Finding our own selves — the unique and perfect selves that Our Father intended us to be — is necessary before we can participate successfully in community or in relationship with others. Merton says, in his meditation for Wednesday of the first week of Lent, that:
A man who is not at peace with himself necessarily projects his interior fighting into the society of those he lives with, and spreads a contagion of conflict all around him.
He goes on:
Even when he tries to do good to others his efforts are hopeless, since he does not know how to do good to himself.
In trying to make other people happy, Merton says,
he will overwhelm them with his own unhappiness.
I spent most of my early years thinking I had to please others…most especially my first husband (yes, I’m one of those divorced and remarried Catholic converts watching closely the church’s current discussion.) I never viewed my need to please my husband so much as a product of my own insecurity or sense of unworthiness (although there was probably some of that). Rather, it always seemed to be more a product of the way I was raised.
I was taught that a wife’s main job was pleasing her husband and suborning her interests to his. It was just what women did. My mother modeled this behavior. My father expected it. My older sister fully embraced it.
By the time I came along though, women were just beginning to come into their own — in college, in the workplace, at home. In those early years of cognitive dissonance, I was a working professional during the day. Then at night, I’d bend myself in a pretzel trying to be whatever my husband wanted me to be.
“Oh, you want me to ask first for permission to go to lunch with friends from work? Okay, I can do that.”
“So I shouldn’t bother asking permission to go to lunch, if there are male co-workers going to lunch with us?” I guess I get that.
“You enjoy having a wife with an education. You just don’t want me to use it to have a career? Did I get that right?” Hmmmmm.
By the time we’d been together the better part of a decade, I’d so altered everything about myself to accommodate his expectations, that I no longer knew who I was. It was, to put it mildly, uncomfortable.
I’d become so bound up in being who I wasn’t, that there didn’t seem to be any room to move to a new understanding…any flexibility for us to unwind the snarl of do’s and don’t’s and why’s and wherefore’s.
But not before fulfilling Merton’s description of the person who’s “not at peace with himself.” He described him this way:
…he gets out of the work all that he put into it: his own confusion, his own disintegration, his own unhappiness.
All that was a long time ago now. I give thanks each day for God’s grace that has allowed me to re-collect much of the girl He intended me to be…the woman He intended me to become.
Amazingly though, I’m still finding corners of myself that got lost along the way. With His continued grace, peace and quiet may yet come to rest not just beside me, but within me.
I pray so.