Sunday, August 19, 2012

Forget Self-Esteem, Just Love

Sometimes as I write this blog I feel completely unqualified to be writing anything at all. Perhaps all of my notions about marriage are wrong. In a way writing this blog is similar to being married. I keep living it, every day, but sometimes I don't know if I'm doing it right.

Actually, I feel unqualified to be doing most of the things that I do. When Owen and I are volunteering at the Shelter House, we end up deferring to the staff members whenever people ask tough questions, even when we really do know the answers. Why do we ask questions that we already know the answers to? Why do we doubt our own knowledge? At work, situations arise that I was never trained to handle, and I have to make up the answers. Through all of the feelings of not knowing what we are doing, we continue on, doubting and also hoping that we are doing the right thing.

When we allow that doubt to stop us, we put ourselves in danger of failing. In relationships of any kind, if we allow feelings of inadequacy to overwhelm us, we won't be able to have fulfilling relationships. We may even allow ourselves to be treated poorly. I saw a movie clip recently that made sense to me. The girl says to her friend, "Why do I always end up with jerks?" The friend responds, "Because you only accept the love you think you deserve."

When I was in high school I would get wrapped up in notions of fixing myself. I always sought my flaws and worked to make myself "better." That doesn't sound like such a bad thing to do, but it caused me more stress and unease than it may have been worth. I learned to break free from this self-depreciating pattern when I was on a mission trip in New Orleans. At one of the sermons, the speaker discussed self-esteem, and for the first time I heard it discussed as a negative phenomenon. She asked who are you to esteem yourself? We don't have the right or the power to determine our worth, it's something infinitely designed by God.

As a Lutheran, I can take this idea that God determines my worth and make it really mean something to me, but what about people who don't believe? Perhaps this idea can still be meaningful in that there is no sense in trying to evaluate our own worths.

How can we even begin to love others if we are overly concerned with how lovable we are? One of the most hindering aspects of questioning our worthiness is the selfishness that results. If we allow ourselves to be consumed in guilt or embarrassment about things we have said or done, we are not thinking about the people we love anymore. We have to love ourselves enough to focus our attention on others. I would suggest that we should love ourselves without reason because as soon as we attempt to give it a reason, we risk minimizing the love and getting caught up in selfish patterns.

Does anyone remember that movie from years ago, Aquila and the Bee? I still meditate on the quotation that her trainer gives her, which has been a source of inspiration for me:

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond imagination. It is our light more than our darkness which scares us. We ask ourselves--who are we to be brilliant, beautiful, talented, and fabulous. But honestly, who are you not to be so?

You are a child of God, small games do not work in this world. For those around us to feel peace, it is not example to make ourselves small. We were born to express the glory of God that lives in us. It is not in some of us, it is in all of us. While we allow our light to shine, we unconsciously give permission for others to do the same. When we liberate ourselves from our own fears, simply our presence may liberate others."
-Marianne Williamson in Return to Love: Reflection on a Course in Miracles

Sunday, August 12, 2012

One Year Anniversary!

Hopefully we're a little wiser one year after tying the knot! Here are a few things we learned.

1. You will see your partner in unflattering lights, and there's something wonderful about that.

We attended a friend's wedding last month and during the dollar dance the groom asked me, "So how do you like marriage?"
I said something along the lines of, "It's insane. It's a roller-coaster, and the man is crazy."
He asked, "It is good, right?"
I said, "Absolutely."

I don't know how it happened, but compared to a year ago, I see Owen as being more complicated than I had realized and I also love him more. Maybe I love him more because I've also learned more about how he is wonderful, but I think learning more about his perceived flaws may actually play the bigger role. As I learn more about his traits that annoy me I come more into what makes him vulnerable and in that I empathize more. Often I find that what I initially perceive as flaws are actually weaknesses, and in knowing accepting each other's weaknesses we can better enjoy our own humanness.

It's like that Seinfeld episode when Elaine says that she can't date a guy because he is too good, which makes her seem more bad. There's just something uncomfortable about being around people who seem perfect because we know our own flaws keep us from being as "good." By sharing his weaknesses with me, Owen allows me to be more myself, warts and all. For more on this idea, see my earlier post,  You Don't Complete Me.

Owen can be, at times, pouty. I have always had a short tolerance for pouty, so at some point this past year we addressed it. Actually, I think this took many months of conversation to figure out. What we've realized is that Owen needs verbal affection to feel secure and loved. What I perceived as a flaw, pouting, is less of a flaw and more of an unmet need. I've learned that in describing Owen it never proves accurate to say "he is flawed in such and such a way," only that "in this aspect of our perceptions, we differ, and I react with frustration."

