When I was a toddler, my dad’s parents lived near a strip mine in Southern Illinois. The area had been exhausted of its resources years earlier and the hole that was left filled with water. To a little girl, it was tranquil, beautiful, and filled with interesting plants and wildlife. I was especially fascinated by the cattails at the edge of the water and I loved touching the fuzzy tops of the stems. But the adults warned me not to get too close and never to go alone. They understood the danger that my youthful heart could not.
I thought about that strip mine recently. I woke in the night and my heart was slightly troubled. I had taught a class that morning and I began to fret that I hadn’t done well. I had posted a blog that day and I began to fret I didn’t say things the right way. I was aware as I lay in the dark that I needed to choose between fretting and resting. And then I saw myself standing on the edge of that strip mine. I could see the cattails waving in the breeze. And I looked down where I was standing. My feet were so close to the edge. A body of water like that changes slowly – gradually moving from solid ground to muck, then to mud, and finally to water. It’s often hard to tell how close is too close until you feel yourself slipping and then fearing you will slide completely into the depths.
I have had a nearly life-long behavior of negative self-talk. Clinically defined, it is the abusive internal conversation you have going on without even really realizing it. The key for me in overcoming this habit is to recognize it, turn away from it, and focus on other things. It has been a discipline of mine for years. I must make a conscious decision not to dwell on certain things, or not to assume the worst, or not to let one mistake turn into a “I completely messed up the whole thing” scenario. And as I lay in bed that night and remembered that strip mine, I felt like I was at a crucial turning point.
For ten years or more, I have been fairly successful at talking myself out of talking bad to myself. But I still walk too close to the edge. I still risk falling into the waters of self-doubt and self-criticism. I walk the edge every time I teach, every time I speak, and often even after a conversation with a friend over coffee or with a fellow mom on the parking lot at my sons’ school. I question or replay my responses or my presentation all the while looking for ways I misstep or fail. As this realization of how much time I still spend wrestling with negative self-talk washed over me and I became more fully awake, I visualized myself looking down at my feet. Then I turned my body away from the water and walked back up toward higher ground.
This is a step on my journey to living my days with a stronger sense of worthiness. I must ask myself – why do I look for the 5% negative amidst the 95% positive and wrestle it and replay it to death? Why have I for so long largely ignored the good that is in me, that is my life, and instead insisted on defining myself by my weakness and failures? I don’t have all the answers to the “why”. But I believe I am finding answers to the “why not” to live this way.
As Jesus followers, we are called to love. Our acts of love can change lives and circumstances. Our outpouring of love can positively influence every place, every organization, every community we belong to. But you know what I have learned? We can only demonstrate love towards others with the same measurements of love that we have for ourselves. As we experience Christ’s love for us, and as we understand that He loves us without condition, so too can we extend that same unconditional love to others around us who need it. But when we are talking to ourselves about all of the areas in which we are lacking, we have far less ability to take notice of the needs around us. Our focus becomes internal and we are left with far too little time or energy to reach outside ourselves in service.
It hasn’t been easy for me, but I am making progress. I feel Jesus calling to me as I wander too close to the edge and flirt with that slippery slope of self-condemnation. He invites me to turn away and keep my feet on the ground that is more solid underneath my feet. I recall the advice of my parents and grandparents as we walked outside by the strip mine. I believe Christ’s guidance for me is the same. Don’t go too close… and don’t go alone. Peace!