-By Leslie Colaw-
I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting close to 40 and finally beginning to learn this lesson, but lately I’ve realized that I have spent most of my life trying to be a certain something, a person that I have deemed good or ideal, rather than seeking to be the best version of myself. I have wanted to hand pick certain personality traits and make them fit me, unsuccessfully of course. A square peg never fits in a round hole. We can try and jam it in, but it will always fit loosely or uncomfortably.
A lot of my intentions in this have been good. Part of my effort to do this has come from my desire to better help and serve others, and I sort of decided in my mind how I should be in order to help others or, less nobly, be liked by others. There were people I admired that I sought to emulate (not all bad – I had some pretty good role models), and of course, there are certain traits we should all aspire to make part of who we are that do not always come naturally, like patience or generosity. It’s more about the WAY in which I exercise these good things. Am I allowing God to use me the way he crafted me, or am I trying to be like someone else, trying to live up to the ideal my mind has created?
If it’s the latter, I’m beginning to see how this might actually cause me to be less helpful because I am imposing a false self on others in a frantic need to be liked, admired, or useful. If I can learn to be my best self, to not impose it on others but instead withdraw in order to create space for them, it gives us both freedom and space to be ourselves. I love how Henri Nouwen words it in “The Wounded Healer,” that I can help others be free because I am free, “free to let others enter into the space created for them and allow them to dance their own dance, sing their own song, and speak their own language without fear. Then our presence is no longer threatening and demanding but inviting and liberating.” I am better able to do this if I have learned to “dance my own dance.”
So how does one do this, exactly? Learn to be the best version of oneself, or even get in touch with their authentic self? Well, I’m definitely still on that journey, and imagine it’s a lifelong one, but for me it’s been a process of self-examination (the Enneagram has played a huge part in this for me, but that’s for another blog), and the willingness to “enter into” myself, especially the places I most fear, the places of pain and, well, dysfunction. The process of accepting ourselves means facing all of it, including the places we are ashamed of. We all have those places, and if I have had the courage to go there myself, I can help others do so as well. When we go there with Christ, we need not fear, because he meets us there with tender love and compassion. We can face who we are when we know there is already one who fully knows us and deeply loves us. If he already dwells in my innermost being, I need not fear entering it. I can try to hide it or hide from it, like Adam and Eve in the garden, but it is not hidden from him. Here, at the intersection of his love and my broken self, my true identity can begin to emerge.
Why is it so hard to accept who we are? We all have things we don’t like about ourselves, weaknesses or flaws we’d give anything to be rid of. Isaiah 45:9 says, “What sorrow awaits those who argue with their Creator. Does a clay pot argue with its maker? Does the clay dispute with the one who shapes it, saying, ‘Stop, you’re doing it wrong!’ Does the pot exclaim, ‘How clumsy can you be?’” God has created us each so uniquely and purposefully. We aren’t meant to be the same as any other pot. If he has chosen to make me a certain way, or allows certain things to happen to me, so be it. It is better to yield to the Potter’s hands, accepting the way he made me and allowing him to continue shaping me however he sees fit. His artistic style is perfect…he does not make mistakes and always produces something good and beautiful.
If I live my life from this perspective then I can begin to face who I am, the measure of myself that has been crafted through personality, experiences, hurts, victories, relationships. Once I face it, I can begin to work on accepting it and living into it more fully and authentically, and even grow beyond it. I might as well. Trying to be something other than who I am doesn’t really work, or can only take me so far. I can be of more service to this world and the people around me if I learn to be and do and live from my authentic self.
Let me give an example. As a Christian, I am called to extend hospitality to others. I used to see good hospitality as being someone who loves to have people over to my house, spending hours making a delicious meal with a perfectly set table, ready to entertain with sparkling conversation and a smile on my face throughout the entire process. If I haven’t done this, then I’ve failed at hospitality. Well, I know people for whom this does seem to be their authentic expression of hospitality (at least it seems that way), and God bless ‘em, they bless me in their doing! But that is not me. I can try and force that, but frankly I’ll be miserable and a ball of stress (just ask my husband). I’ve begun to realize that for me, expressing hospitality looks more like being a good listener, being fully present and comfortable with someone who is hurting or in pain, giving my time and full attention. That is what comes naturally for me. I can and certainly should practice other methods of hospitality. I believe it’s good to stretch myself, and I do open my home to others in my own more relaxed version of entertaining. But I want to be able to uncover what my natural strengths are, operating primarily out of those to most benefit others.
The Bible illustrates this truth in talking about the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12, how we are all many parts of one body, each given different gifts for the good of the whole body. Vs. 15-16 says, “If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body.” Here again we have an example of those who resist the way they’re crafted, the gifts they’ve been given, wishing instead to be made differently than they are.
There’s another almost opposing side to this idea. God loves and accepts us as we are, yes, but he doesn’t leave us as we are. Sometimes the shaping process can lead to doing things that at first feel unnatural or foreign. Let me be really clear: when I talk about being your authentic self, I don’t mean follow your heart, or do what feels right, or be who you want to be. It goes way beyond that. The pot has to yield to the potter. While this does mean accepting and operating in the way he’s made us, another important part of this process involves letting go and allowing him to shape us, and this is often not pretty or pleasant. It can be downright painful. It may mean letting go of something that feels precious or even sacred. It may mean losing something that feels like part of your identity. When we follow Christ, we are called to put off the old and put on the new, to die to the old self and find a new identity in Christ. Keeping with the analogy of a pot and potter, think of what clay goes through before it becomes a beautiful pot! There is pounding, kneading, shaping, cutting, firing, grinding. But the end result is beautiful and worth it. It is simply a matter of the clay trusting and yielding to the very capable and loving hands of the potter.
The great paradox in Christ is that when we fully give ourselves up to him and yield to his shaping hands, he takes who we are and makes it more, makes us better. We may even see new gifts and strengths come to life. One of the most amazing things he does is bring good from our pain, if we’re willing to trust him with it. He came to give us life to the full and he does not make mistakes. Every scar, every blemish he artfully adds to the masterpiece of each life with it’s own unique design. Because of this hope-filled truth, I can more readily accept who I am, trusting him with the process of being made new.