Last week I got an email from a friend, someone who I met through my 30 Days of Yoga course and for whom I have a lot of respect. She wrote
“In your last email you talked about struggling to believe that you are enough without saving the world and ending suffering. I am really struggling with the same thing, but probably for different reasons. I used to “know” what the purpose of my life was and what made me worthwhile and loved, and it all had to do with my religion.
Having lost certainty, and perhaps faith, I feel like I have lost my foundation for believing I am loved. The loss has opened me up to more authentically loving people who believe differently from how I used to, but I feel like a certainty of being loved and worthy has nothing to rest on now.
I look at the suffering around me and in our world, and it overwhelms me-I feel like human purpose must have to do with lessening suffering of others, but I sense that when I move that direction now, it’s from fear and emptiness rather than from love.
So that’s a long way to ask you, as you are learning to believe that you are enough, and to let your advocacy come out of that place of worthiness, what’s your foundation? What does the knowledge that you are enough as you are come from? What helps you relax when you need to slow down and back off? I’d really love to hear more about this from you. “
I wrote back to her and said that I was certain, absolutely certain, that she was not the only person who wrestled with these issues (I’m certain because I wrestle with them too so there are at least the two of us) and asked how she would feel if I shared her message and my response here on the site. She thought that was a great idea. So here I am.
My short answer is: my foundations are love and grace.
The long answer is a very personal story I’ve never really shared in this space. These days I see my story very differently and I’m grateful for every aspect of it, but there was a time when it held so much shame for me I couldn’t have imagined writing about it in a public forum.
Like my friend, I was raised Christian. Although there were aspects of the church’s teachings I struggled with, I never had a problem with the teaching that God loved us all unconditionally. That it was by God’s grace, and not by our good works, that we were saved.
Grace is an extraordinary quality, it transcends worthiness, desserts, sufficiency. This was a teaching so profound and so beautiful that I’m not sure I ever truly grasped it as a child or young adult. But I intuitively grasped at it’s beauty and even as a small child, I often took refuge in it.
Yet, even as I sought refuge in the teaching that I didn’t need to earn God’s love, as I got older I often had difficulty believing it or truly experiencing it. Without wanting to point the finger at any of the spiritual teachers who had a hand in my early life, I have to say I was getting a mixed message.
On the one hand we were taught that God is love and that we need do nothing at all to earn God’s love: God will meet us exactly where we, are in love. God loves the sinner and the saint equally, we were taught. Which ought to have been a deeply reassuring teaching.
And it would have been. Were it not for the fact that at the same time – in less direct ways – we were also being taught that we needed to be better people to merit God’s love. Perhaps not to get God’s love, but to truly deserve it. I suspect this second lot of teachings were unintentional, quite possibly even unconscious. But I learned them well, all the same.
So by the time I got to my mid-twenties I was very busy trying to be a ‘good’ person. I studied really hard at law school and spent my Friday nights baby-sitting for a young widow at my church. When I fell for the son of the preacher, we did what ‘good’ kids did and got married (although not before torturing our youthful selves with great burdens of guilt over our clumsy explorations of our perfectly natural sexual desire).
When, just a few years later, our fledging marriage fell apart and we lacked the skills or the appropriate support to repair it, we fell into yet another pit of guilt. And this time we didn’t even have each other for company.
This was my first major life crisis. In one fell swoop I lost my lover, my best friend, my marriage, my faith, my sense of belonging in my church or my family, and my confidence that I was a good person (though that had always been a little shaky). The rug had very suddenly been pulled out from under my feet.
At the time it felt like the end of my world. I was lonely, confused and wracked with guilt and shame. And yet, even in the midst of the worst of that time there was a part of me that already recognised I had been liberated.
I hadn’t been liberated from the church, or from my religion (neither of which are inherently restrictive) but I had been liberated from my own believe that I could control the outcome of my life by being ‘good’.
Because I had been as good as I knew how to be. And still my marriage had failed. Still my life had fallen apart.
And so I started again.
I left my home country and set off on a solo adventure across Africa. Almost a year later I ended up in Jerusalem, where I found a new religion.
Jerusalem seems an appropriate place to find a new faith, though I found mine not in the churches, mosques or synagogues of the Holy City but at a military checkpoint.
I had met a Palestinian family and was staying with them in the Arab quarter of the Old City, a magical place filled with old stone houses, secret courtyards and the scents of fresh baked bread and spicy meat. One day the family invited me to accompany the patriarch, an elderly man who walked with the aid of a stick and spent most of his days sitting in the middle of the courtyard enjoying the loving attention of his many grandchildren, on a trip to Lake Galilee where the family had some land.
I agreed willingly.
As we passed from West into East Jerusalem we had to stop at a military checkpoint at which young soldiers ordered the grandfather out of the van, spoke to him harshly and forced him to squat on the side of the road while they searched the vehicle.
As I watched, and as I later observed many other moments in that city, I found my new religion. I became an evangelical human rights advocate. I might not ever be able to be a good enough girl for God, I reasoned, but I could surely earn my place on the planet by working for the rights of others.
And so began a decade of work in human rights which culminated in my work as a human rights officer with the United Nations Mission to Afghanistan. The full story of the second major crisis of my life is told in my book, but the very short version is that I learned that even when I gave everything I could to the cause of human rights I might fail to help anyone. Sometimes I might even do more harm than good.
It was a devastating realisation, in it’s own way just as devastating as the first time I lost faith. But again it liberated me.
Many years before I had learned that I couldn’t control the outcome of my life by being ‘good’. Now I learned that I couldn’t save the world, and often couldn’t even help the people I wanted most to help. I was being set free, yet again, from a view of the world that placed me in the role of ‘fixer’, a world in which I needed to earn my place by righting wrongs and redressing injustices.
Instead I found a strange and uncomfortable new place to sit – in the company of my own frailty, and the flawed beauty of all beings. I learned to breath, and sit and let my animal body soften and simply love what it loved and serve what it loved to serve. I learned to lean back, rather than push forward. And although I forget this as often as I remember it, what matters is that eventually I always remember.
And then I lean back again, into grace. The Amazing Grace that sounds so sweet and really can save a wretch like me. I lean back into the space of grace, in which I need save no-one to earn my place on this planet and in which I really, truly am enough.
And so I’ve come full circle, to the teaching of my childhood: to love and to grace.
These days I worry less about whether or not ‘God’ is the source of this unconditional love or whether it is simply our original nature, the default to which we return as we reconnect with our essential and original self.
What matters to me now is the lived experience of this amazing grace. Even when I forget it is there, it catches me. When my fingers tire of hanging on to the ledge of ‘what-makes-me-worthy’, when I finally let myself fall. It catches me.