Retire from the Self-Worth Sweatshop

Constructed between the years 1675 – 1710 St. Paul’s Cathedral is one of the most astounding sites in London. Among its architectural achievements, it boasts of the first triple-domed cathedral in the world. When Sir Christopher Wren embarked on erecting the dome, which stands 366 feet high and weighs approximately 66,000 tons – equivalent to 20,000 elephants – such an engineering feat had never been accomplished.

The weight of this massive dome is supported by 8 stone piers.

In the early 20th-century, city officials concerned about the integrity of these hollow piers and perceived imminent danger of collapse recommended the piers be replaced. To strengthen the structural integrity of the pillars the clergy commissioned that each of the hollow columns be filled with liquid concrete. In 1941, during WWII, a direct hit on St. Paul’s destroyed the vaulted roof over the crypt and punched a hole through the cathedral floor. Ironically, had the piers not been reinforced the triple-dome of St. Paul’s would have collapsed.

We all have hollow pillars.

They are that which we erroneously rely on to support our self-esteem. They are the titles we seek: father, wife, accountant, volunteer. They are the power we pursue: financial, intellectual, influential. They are the image we project: successful, athletic, attractive. Life has a way of seducing us into expending enormous amounts of energy erecting one pillar after another with the promise that with our self-constructed piers we will finally feel…whole. And so, we labor under a false façade, clinging to one pillar or another for stability only to find momentary footing. In our longing to be loved, valued, accepted, welcomed, we toil hoping that what we do, or what we have, will once and for all validate who we are.

When we depend upon hollow pillars to bear the weight of our self-worth, they will sustain us for a while, eventually however, our self-esteem can become so frail that we ourselves begin to feel vacant. Somewhere along the way life twisted the message. We came to believe our value had everything to do with what we brought to the table, rather than our presence at the table. We bound our worth to our pursuits and have been left wanting.

Having spent a lifetime “doing” to purportedly earn my place at the table, I can attest to the exhaustive and unfulfilling cycle which keeps one perpetually offering more while never feeling enough.

But…

What if our worth comes not from that which we pursue but from who we already are?

What if finding wholeness is not about stretching outward but looking inward?

Within each of us is a heart uniquely cast with distinctive traits, personality, interests, abilities, and purpose. Interwoven within these inherent characteristics are the experiences we’ve obtained, the knowledge we’ve acquired, and the insight we’ve gleaned. These combined attributes make up an entirely rare and irreplaceable individual. You. Me. Us. To be absolutely clear, who we are is not the pristine, unblemished version of ourselves; that person doesn’t exist. We’re talking reality, my friends! Us, in all our glorious brokenness, mess, flaws, and imperfections.

Ironically, one of the greatest obstacles to finding rest in who we are is ourselves. Having bought into the propaganda that our good is lovable but not our bad or our ugly, we hide and cover the undesirable parts of our heart through performance, perpetuating the cycle. We need to remember that our insight comes from having learned hard lessons. Our grace for others from having first experienced it ourselves. Our knowledge on how to stand firm, from having fallen flat on our face. Everything that makes us perceptive, relevant, and relatable is not where we have remained flawless but where we have broken.

When we learn to rest in who we are we can retire from who the world tells us we should be. Contentment with ourselves empowers us to reorder and reprioritize all that we dedicate ourselves too. Our heart becomes the filter through which we sift our motivations. Our pursuits – PTA volunteer, parent, athlete, educator – are offered from that which we long to give, not from a response we hope to receive. From that vantage point, filled with the knowledge of who we are, we too can weather the external forces which seek to besiege us.

Photo by Aditya Siva on Unsplash

Don’t Mow Your Emotional Lawn

As winter melts into spring Saturday mornings take on a new tone. The drone back and forth begins around 8:00 AM and meanders throughout the neighborhood; each home regularly and meticulously grooming their lawn with neat, crisscrossing patterns. The way we ensure our yards flourish is by having clear delineations between what we allow to grow and that which we keep at bay. Grasses are groomed to thicken through growth and regular mowing, weeds are plucked at the root to ensure they do not rear their heads again later, flowers are carefully pruned to ensure their blossom reaches its full potential. In this clear-cut environment mowing makes perfect sense. However, we often are not just mowing our lawns but our emotions as well.

Growing up I had a heightened emotional response to most things. I think the term I heard most often was “too sensitive.” A baseball strikeout would lead to a surge of embarrassing tears. I would head back to the dugout to be met with heckles from the other boys or a gruff, “brush it off” from the coach. A teacher’s reprimand would result in a flush of humiliation and tears forcibly withheld just below the surface. When happy, my joy would spill out everywhere. I would bounce off the walls only to hear the rebuke, “Settle down!” Everywhere I turned my exuberant heart was being asked to conform to a predetermined spectrum of emotional expression. While there is a time to hold emotion for a moment, in order to release it later, I was never taught how to do it. Rather, I was taught to mow my emotional lawn. Day after day, I took my emotions, sheared them off and buried them deep within me.

Emotions are a gift. They reflect the inner workings of our hearts. They are a window to the soul; providing a vivid view of how we respond to the world and people around us. Our emotions can provide us with remarkable opportunities to examine our own heart and our relationship with others if we tend them well. Yet, all the while, well-meaning and well-intentioned people in our lives are communicating a very different message; emotions have no place here. We are told to “get over it,” “move on,” “suck it up,” or “look on the bright side,” as if lingering with our emotion is foolhardy. It’s as if we enter a dark room where we need to sit and process our emotional film and someone keeps flipping the flipping light on! Our ability to explore the roots of our emotions, gage our reactions, and grow in our character is immediately eroded. 

Why shouldn’t we take the lawnmower out? Unlike pristine suburban yards, we do not know our emotional landscape and delineations fully. There are no boundaries between our emotional grasses, weeds, and flowers. In fact, our hearts are deceitful and may urge us to cut the wrong things. It’s only by sitting with our emotions and cultivating their growth that we begin to differentiate between what should be pruned, plucked and fertilized. At times, we may even need to rely on an emotional horticulturalist (a.k.a counselor) to help us identify what is growing, whether it’s healthy, and how to uproot or nurture it!

Grasses are temporal emotions. These emotions generally spring up in response to something that happens around us, or to us, but fade away with equal ease: joy, surprise, laughter, confusion, sadness, disappointment, fear. For the most part, emotional grass is low maintenance; with regular watering and shearing they can become a rich landscape on which we live out our daily lives.

Weeds are the smothering scourge that interferes with healthy emotional responses. They entangle our relationships and stunt their growth. Anger, pride, self-doubt, anxiety, and fear can all become emotional weeds. They are like their physical cousins – they can’t just be cut down. When we try to stifle our emotional weeds, we cut them off temporarily but scatter the seeds to more parts of our heart. The only way to truly remove the weeds is to seek help plucking them out.

Our emotional flowers reveal something in us that is a God-given gift. The seeds for these gifts were planted long ago and will sprout on an emotional scale at various times of life. Bursts of joy may signal an area that is filling your cup. If explored further, those bursts may be grown into passion projects or new careers. On the other hand, areas of loss or deep grief could be preparing your heart to walk alongside someone else who has experienced a similar loss.

Our hearts were designed to feel deeply. Recognizing the difference between grasses, weeds, and flowers helps us grow into beautifully relatable people. The next time you are tempted to cut your emotions short, leave your lawnmower in the garage. Instead turn to a friend, to a spouse, or to God with what is in your heart and tend to it. You may find that instead of just having a groomed exterior, you can cultivate new life both within and without.

Photo Credit: Brian Fee