my calling

I do not generally experience people in binary: victim or villain, good or bad, righteous or damned.

My lifetime’s greatest teacher was all these things and everything in between, which made me very clear, very young how very much humanity is disappeared by such binary sorting of whole people.

One very early morning a few months back, I stood in my kitchen reading the book Daring Greatly. I’d read it a few times before, but this time happened to be doing so with a recent conversation about accepting people exactly as they are fresh in mind.

With that willingness to try accepting what is as it is then alive within me, I read a particular passage—I don’t even remember which one, now—and felt my heart practically burst open. For all the times I’d read that passage, I’d never once actually understood it.

Reading it this time, I flashed to a college acquaintance about whom I think from time to time. I felt with dawning horror and grief how I’d considered him only a villain, only bad, only damned, and how I treated him accordingly.

I had, I saw, shamed him repeatedly, and within others’ earshot.

When he later committed murder-suicide, I took that as affirmation I’d been right about him. I’d accurately perceived an innate, immutable darkness in him. He was a rare person who’d just been born bad.

Sobbing in my kitchen that morning, I understood everything so differently.

I remembered times I’d seen him shamed by his dad, and also how my sister once told me that what I was seeing was only the tip of the iceberg. I thus finally understood in my heart:

Signs of what I’d always seen as his immutable wrongness were, instead, reflections of the depth of his shame, or what Brené Brown defines as the “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”

and I got, in my bones, how

“shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure.”

As I stood in my kitchen with tears on my face and words of apology on my tongue and in my heart, I knew I’d found my very particular calling,

one for which I knew I’d also have to journey to find the words.

By light of day, I called my sister. For a time, she’d been much closer to him than I’d ever been.

I told her about my morning revelations and waited to hear what she said. She affirmed my reflections wholeheartedly, saying that some of the shaming he’d endured made our experiences of being shamed look downright rosy.

She said understanding his trauma was part of her coming to forgive him, long before I did; the depth of his hurt had informed his own willingness to hurt.

Eight days ago, talking with a dear girlfriend who also knew this former acquaintance, I shared highlights of all the ground I’ve covered the last few months in pursuit of a clearer understanding of my calling. I told her how it all began with this moment reading Brown in my kitchen.

After we talked through it all, I said, “My job is IT contracts. My work, though, is learning to communicate without shaming, and to learn to facilitate shame-free conversations.”

Having said those words out loud, I was so startled by them that I paused mid-hike.

After three months, my journey had led me to the words for my calling—

my real work.

My old blog’s most popular post by far was “Dear Mom,” a letter I wrote to my mom on our shared birthday, a few years after she’d died. Near the letter’s conclusion, I wrote:

You always begged me not to write about you. You thought I’d write about how you beat my siblings and me, how you yelled at us, how you could barely feed us and only kept us in a home by selling other people’s trash. I do write about these things, because they’re part of you. But they’re a small part, so enormously insignificant compared to your laughter, your love, your lessons in forgiveness, our birthday trips to Farrell’s and Pietro’s. I wish I’d written more about you in your life, so you could have seen how greatly your loving acts overshadowed your lost and tired ones. I wish I could’ve started writing sooner, or that you could’ve lived longer to see your love through my eyes.

My mom is my lifetime’s greatest teacher.

If I remembered her for only her “lost and tired” acts, I would be remembering a fraction of the humanity of a beautiful, messy, vibrant woman for whom such acts were greatly overshadowed by her laughter, her love, and her lessons in forgiveness. I would be both dishonoring her memory and diminishing my own capacity to see the wholeness of individual people, even those in the throes of bad behavior.

I routinely witnessed my mom shamed—for her poverty, her weight, her grammar, and her less than immaculate housekeeping, foremost among them—by people of my childhood hometown and was thus afforded ample opportunity to see how destructive shame was. How the moments immediately following a shaming, the ones where she least perceived herself as worthy, were the exact moments where she’d act out that felt unworthiness in violence, as if to affirm for herself her implicit unworthiness

(an unworthiness I did not, in the face of it all, myself ever once perceive).

I do not generally experience people in binary: victim or villain, good or bad, righteous or damned.

With what I now understand of my calling, I will be striving to notice signs I am treating someone as villainous or bad. I will take those signs to mean it is time for me to slow down, step out of judgment and into curiosity, and act on my hard-earned, deeply felt conviction that

we are not only all worthy, but most capable of being our best selves when treated in ways that acknowledge that worthiness.

My learning and growth isn’t in letting my words and acts acknowledge others’ worthiness only when it’s easy for me to acknowledge such worth;

it’s in doing so when it’s hardest and least intuitive for me.

That gap between where I actually am and where I want to be, the latter a place of acknowledging everyone’s worth with my words and acts?

It is only when I hold my breath and dive into that gap that I can learn what I most yearn to learn,
not as an abstraction or aspiration but as a committed practice, and that
I most honor my mom’s memory, and help her light shine
(together with and distinct from my own)
so that you can see some of her love through my acts and words,
though she did not herself live long enough
to get that chance.

To enter this gap between aspiration and action, over and over and over again, and thereby diminish it:

That is my memory-honoring,
my commitment,
my calling.

2 thoughts on “my calling

  1. I truly love every moment of this post. Yes i said ‘moment’ – it felt like an experience, reading this. The passage about your mother broke my heart. It’s so thoroughly raw and beautiful. I have such a tumultuous relationship with my mother but am learning every day to love her wholeheartedly for who she IS, not her lost and tired moments, as you say. It’s so easy to experience people in binary, especially those who have hurt you. It’s a comfort zone, because to allow yourself to see them in their whole light is to diminish your own feelings of hurt/anger/revenge, whatever you may call it, and facing that is uncomfortable. Thank you for writing this. It’s great food for thought. Life is about consistently and continually trying to better the self. That starts with how you see people.

    Liked by 1 person

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