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Forty

40: How can I develop a foundation that can withstand misfortune?

 

Investing less time and effort in relationships that reinforced feelings of guilt and shame left me more energy to devote to things that felt better. I started writing and exercising again, which left me feeling a healthier kind of exhausted at the end of the day. Although I was inconsistent, sometimes losing hours or days in empty pursuits, I clung to a notion that I’d retrieved from my earlier Christianity: everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial. Remembering this allowed me to forgive myself for an idle day without adding guilt (everything is permissible), but also to discern the kinds of activities that made me feel confident and alive. I watched less Netflix, stopped forcing friendships, spent less time online.

Photos: Mei-Ling Shaw, 2017.

Photos: Mei-Ling Shaw, 2017.

By the end of the summer I found two new friends who were kind and caring humans: their influence inspired me to become a warmer, more generous person. I also found two new part time adjuncting jobs, teaching ethics and theology. The workload, combined with a commute and new relationships, constituted a significant shift in how I lived.

 I broke my arm that autumn, which led to my needing to become more dependent on the woman I was dating than I had planned. I found that the changes I had made combined with her strength of character to let me feel worthy of care. She also introduced me to the importance of sensing and stillness, finding presence without feeling productive. I spent the end of the year in a frenzy of activity, racing to get everything done for everyone else, grateful for someone who would encourage me to occasionally inhabit spaces of slowness and presence.

Sometimes, when I would take time for myself to journal or to breathe, I could sense that something was wrong. The pace of my life seemed necessary given the tasks I wanted to accomplish; at the same time, I suspected that I was also avoiding a deeper truth. Such times of self-honesty were rare: I kept myself busy enough to avoid them.

The following February, life hit a hard reset. I learned that the school was not going to invite me to teach in the next term and that the woman I had dated no longer felt like our relationship was sustainable. Because my identity was largely constructed around being a good teacher and a good boyfriend, the loss of both of these roles within a week was difficult. My life, which had been overwhelming in good ways, suddenly seemed totally empty.

Although I wanted something to seem unfair or to argue that I deserved things, I recognized that this line of thinking, even if true, wouldn’t change circumstances. Focusing on what I “deserved” made me feel angry and depressed and kept me focused on what wasn’t there. While this was a major (crushing) setback, I was not seriously tempted to go back to where I had been. I realized that what happened was an opportunity for me to create a more stable foundation for my identity—one independent of the judgments or actions of others for feelings of worth.

 Overall, the consequence of the year was feeling, for the first time, that I was worthy of good things, and that I was capable of finding those good things for myself. The months that I had spent dating someone who affirmed my sense of worth and cared for me had changed me. Not only did I know that I was worth caring for, but I now knew small, concrete things that I could do to care for myself. I knew that I wanted to feel like I was worthy of the best job, the best woman, and the best friends—even if I lacked one or the other in reality.

 As I ended my fortieth year, I felt a sense of pride—not at what I gained—but in how I handled loss. Because it felt like so many of my identities had come crashing down—personal and professional—it seemed like a good time to start over, to start caring for myself and not simply wait for someone else to do it. I realized that self-care was the only foundation that could persist through any misfortune.