Many years ago, when I lived on Second Street, my apartment shared a wall with two of the most enchanting little girls and their mom. The girls, Elliott and Cassidy, spent a lot of time at my place during the day and I ate a lot of dinners at theirs. Together, we formed a chosen family. One day, Elliott came by with a gigantic card that she'd made for me. Carefully scrawled in red marker was, "Jane, You are the best naber in the world. I hope you no that of yourself. I do."
Her words -- I hope you no that of yourself -- have stayed with me. Over the ten or so years since she gave me that card, I've found myself passing along her message to more than one person. After paying them a compliment, I've wondered, do they know that of themselves? Do they know that they're kind or intelligent or insightful or funny or helping shape my life or somebody else's life in a vital way? Do they realize the positive impact they're having on those around them? How different our lives would be without them?
Last year, my friend Chris was diagnosed with cancer and had to undergo radiation and chemotherapy. Friends threw benefits to raise money for her treatment.
"All these people were gathered together on my behalf, so, of course, they would talk about me," she said. "And they said things I would never have heard otherwise. What they thought about me, how much they loved me. In a way, it was hard to accept all that generosity, but it also helped with my healing."
When I turned 50, she wanted to throw me a fake funeral. "Why do we wait for someone to die before we share how appreciated and loved they are?" she asked.
I declined. While a part of me wanted to, I simply couldn't imagine sitting there listening to people say wonderful things about me. It felt almost shameful.
I don't think I'm alone in this struggle-to-think-well-of-myself predicament. For over a year now, my friend Shauna and I have been exchanging gratitude emails at the end of the day. In them, no matter how crappy we feel, no matter how crushingly bad the day may have been, we list three things that happened that we're grateful for. Sometimes we play around with the third point -- for instance, rather than adding another piece of gratitude for the day that actually happened, we write it for an imagined day where some of our dreams have come true. One time we set the challenge to list something we liked about ourselves. I think several days went by before one of us mustered up the courage to commit anything to the page.
"OK, these are hard... I wish I hadn't thought up this challenge," I wrote to her.
"I like that I am willing," she cautiously trotted out for her second effort, "Including willing to do this incredibly difficult task of identifying such things, aye!!!!!"
We struggled through a whole month of this self-like inventory before we -- with great relief -- quit. But as hard as it was, I believe we both secretly enjoyed the task. We enjoyed rooting around in those dark corners where our kindness or courage or compassion or intelligence or silliness lurked. And we enjoyed scooping up these aspects of our souls and gently carrying them into the light.
Of course, many of our friends, family, acquaintances, co-workers et cetera, view us as already doused in light. We're often the only ones who see ourself swaddled in darkness. Not that we don't have faults. Rather, it's easier for us to access our flaws, to list our shortcomings, to punish ourselves for our mistakes than it is for us to see the ways in which we glow.
Back in 1990, the Dalai Lama was involved in a conference in Dharmsala with Western students during which he was asked what he thought about self-hatred. Confused, he asked his translator for a definition, but the translator didn't have one. The rest of the session was spent trying to explain this concept to him. In the end, he could only shake his head and say, "I find this very, very strange." My own teacher, Gelek Rimpoche, often talks about how we must first love ourselves before we can love others, otherwise how will we know what to do. Yet can we love ourselves, if we can't speak well of ourselves? I like to think that this part of me has softened over the years, that I've created the space for self-kindness, loosened the straps of my armor -- because as counterintuitive as it may sound, the inability to speak well of yourself is a form of protection.
Not long ago, I had to attend a gathering that included someone who hasn't treated me very kindly. And despite my best efforts, someone whose negative judgement of me sinks into my soul. Speak well of yourself, my friend Sue said to me just before I walked out the door. My parents are English, so I was raised to believe that speaking about yourself in anything but a self-deprecating way is bad manners. But I needed some supersonic support so I decided to buck my heritage and act on her advice. It was surprisingly easy. Not only did I quietly frame my life in a positive light, I made sure not to say anything negative. And you know what? The evening went without a hitch.
Naturally, later, I found ways to pick it apart. To speak badly about myself, even if I was the only listener. But I'd tasted the other side now and it tasted like cherry pie! And I figured that with a little practice, well, a lot of practice, I could begin to know about myself whatever it was Elliott had known all those years ago.