One of my favorite pieces of advice in the "are you fucking kidding me?" category came from a history teacher I had in high school, someone who knew me just well enough to be dangerous.
"Beware your self-consciousness, Gretchen. It is all that separates you from true happiness."
Um, right. Thanks for that!
In a generous reading, this polished little turd of wisdom could be embraced as a "character koan," like Pema Chödrön's warning that the impulse toward self- improvement is a subtle form of aggression. To the ready mind, it could offer a twisted path to enlightenment. But for a sixteen-year-old girl already half-paralyzed by anxiety about how she appeared to others (awkward, boyish, freckled & unkempt), it was the functional equivalent of "RELAX!" or "STOP THINKING ABOUT THE ELEPHANT!" Supremely unhelpful.
I can't say that I've totally dropped the habit of looking over my own shoulder, and I'd be a fool to suppose that I ever will, but self-consciousness doesn't grip me so cruelly these days. It was never my enemy, just another histrionic friend with boundary issues: "Oh my God, did you really just say Albanian when you meant Armenian? Of course I know you're not an idiot, but honey, you do realize that you will never be taken seriously by any of these people ever again, don't you? Such a shame." Okay, maybe sometimes my enemy, but much less so now than in the past.
There are many things that have conspired to loosen the corset whose laces I used to tighten every hour. Only a few have arrived in the form of epiphany, and I want to share one with you now. Maybe it'll help you as it has helped me. I hope in any event that it won't put a nasty new twist in your knickers if they're already knotted. Here you go:
No one will ever know just how good you are. Or how bad. Or how smart, how beautiful, how worthy of love.
This includes your mother. It definitely includes your father. It includes your kids, your best friend, your lover, your mentor, your doctor, your pastor, the clerk at the grocery store, and the alluring stranger on the bus. Most importantly, this includes you.
I'll admit, there's a downside to living with this truth. For many of us, I think, the concept of heaven is attractive not only for the obvious reasons (comprehensive health coverage, cotton candy clouds, long picnics and touch football games with all our virtuous friends and family, etc.) but also, strangely, for the promise of ultimate judgment itself. As much as we dread our moment with St. Peter (or whomever we've installed in the judge's seat), we long for it, too. We want to know: will the gates swing wide when our names are called out from the register, or will the trapdoor open beneath our feet?
Unfortunately, the desire to know how we ultimately stack up leaves us dangerously vulnerable. There are plenty of people all too ready to tell us, people who will use our hunger for an answer to assuage their own desperate insecurity. Many of history’s most vicious tyrants have amassed their power from the common human reluctance to live in a state of ambiguity and doubt.
At the same time, we are woefully ill-equipped to judge ourselves. Even literal mirrors teach us this: we part our hair and practice our smiles for the favor of a backward image, then wonder why we look so odd in photos. Catherine and John Walter have speculated that a "feminine" right hair part spelled electoral doom for Al Gore in 2000, and they've created a True Mirror to allow people to see themselves as others see them. The experience is almost always unsettling, just as it is to overhear someone talking about you without knowing you're there. Whose truth can you trust? Who has the real skinny?
No one. The Book of You will be open long after you're gone, and every competing draft will be written in pencil. You cannot know how even the smallest of your acts - your offhand kindnesses, your petty cruelties - may ripple out, or whether your mightiest accomplishment will become your greatest shame. You cannot know whether that element of your appearance that you find most repellent may snag the curiosity of someone who comes to love you.
Can you live with that? Can you navigate by your own dim lights and keep moving forward absent the comforts of false certainty? Try it, and feel your rib cage expand.