Thursday, October 31, 2013

The root of it all

For as long as I can remember I’ve been told that I am inherently evil. That at my core, I’m corrupt. Not just that I am capable of making bad decisions, but that I - the essence of me - am naturally, unavoidably, offensively flawed. I grew up knowing that this “evil nature” is unacceptable to my Creator, embarrassing to my elders and utterly exasperating to me. This all came to me as a permanent label, a reality of life. Perhaps my youthful ears exaggerated the message or perhaps I misunderstood some key caveat to the concept. Either way, these are the exact words that my soul chewed up and swallowed, over and over again: You are evil. 

(clearly there were many other messages of love, hard work, etc, but that's not what this blog post is about...)

Having always needed to please and live up to the expectations of those around me, it was devastating to live with the reality that I was inherently corrupt. I needed to do right in the eyes of leaders, teachers, parents and peers in order to feel at ease in my own (quite evil) skin. I needed to accomplish to feel some sense of worth and meaning in life. My young mind repeated a message to me that sounded something like this, “You may be evil, but look how happy they are when you do XYZ. You’re not enough just being, but do XYZ and they’ll notice you and approve.” I couldn’t escape my inherited nature, but I sure could work my ass off and prove my worth through academic accomplishments, discipline, beauty and service. This was my truth, my reality, from a very young age.

It was this “truth” that catapulted me into my first spiritual awakening at age twelve. Having experienced a healthy dose of middle school meltdowns (moving to a new school, bullying, body image issues, eating disorders and a bout with mono), I was desperate for something to help me “fix my life”. I so needed to be perfect, to be capable, to be accepted. It was in light of this empty longing for perfection that the Christian Gospel first connected with me. As best as I can recall, and with a healthy dose of hindsight, this is the message my soul heard: You are evil, which you clearly know. You are broken and corrupt and hopelessly flawed. It’s not completely your fault, but you are stuck with it nonetheless. You are corrupt and that’s not okay, with anyone. But, there’s good news; there’s Someone who can build a bridge between your evil nature and the perfection you long for. If you’ll admit how evil you are and how incapable of perfection on your own you are, that Someone will graciously accept your flawed self and give you power to become perfect. 

And so I admitted and accepted…and spent the next 15 years working my ass off to be perfect. Perfection took on a new meaning, of course, shrouded with Bible verses and missionary service and endless meetings. And, yes, it was a bit messier and much more spiritual than that. And yes, it did include true grace and kindness and forgiveness and connection and understanding. But it also included an endless sense of guilt, of “not enough-ness”, of trying and proving, of blacks and whites and silenced questions, of empty relationships, of faking it or hoping for it or not following my emotions or thoughts or anything else that could be labeled as “me”. After 15 years, I was still inherently evil and perfection still loomed far in the distance.

I started wandering away from all of that a few years ago. The perfect self crumbled so painfully small that I could no longer make out what it was I was aiming for. Somewhere in the mess of my pain and questioning, I connected with flawed humanity and fell in love. Without all the striving, I started to connect with my true self - my longings, my thoughts, my feelings, me - and realized there was much more good there than I’d ever been lead to believe. I started to question that age old wisdom about my nature, my core. What am I inherently?

“Evil nature” no longer resonates with me. I see goodness and kindness and a struggle to connect and find meaning. Of course there is imperfection and brokenness, yes, even evil. But is that my truest self? Or humanity’s core? I wrestle with the concept of calling something corrupt before it even takes a breath and with the consequences of repeatedly denying that I could in fact be trusted, that my deepest desires may in fact be life and truth and beauty. I question what a Savior means for someone content in their flawed skin, satisfied with being imperfect. 

I’ve had this saying on my wall for a few weeks now and it resonates so deeply with what I’ve come to believe about life and love about myself and appreciate about humanity: "I am imperfect and I am enough." Where was that message all those years? And what is the Gospel in light of it? So I question and wrestle and wonder still, but I carry along with me peace and self-compassion.

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