I get a little squirmy these days when people ask how old i am. Actually, scratch that; i’ve always gotten squirmy.
When i was fourteen, people outside of school regularly mistook me for a first-year college student. And on my wedding day, the woman who did my makeup made a tutting noise and told me i looked way too young for this. Last week, someone asked me what kind of music i grew up with; i made the usual pinch-nose, bracing for the exclamation that i was too young. She said she’s guess my age, and guess lower than she thought; she aimed for 29.
Maybe it’s my fat face, maybe it’s my premature sass, maybe it’s that we love to classify youth as this measurable and identifiable thing but, like basically every label, it’s all socially constructed consumerist nonsense. I don’t mind the guessing, usually. When the 29-guesser laughed, i delighted. She made me feel old and mature, like i would always eat all the groceries i buy instead of finding a few soured grapes in the corner of the bottom fridge-shelf after wondering for two weeks what that stink was.
So i’m 24 years and a few days old.
At dinner this weekend, my friend Lara turned to me and asked “so what have you learned this year?”
Well, the first thing was gratitude that, two years after moving (again) i have friends who ask the good questions. I didn’t say that in the moment, but i should have. I’m always learning how to be grateful.
What i said was something like this:
I’ve learned – am learning – to be thankful for failure. And i’ve learned that what matters more than socially-acceptable success, more than meeting the Goal I Made For Myself, more than acing a Good Job is doing what i need to do to be healthy and loving and kind.
I was supposed to be starting my third year of seminary this week. I have no regrets about my decision to switch degree programs to be a better pastor and wife and friend and, frankly, human. If i can’t practice boundaries and self-care in seminary, i sure won’t know how to do it as a pastor.
But after 20 years of school, the first fall feels a little empty.
Most polite conversations ask what you do; i’ve never liked answering that i’m in the Religion Field. When people press, and i say i’m taking some space and time to heal and re-assess while working multiple part-time jobs, they usually say something plaintive with a look out of the corner of their eyes that says: why are you throwing your time away.
And, really, like i said a few weeks ago, i am so – lucky? Blessed? I don’t really like those words. But i live a wonderful life, a privileged life, with a wonderful spouse and two incredibly annoying but perfect cats and have a roof over my head and water in the pipes and Chipotle to eat. The failures this year haven’t been catastrophic. I got to choose some of them.
Still, i’m learning how to live with the sting.
When i see friends who are Making It – writing books and well-syndicated blogs and preaching boss sermons – it is hard not to let the gnawing envy monster in. I was supposed to be working on my writing all summer. I was meant to have published something (elsewhere) by now. I fall into the classic comparison trap that wants to shit on other people’s hard work so i feel less like a screw-up, i want to play the cisheteropatriarchal game that thinks in terms of competitive individualist wins instead of collective uplift.
But then i remember: imposter syndrome doesn’t go away the more “success” you accrue. Celebrating my friends and peers will never diminish my sense of worth, but only deepen my ability to share joy. So to the ones being brave and churning that art out: you are incredible. Thank you for speaking past your own fears.
I go to yoga a lot. I’m stupidly lucky; the incomparable Jessamyn Stanley teaches in Durham fairly regularly. (I’ve been in class twice now when they’ve filmed her; does this make me an official groupie?) When we move into the Fancy But Scary Yoga Positions – you know, splits or headstands or sticking your big toe through your opposite ear – she always laughs and tells the class quite seriously: it doesn’t get better down here.
From her full split: It doesn’t get better down here.
Accomplishing a goal is good, and important, and affirming. But affirmation alone doesn’t heal our wounds.
I had to learn to be not the best. That is probably the most White Girl of all White Girl problems, but it’s true. I had to learn that the high-octane throttle of academia was going to rip me in two. I had to learn i had a big savior complex that was draining my energy and blowing up my ego. I had to learn humility isn’t the sexiest of feminist principles, but it was damn well needed for me.
I had to learn that social justice behind the scenes won’t garner likes on Facebook, and it will probably siphon away my desire to write and be a public theologian, but it will make me a better friend and ally. And maybe the writing will come back, but this time, it won’t be so i can push out the most indicting sermon or fiery blog.
The writing will come first so i can learn how to pray again.
I’m learning how to fail my own expectations and still love what i learn.
And i’m thankful. For you.