There is nothing wrong with self-improvement, but when it comes out of self-loathing it’s negatively fueled and likely to fail. Change should be a product of self-love.
“I’m sorry, we can’t take that back,” the cashier said. I had waited a little too long to return the too-small gloves. The clerk was nice about it, and yes, according to the return agreement printed on each receipt I missed the deadline. Too bad I waited in line for such a long time before realizing it.
In how many return lines have I waited and for how long? I’ve waited in the return lines of discontent and restlessness manifested in relationships, jobs, and general life path. A spin dial on a game board is more certain of direction than I have been many times in my life. The spiral of self is sometimes spinning up, up, and up, but inevitably it falls back down again: a teeter-totter of emotion led by a wish to go back to simpler times before the modern pressures of adulthood.
In an effort to return to a simpler life, neighbors—two parents and four young children—gave up their minivan a couple of years ago. First, they parked their vehicle a few blocks away to make it harder to choose to drive. Then, a couple of months later, they got rid of it altogether, choosing instead to walk, bike, bus, or sled, depending on the weather, to wherever they need to go. Instead of rushing to the grocery store for one item, they ring the doorbell to borrow a cup of brown rice one day and another day leave a piece of homemade wheat bread wrapped in a brown paper lunch bag as a thank you. By their example, they have opened up opportunities to “return”—that is, give back—to our neighborhood community by their presence and example of living in the moment.
Instead of giving in to an expectation that suburban families should be auto-centered, the family in my neighborhood set their own reference baseline. Whether their children are jumping in leaf piles when others have lawn services or making a snowman after the first good snowfall when others are shut up indoors, this family reminds me that I don’t need to try and be someone who fits into the same mold as others around me. I can return to my expectations for myself, instead of living someone else’s. To do so, however, means shutting out the media’s piper tune of unrealistic expectations of self: make a resolution, be thinner and richer, or go on a retreat and become a new you.
There is nothing wrong with self-improvement, but when it comes out of self-loathing (I need to change everything because I’m not good enough), it’s negatively fueled and likely to fail. Change should be a product of self-love (I want to improve what I can because I’m enlightened), so that it’s positively fueled to create sustainable and lasting change.
January, a month whose very essence symbolizes new beginnings, is self-conflicting. Just when natural daylighting is near minimum, winter whips into a fury and I’m stuck in an unproductive mood on the couch bundled in a blanket trying to warm up cold feet. “A new me?” Sure, I’d like to start over—who wouldn’t? These days I sometimes feel as worn down as a pencil stub and think, “Dear God, I’d like to return myself.”
I think about all of the things about myself I’d like to return or exchange. It would be nice to say, “Dear God, I’d like to send back about 10 pounds and exchange my straight hair for curls and exchange my skin for something a little tighter with fewer imperfections.” Poof! I’d be 10 pounds lighter, have a bouncy hairdo, and look younger. “Oh, and God, I’d like a few more inches of height please.”
Since that isn’t magically possible and without extensive human intervention, I have no choice but to learn to love my God-given self—as is. Well, at least I try. I am accepting the things about myself that cannot be changed like my height and age, while justifying all of the things that have happened to me in my life by seeing them as part of developing who I am today and who I want to become. It’s a daunting task, because it’s never done. There’s never a time when this task can be checked off a list. Even when I think I have a handle on self-acceptance, one bad day derails me and I have to start over again. So, the struggle is needing to continually affirm myself.
One day while grocery shopping I asked a woman to please help me reach something on the top shelf. She replied, “I don’t work here,” and kept rolling her cart down the aisle. For a long time after that, I only asked store employees for assistance. However, years later I asked a man not much taller than me for help, and he was thrilled that he was actually tall enough to help someone else reach something. Being petite became a way for me to share a common thread with a stranger and make him feel better about himself. That only worked because I felt good enough about my height that it didn’t bring me down in the process. Working up the courage to ask someone to help me exposes my limitation of being shorter than five feet tall, so I needed to be comfortable with highlighting that fact and be prepared for another potential letdown. Self-acceptance goes a long way in a lot of things other than a box of cereal beyond my reach.
If I truly see myself as a product of everything that has happened in my life, then to return myself or any part of myself would negate who I really am. Just like my neighbors who decided suburbia did not equate to owning a car, I can change my reference baseline. So, I’m stepping out of the return line and focusing instead on making my life work with what I’ve already got.
I can find new ways to give of myself, which I see as self-acceptance in action. The gloves I could not return were given to my cousin, who was grateful and excited to have them. In exchange for the cup of rice I gave them, my neighbors invited me over to dinner. My petite stature means I have lots of legroom on airplanes even in economy seats.
Not being able to return something isn’t such a bad thing after all.