I'm not proud of this, but here's the truth: I waste a lot of time gripped by false guilt.
This past winter, for example, I felt guilty that my husband Jonathan and I spent $11 on ornaments for our Christmas tree. I felt bad in part because I am naturally frugal, and in part because I was taught by my childhood church that Christmas trees were 'pagan' and off-limits to true believers.
As Jonathan and I stood in the check-out line, I said, "Um ... should we really buy these? Maybe it's too much. I feel guilty. I could put them back ... ?"
Jonathan paused. We'd agreed to shop for ornaments, so he had every right to be annoyed. Instead, he thoughtfully replied, "It seems like you feel guilty about a lot of things unnecessarily. So maybe guilt isn't a reliable indicator of whether or not you should do something."
BAM. He was right. My guilt gauge is overly responsive. It goes off at the slightest 'infraction,' so I can't look to it for a true reading. Instead, I can acknowledge false guilt, then make a deliberate choice about what I want to do.
This takes a lot of practice, but it's worth it. One recent Sunday, I arrived late to church and felt -- you'll never guess! -- guilty. But I coached myself:
You are allowed to be imperfectly punctual -- even your pastor says so! (This is one of the many reasons why you love her.) Remember, it was hard for you to come here today, since you're feeling vulnerable. So instead of being hard on yourself, maybe you can give yourself credit for showing up at all.
In short, I tried giving myself grace rather than judgment, and it worked. I was able to relax into the worship music and even dance a little.
As I've shared before, dancing in church is both delightful and difficult for me. When I was young, worship meant singing hymns with my hands at my sides and my feet planted on the ground. When this early patterning collides with the more spontaneous norms of my current church, I feel ... conflicted.
But here's what's been helpful for me: to I accept that I am probably going to feel (momentary) guilt no matter what I choose.
I will feel guilty if I feel like dancing (because I'm disappointing those old voices of religious authority), and I will feel guilty if I don't feel like dancing (because then I'm not joining in with others around me).
So I just acknowledge the guilt, then go ahead and do what feels right on a given Sunday. On the day I walked in late to church, I did choose to dance, and it felt great.
But then another musician started singing, and his voice rose to shouting levels.
Intellectually, I knew that the singer was just being intense about the music, just doing his thing. I love being part of a church that invites authentic expression. I am so fortunate to have found this church, these people; they have welcomed me just as I am, and I know that I am safe and loved there.
In the moment, though, those truths didn't register emotionally. Instead, I felt deeply uncomfortable. There was just something about me sitting in church, as a woman, and 'getting yelled at' by a man in a position of authority ... something about that scenario triggered fear and shame in me.
Though the singer was calling out words of love and acceptance rather than judgment, I couldn't stop feeling like I wanted out. But then -- wait for it! -- I felt guilty about that desire to leave.
I tried to reason with my scared self: Caroline, it's OK! You know this guy! He's a good guy! He is not trying to shame or oppress you! So can you please stay put and get over it?!
Alas, these mental admonitions didn't quell the fear.
So although it felt risky, I decided to do something different: to let the feelings come, to honor the frightened child within me.
Small children can't hear reason when they're afraid. They need to feel safe before they can process anything rationally. So I took my small-child self in my metaphorical arms. I got up and walked out, as quietly and unobtrusively as possible.
It felt deeply subversive, but also great.
I stood in the hallway, taking deep breaths. Soon, I was calm. And I went back in for the rest of the service, soaring on a feeling of freedom.
When I finally took care of my vulnerable self -- when I stood up for her, literally and figuratively -- I felt God cheering. It was a lovely surprise to realize that God never needed me to feign invulnerability. That was all my own pride. Instead, God was proud of me for being honest.
As Anne Lamott writes in Plan B:
"I assumed Jesus wanted me to forgive [her], but I also know he loves honesty and transparency. I don't think he was rolling his eyes impatiently at me .... I don't think much surprises him: this is how we make important changes -- barely, poorly, slowly. And still, he raises his fist in triumph."
That's how I felt after I walked out: as though I'd made an important change -- barely, poorly, slowly -- and that Someone was raising a fist in triumph.