I was searching for something in my digital files and came across this column from January 2012. It seemed to ring true all over again, although, to be honest, I had totally forgotten about it — both the words and the lessons. So here it is again, if only for myself.
It amazes me sometimes how a casual comment, a familiar smell or the sound of a name we haven’t heard in a while can send us spiraling back in time to a place or event we’d long ago forgotten. Memories linger on our hearts. Some we’d like to preserve forever; some we wish would stay hidden. Good or bad, they are too often the things that shape us.
I was at lunch with some friends not long ago, laughing and sharing stories, when one line, uttered in passing, hit me like a brick. I was suddenly on the playground in elementary school, feeling unwanted for reasons I never quite understood. As I had during those sometimes painful times of my past, I kept a dim smile on my face, hoping to hide the fact that I was aching inside, not because what was said was intentionally hurtful but because it spoke a truth I’d rather not admit.
We all want to be loved, even if we don’t show it or say it. We want to feel accepted, appreciated, and while that sometimes seems important on the surface—as evidenced by the popularity of accumulating Facebook friends by the hundreds—that kind of goal only serves to take us farther and farther from our truth.
Life is not a popularity contest, and the road to sainthood is not paved with compliments and friend requests. Trying to fashion ourselves in someone else’s image is just about the worst thing we can do. It’s really no different from what I tell my kids as they face their own struggles on the playground or in the classroom, and yet I think we adults sometimes forget that it still applies to us. Too often we think becoming successful or loved or holy means becoming someone different than the person we are at our core, the person we were created to be.
Jesuit Father James Martin, in his book Becoming Who You Are, talks about our penchant for wanting to become better by becoming different:
“Early in the novitiate, I thought that being holy meant changing an essential part of who I was, suppressing my personality, not building on it. I was eradicating my natural desires and inclinations, rather than asking God to sanctify and even perfect them…As strange as it sounds, I thought that being myself meant being someone else.”
I think that same line of reasoning is true for most of us. We look around and make comparisons and see ourselves as “less than.” Comparisons lead nowhere, at least nowhere good, but that no-win proposition of keeping up with the Joneses—materially, professionally, socially, spiritually—is about as American as apple pie, or Facebook.
“Your life is shaped by the end you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire,” famed Trappist monk Thomas Merton once wrote, reminding us that the only way to conquer the world is to renounce it.
We can’t all “renounce” the world in monastic fashion, but we can renounce all those things that pull us off our true path, that convince us we need to be somebody else in order to be good enough, to be loved. As St. Francis de Sales once said, “Do not wish to be anything but what you are, and try to be that perfectly.”
Truth is, we are loved exactly as we are by a God who holds us in the palm of his hand no matter how many Facebook friends we have or how much “stuff” we have or have not accumulated.
“No one can serve two masters,” Jesus said. So often today our “masters” are not just money and possessions but the comparisons we make and strive to live up to, the desires we have to be someone we’re not, the longing to be loved not by God but by the world.
God alone. When that’s enough, no memory can knock us off our path or send us reeling because we possess the only thing that truly matters. What is the end you’re living for?