myself, as I stood before the store’s maze of goodies.

My dentist is involved in this mix because I’d recently shared with her how the odors of certain chemicals and diabolical medications they use (hospitals and doctor’s offices as well) freak me out. Which is why, I suppose, she felt she had to offer that, now that I was “older”, I should consider sedation for dental procedures, so that I wouldn’t “feel stressed”. That actually scared me more than medicinal odors do. Thankfully, most of the memories that come back to me via certain scents are really happy; even blissful.  

I look forward to hauling-out the sweet and savory spices that I use in dishes when the weather turns colder. Their aromas bring recollections of cooking lessons, in my early years, from now-passed family members that I still sorely miss.

The smell of spring blossoms on my lemon tree can put me into a trance of re-visiting Sicily; sweet cherry blossoms, and I’m longing to return to Japan. But some sensations trigger memories that I’d really rather forget. I get mixed-messages from lilacs:  the sprays were everywhere, at my mother’s funeral. The smell of a hospital (as well as the sounds) brings back the visceral fear I felt, as my son struggled with a life-threatening illness. A view of the setting sun, from a mountainside perch I’m still drawn to, brings longing for the happier times in my marriage.

Our sense of smell, so I read from experts, is one of humankind’s most primitive and potent vestiges from our ancient origins. I sometimes wonder if it’s part of Nature’s Wisdom, the fact that so many people in their 80’s and 90’s seem to experience a diminished sense of smell and taste. Being able to avoid reminders of Life’s darker moments might not be so bad.

Decades ago I had a friend, a medical doctor, whose specialty was Companion-Medicine. He traveled to many different countries, learning unconventional ways, alternative methods, of treating physical and psychological dis-ease. David’s interest and focus eventually became releasing and completely erasing deep sadness, even trauma, through Breathwork. Healing through certain types of breathing, combined with visualization, is even more widely-used today. I’m here to say, if done correctly and consistently, it does work.

Having lived a bit of Life, however, and so being acquainted with the spectrum of mild unhappiness all the way up to debilitating grief, I also have to say that Step One (for me) is being Ready to Forget. Despite what I knew would happen in my heart when it bloomed, I planted a lilac bush in my yard a few years ago. And, I’m still not ready to stop going to that special mountain spot, to watch the sunset and recall Love’s bitter-sweetness. In fact, I think I’ve decided that I actually like being a Super Receptor of the sights, sounds, and smells that sometimes, literally, take my breath away and rock my emotions. They make me feel alive, sparking appreciation and gratitude for every moment, and its eventual memory, that I might hold on to.

“Your Request Could Not Be Processed”

If you follow astrology – even in a discreet way, so as not to appear foolish to yourself or others – you know that each and every planet in our solar system (including our Sun) has meaning, purpose and influence in our daily lives. While I’m actually more interested in the science of things, I have to admit that this month (November), what astrologers have to say about the ‘retrograde’ planet of communication (and technology), tiny, fast-moving Mercury, feels mighty convincing. A retrograde planet, according to astrology, weakens or dilutes whatever the planet ‘rules’.

For me it started towards the very end of October (I can feel the group nod of those who ‘get’ what I’m talking about), about 3 days before the retrograde. I wasn’t even thinking about it – after all, I was with someone I’d known for decades. We’d gone to see a really good film and were de-briefing on the walk back to our hotel. Suddenly, a comment I’d made about the lead character in the story was interpreted as a declaration of verbal warfare. My companion reacted swiftly and negatively, having inferred that my intention was to insult him. I was shocked by his reaction and back-pedaled quickly, apologizing (for what? I was clueless) for any harm. But I could see by the set of his jaw and the stare straight ahead that my explanations were not making things better.

A quote that’s been attributed to Oscar Wilde, but I’m not at all sure it was he who said it, says this about a perceived insult:  “Go ahead and take it personally – it saves time”. Wilde was well-known for his wit and scathing verbal swordsmanship. I’m much more of a peace-maker and harmony-seeker in all of my relationships; even with total strangers who feel abrasive from the get-go. I want to see and feel their ‘side’ of things; understand their viewpoints; untangle any misunderstandings I may have caused.

Since this month, so far, has been rife with misunderstandings and miscommunications, my patience and tolerance are really being put to the test. I mean, I know I have an appointment with your office next Tuesday; I responded to your text confirming it. So why do I continue to get text-reminders at least once a day? Check your messaging system, for God’s sake; am I the only one reporting this? ( I did actually speak with a human about the issue, in much kinder terms. She was unaware of the glitch. Apparently we’re all so used to annoying texts, that they just merge in our minds with all of the other goofy things our phones do). And speaking of texts:  the same day I received one from an out-of-state phone number that I didn’t recognize. The message was simply “NO”. I tried not to take it personally.

Communication, for people like me who pride themselves on being tolerant of human and  technology mishaps, is a Big Deal. When it’s muddled and confused, I immediately ‘check’ my own words, verbal or written. I try to re-state what’s obviously been unclear, and maybe landed badly. But sometimes, especially lately, my struggle to make sure I’m being clear makes me realize that I might actually need to “just shut-up already!” In the personal relationship arena, clarifying talk definitely has a sell-by date. I need to recognize when the other person has stopped listening – for whatever reason – and just let it go. Accept that there’s a communication breakdown but the moment will pass, the relationship will survive (or not).

With work, it’s a different matter:  I actually  need you to understand and to comply with instructions, so that your product will turn out the way you want it to. Sometimes, however, it seems that the client just hears blah-blah-blah and continues on their path, oblivious. What to do?

Whether a retrograde Mercury is in fact involved is debatable. But what I know for sure is that, when I experience a steady stream of misunderstandings, miscommunications, and resulting frustration, it’s time to stop talking, stop writing, stop trying so hard to bring clarity out of what feels like a super-dense fog or mist that’s settled-in. Communication is more than talking, verbally or non-  (of course); there’s active listening involved, and engagement. I can’t make that happen. Some days it really does feel like something to do with the stars…a reminder that my own timelines and expectations are just that – my own.

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