Learning to fall…
I speak now as Aimee O’Connell; not just the founding Missionary of the Mission of Saint Thorlak, but as someone who myself has been frustrated for decades by my inability to reconcile the messages of self-esteem with intense social anxiety, perfectionism and the sense that I am only as good as my performance. I am overly literal, and therefore I dismiss affirmations that come from a book and could not possibly predict my competence at any given moment. I do not like bold statements without disclaimers because there will always be some variable, somewhere, which invalidates even the somewhat relative generalizations like “I am doing the best I can with what I have.” Or, my spiritual needs do not fit the categories of self-affirmation. “I am likable” may be true, but serves to magnify, not counteract, the loneliness I have felt most of my life.
The times I have felt the most secure, the best grounded and the most optimistic have been when I have had permission to be imperfect. More precisely, not-quite-there-yet.
I have come to see that this is the greater skill for people like me. I do not need to learn how to praise myself. I need to learn that I am no less valuable for needing help. Self-esteem has, in many ways, become widely confused with self-reliance, and I have had to deliberately remind myself this over and over.
The concept finally made sense to me when I was first introduced to a learn-to-bike camp for older kids who are too tall for training bikes but still lack the core strength to pedal fast enough to balance. Most of these young people contend with autism spectrum issues, so their sensory overinterpretation makes each wobble in the bicycling process seem like a major earthquake. I attended the public information session for this camp with much academic interest. The brochures claimed high success rates, and I wondered... what could their secret be? Specially adapted bicycles? Coaches trained not to provoke anxiety from children trying to please them? Padded mats to crash on?
When our mindsets are trained to aim for perfection, it can be very unsettling to deliberately aim off target. It feels counterintuitive. Is it aiming low? No. Is it giving up? No. It is learning how to miss so we can better learn how to hit, just as balance on a bike can only be achieved when we start to sway and then correct our posture.
Self-esteem and coaching are very closely related concepts. We would never cheer for someone, including ourselves, who is giving anything less than their best. In that sense, self-esteem and coaching are a lot like faith. Believing the best of others is a leap of faith, indeed.
Let us move forward, then, toward our last Missionary Objective, which is to be the living road test of all of the other objectives.
Contemplate: Those familiar with the Stations of the Cross will recall that falling is mentioned not once... not twice... but three times, in the story of the Passion of Jesus Christ. Why is this element of such importance that it is thrice repeated? What does it mean to “rise again”… and how does this correspond with the other places we hear this phrase in the Gospels?
Relate: How do we react when a fall has taken place? Do we encourage others and help them rise again, or do we stand over them, focusing on the fall and not the person who is learning? Is this how we anticipate others will react when we ourselves fall? How does this impact our relationships?
May the power of Divine Love shine in and through my weakness, so that He might be glorified in and through me, and that in my weakness, His power may reach perfection. Through Christ Our Lord, AMEN.
Fr. Mark P. Nolette - Spiritual Director for the Mission of Saint Thorlak