“Don’t be so hard on yourself.” People have been saying that to me for years. One of my best qualities (I believe) is that I have always had a tremendous sense of self-awareness and understanding about my motivations, beliefs, and attitudes. One of the benefits of this gift is an understanding of and compassion for others. And one of the down sides to this gift is that I often see more of my own “dark side” than I really want to see. So far the best way I’ve found to deal with my dark side is to share it with (or dump it on) other people. Hence the response from them, “Don’t be so hard on yourself.” People don’t like to be dumped on.
Today’s first old testament reading brought this to mind because I could so easily relate to the leper who was instructed to isolate himself from the community and to declare himself “unclean” whenever he got close to anyone. My first week after stepping away from writing the bulletin reflections in The Defender has given me an opportunity to consider why I write so openly about my dark side in the first place. There are many answers to this, but as I read today’s scripture selections, one reason in particular jumped out. I write, in part, to keep you at arm’s length. I share because, like the leper, I fear that I might harm you if you get too close. Maybe telling you about my dark side and declaring myself “unclean” will protect us. Maybe if I warn you not to get too close, it will free me from guilt if things get messy. I am a spiritual leper.
My understanding of the disease of leprosy is that it is in part a disease of not feeling. The leper’s numbness to his skin lesions can lead to further progression of the disease and secondary infections that cause permanent damage. He may be able to see it getting worse and know intellectually that the infection is spreading, but he’s numb. For all my self-awareness about my “dark side,” I, too, often feel numb about it, even if I can talk about it candidly.
But something new is happening to me lately. I’ve been experiencing God’s healing love in new ways and I’m beginning to feel again. I’m feeling the loneliness of my self-imposed isolation. I’m feeling the awkwardness of baby-stepping into friendships that don’t revolve around my brokenness. I’m feeling fearful of rejection. Like the leper whom Jesus healed, old habits are hard to break. He was so used to declaring himself unclean that he couldn’t help but blurt out to everyone he saw that he’d been made clean, despite Jesus’ instruction to remain silent and simply show himself to the priest and make a proper sacrifice to be admitted back into the fold of Jewish society.
So what is a recovering spiritual leper like me to do?
St. Paul always holds an answer for me. Do everything for the glory of God. Avoid offending others, try to please, do not seek my own benefit at the expense of the group, whether that be my family, my church, or society as a whole.
The lesson to me in today’s Gospel is that I don’t have to witness to my healing any more than I have to declare myself unclean. Neither of those actions makes me useful to God today. I finally “get” what people have been saying to me all this time – don’t be so hard on myself.
So that’s what I’m giving up for Lent this year. No more dwelling on the dark side. No more negative self-talk and bathroom mirror critiques. No more dumping my feelings of guilt on innocent bystanders who either love me or don’t care. I will replace this habit with something different – daily affirmations and gratitude. Every night before bed I will make a list of two things I like about myself, three things I have accomplished that day, and five things for which I am grateful. And I’m not waiting for Lent. It starts today.