I begin to let go of the belief that martyrdom is essential to my self-esteem.
The community dinner I work with offers a vegetarian option at each meal and I’ve taken responsibility for choosing it, shopping for it, and preparing it. However, after taking on new responsibilities with the organization, I wanted to unload this obligation. Each year the local college assigns a student to work with us, and our current student loves to cook so I asked her if she would take over. She agreed to do it and I was SO pleased with myself for letting this responsibility go. Then life intervened. Sherry’s class schedule changed limiting her hours at the kitchen, another volunteer told me our kitchen manager wouldn’t buy some of the ingredients Sherry requested, and then she got sick before one meal and couldn’t be there at all. I nearly careened over the edge this week when the she sent me a quiche recipe, one she didn’t think she would be available to prepare, and the ingredient list seemed poor to me (pro-tip: plain yogurt is much better in quiche than heavy cream). Feeling aggravated and fed-up, I was on the verge of sending a text to the kitchen manager telling her I would go back to making the vegetarian option from now one when a tiny voice inside me said, “Stay out of it.”
I put my phone down but I struggled to quiet my mind. My impulse was to frame this situation as beyond my control and as the fault of those around me. After stewing about it I moved on to the question, “How did I end up right back in the middle of the vegetarian option?” and I see that I did it piece by piece. For instance, I’m the primary liaison between the kitchen and the college program that sends us a student. Sherry, appropriately, assumes I’m the person she should talk to about scheduling problems. I didn’t take myself out of that loop. Also, I assume, despite some counter-evidence, that the other dinner prep volunteers don’t want to take responsibility for the vegetarian option. I also assume that if they do take it on they won’t do it the way I think it should be done.
Piece by piece I give myself away. “It’s okay, I’ll do it this time.” “Yes, I’ll listen to your concerns rather than urge you to talk to the person who is the source of those concerns.” “No, I appreciate your offer but I’ll take care of it.” One decision at a time I hand pieces of myself over until I feel as if there’s nothing left of me. I tell myself as it’s happening that I’m patient and accommodating, that I put others’ or the organization’s needs before my own. I use that reasoning as evidence that I’m a good person. And when I feel as if there are no pieces of me left I am angry and blame others and I feel justified because, after all, I’ve been accommodating and patient and selfless.
As I learn to watch myself, to see my habits of thought as an object of curiosity, I gain freedom. And I learn to identify the actions that will keep me free—being direct about my limits, trusting others when they say they’ll take care of something, accepting that they won’t do things the way I would. Above all, I begin to let go of the belief that martyrdom is essential to my self-esteem.
Yesterday, on what would have been my mother’s 90th birthday, I mailed several forms to the Nurses’ Health Study at Harvard. She’s been gone almost three years and I’m convinced this was the last of the paperwork I’ll manage in the wake of her passing. I said that to my friend Rick and he laughed. He’s a lawyer.
My mother had a great big laugh that you could hear and recognize across a crowded room. Her ready laughter and sharp wit were there until her very last days along with her capacity for wonder and delight in the world around her. I can easily picture her face–mouth open, eyes wide as we stand at the rim of the Grand Canyon or under the canopy of the Redwood Forest. She was breathless at the sight of the Pacific Ocean, New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, and the rolling prairies of Minnesota.
She was a smart woman who should have gone to college but my grandmother restricted her options to teachers’ college, secretarial school, or nurses’ training. My mother chose nursing because the program required students to live on campus. My grandmother was a tyrant but when my father struggled to keep a job my mother’s work as a nurse kept our family afloat.
She worked off and on throughout the 50’s and 60’s when most women of her background stayed at home. She was divorced in the late 60’s when divorce was treated like a social disease. A testament to her sense of humor, she often she said she hadn’t demanded liberation so much as had it thrust upon her.
When she finished nurses’ training she’d longed to travel to the southwest and work as a nurse on a reservation. My grandmother wouldn’t hear of it and my mother wasn’t bold enough at 20 to defy her. Instead, she did what was expected of her—obeyed her parents, married the person whose race, religion, and education met social expectations, had children. She felt utterly betrayed by life when it turned out that complying with the conventions of one’s social class offered no guarantee of security let alone happiness.
Over the course of her life, my mother often resisted and resented her circumstances but eventually the discordance between how she thought things were supposed to be and how they were became the foundation for a new self. She re-educated herself about race and class and religion and she sought connections across social barriers. She understood that cultural conventions are socially constructed and resisted the imposition of them on herself and on those around her. She freed her mind and urged everyone she knew, especially her children, to do the same. Thanks Mom!
I took a writing class a few months ago and the instructor asked us to explain why we were in the course. I told her that I’d had an awful experience writing my dissertation—I took forever to finish it, I nearly lost a job a I loved, my dissertation advisor was unsupportive, I struggled under the weight of that experience, and always associated it with failure. Almost as soon as I sent my tale of woe off, for the first time in the many years since I finished my dissertation, I asked myself this question, “Good God, when do I get to quit telling that story?”
Lately I’ve been reading about longstanding grievances. It’s the wrong someone did to us years ago that our ego hauls out to remind us that we’re special. Although I would prefer to recite the longstanding grievances held by every member of my family, most of my friends, and a wide assortment of strangers I’ve encountered over the years, I realize that won’t actually help me in my pursuit of self acceptance.
The writing class helped loosen the grip of the dissertation story but last August when I wanted to start this blog, I found I was still banging my head against the wall of fear I built around writing. Then I had the good fortune to have a conversation with a new and deeply honest friend. When I told her the dissertation story the emphasis was on my advisor. I told her she’d once written me a letter saying, more or less, “Hey it’s okay. You don’t have to get a Ph.D.” At the time, I had a job that required a Ph.D. so her letter could just as well have said, “Hey, it’s okay to be a failure and to get fired.” My wise friend asked me how my advisor had treated me in the years leading up to the dissertation. I said she’d always had a high opinion of me and thought I produced very good work. I told her we had been close so the letter felt like a betrayal. Ever so gently she asked if it was possible that the letter had been written with good intentions, that my advisor was simply saying what she believed to be true. There was a very long pause. I was stunned to realize that it had never occurred to me that she had any motive other than to hurt me. Once I could see that there was another perfectly reasonable interpretation of my advisor’s motives the story’s hold on me was released.
When I let go of this longstanding grievance, I saw that my attachment to it had eclipsed a story that is more important, one that is alive and present. After I received the letter from my advisor, I told a colleague about it. We hadn’t known each other long but she immediately said, “It’s important to me that you stay here so I’m going to help you finish.” And she did. We met every week for more than a year. She read and reread every word of my dissertation and because of her generosity and commitment I finished. A lifelong friendship, that’s the story.