2. Your own shortcomings will be thrown in your face, and you will have to accept them.

During St. Olaf graduation this year I had the opportunity to introduce Owen to one of my favorite professors who said, "Isn't being married great? Single, you can go around thinking that you've got it all together, but once your married... you can't hide anything. All your flaws come out."

One of the hardest aspects of marriage is the disillusionment of the self. An interesting phenomenon in relationships is when people defend ridiculous actions that they would never defend in a different context. When you are intimately close with another person, you cannot hide your flaws, and if you continue to act as though they don't exists, you are in danger of looking like an ass. 

If your partner continuously accuses you of being such and such, perhaps you should take a step back and see if there's actually some truth in it. When Owen first suggested that I didn't care for him as much as he needed, I was shocked. I cared so much, and he was so wrong in that, but he was on to something. What he had noticed was my addiction to busyness. I am all too capable of allowing a million other things take my attention from Owen. 

3. It's okay to question your decision.

Owen supervisor at work sways on his toes and clasps his hands behind his back, always half joking and almost too honest. He told us that choosing a PhD program is like getting married. Sometimes you find yourself thinking, "This is what I married?"

When I was in high school I was terrified to question my religious beliefs because the church trained me not to. The church taught me that questioning my beliefs and looking outside for answers would mislead me and I would go to hell. College presented me with the frightening idea that the church was wrong. After a painful first year, I realized that avoiding information and avoiding ideas had me trapped. When I finally allowed myself to question my beliefs, I confirmed some and tossed others and I would say that I am a much freer person with a much stronger faith. I no longer have nagging questions because I allow myself to address them and think them through.

The same should be true in relationships. If you have a nagging question in the back of your mind regarding your partner, don't be afraid to ask it. Don't be afraid to ask, "Do I really love this person?" If you confirm that you do, then you will enjoy freedom in having asked. If you find that you don't you can start attending to the problem.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Ode to Place

When I daydream about living at Hogwarts, Harry Potter doesn't need to be there. I want to travel the Mississippi on a raft of sticks and leave Huck behind or discover Wonderland or Oz without Alice or Dorothy. I'm more distressed by Raskolnikov's yellow apartment than I am by him, and I can't imagine living with eight children in a shoe. When place makes itself present in fiction, it has the capacity to become stronger than the characters.

Frequently I find that my daydreams revolve around place. I think of living in Colorado, Finland, Ireland, Italy, or Alaska (especially the fictional town of Cicely). Place captures our imaginations and desires, and we can get caught up in thinking, "if only I lived there..."

In many ways place does influence our moods and contentment. That's why Owen and I are so hooked on coffee shops! With our domestic responsibilities out of sight, our minds feel clearer and we can do our work better. The smell of coffee and the standard comfortable chairs also add an element of coziness. Similarly, I have to visit my home in Colorado every few months to breath in the mountain air and reclaim myself. Everywhere I go, I attempt to bring the colors of home, brown and blue, into my life. We've painted our new kitchen blue and orange, like the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs. Even the little touch of color makes me happier.

However, place can't make us happy by itself. The purity of mountain life is slighted when our relationships are in turmoil. When I say that moving made Owen and I happier as individuals, I should qualify that it didn't change our relationship. In our new home we face the same repetitive arguments that we dealt with in our crummy apartment. Owen still says he'll do a task for me, but gets distracted before he can complete it, and I still get mad at him and nag him to be different, at times leaving him feeling like he does everything wrong. Thankfully, Owen and I are able to step back from our arguments enough so that I can assure him that he does not do everything wrong, but does things differently from me... and that I just need to chill.

Owen and I are hooked on that silly reality show called Love in the Wild. As Owen describes it, it's a combination of all the different reality shows in one. An equal number of men and women compete in athletically challenging (and sometimes frightening) races in the jungle. The end goal is to fall in love with one of the other contestants in the show. Each episode a male-female team wins a night at The Oasis, a gorgeous house with an indoor/outdoor pool and full service bar. The team that comes in last has to stay in the lean-to, with no walls or beds. Regardless of the couples' lodgings, you can see that the people who enjoy each others company have good evenings and the people who dislike each other have bad evenings. Even a place as beautiful as The Oasis can't make people happy.

This doesn't make the value of being in a place that makes you feel happy and comfortable any less, I don't think, it's just a reminder that place isn't enough by itself. Certainly I encourage people to search for those places that make them happy, but would warn that it won't be enough to fix relationship problems.