I was bursting to stand up on my chair at a work conference last year and shout across the room, “I CAN’T KEEP UP.”
I can’t keep up with the levels of (assumed) success and innovation and passion expressed here and the overwhelming idea of incorporating any of it into my work. I can’t keep up with the expected levels of impact.
I can’t keep up with the general visual appearance and presumed character of her and her and her and her and the endless sea of hers I hold myself up against. The inner dialogue of, she looks more put together, smarter, better….You can apply any adjective here that makes me one or a dozen more steps behind these strangers I know nothing about. It is an ongoing game against that old adversary, comparison, which can lead to the summation of self as less capable or less valuable. I had a friend tell me to knock it off once. They had observed me from a distance, sitting in my red plaid, looking at others and sizing myself up to be smaller than. My personal mental behavior was producing a public physical reaction: watch that one, consider my ranking, reach conclusion, put head down. I felt a certain relief in being realized. The same relief that comes from saying things out loud to expose them and let them go.
Our brains hold on to images longer than words and there are consequences to the way we interpret the fragmented glimpses in front of us and what we allow them to say about ourselves and our stories. It’s the images in media. It’s the image of strangers at a conference. It’s the image of a list I was never supposed to see. When the one that told me to knock it off placed my name next to another with a list of (non)attributes and a question mark. A specific story was confirmed for me in the complicity of that list.
What a defeat it is to believe there is something inherently off about yourself. It can become your traveling companion, sometimes a nagging fly circling your body, or it can escalate into a whole self destructive system that limits what we believe we are capable of and what we think we can have; stunted by the inaccurate definitions that frame where we go and how we move along.
We live in a society of curated images and now, instead of comparing to the few girls in the class, we can compare across the country or globe. The whole world is lit up on a stage, or trying to light themselves up, and somehow convincing us to run and keep up with them. Our souls were created to worship and the misguided worship of the superficially admirable can break, is breaking, us. Consider the rate of anxiety, feelings of isolation and loneliness, despondent adolescents, dissatisfied adults. When our identity is found in followers and validation, or lack there of. I get concerned for the ones who’ve only ever known screens and believe them to be an accurate depiction of expectation and performance; scrolling to touch something real when what is on the other side is far from the full picture. Social media posts as a gentrified work towards “authenticity” in overdrive, an ironic rat race of editing images for the sake of discovering and presenting our “true” selves. Social media can be a hyper-active search for stability and can perpetuate the myths of perfection and control.
But social media is, of course, also what we allow it to be. It is a great tool to share ideas, joys, and projects and it requires an awareness of our own boundaries, like relationships. I heard someone say recently that when we react to something we empower it. If I am not careful, the scale of all the things I cannot keep up with seems enormous- the minimalist lifestyle, the maximist lifestyle, the health and wellness sphere…
Six years ago I regularly saw an integrated nutritionist. I was intrigued by the confirmation of what I’d always known, it’s all connected- the physical, mental and emotional. The body, designed by a big picture God who created the vast, intricate inter-workings, can be compromised by thoughts and emotions as much as it can be by food or outside stimuli. I was serious about finding alignment and I practiced what was suggested, eliminating this and supplementing that. The wellness industry has grown immensely since then and with it the visibility, even over saturation, of advocates making health feel contained to a fashionable bubble, luxury almost to the point of elitist. I can’t keep up with the perfectionists/purists. I know I learned good habits, but I am consistently reminded, or believe myself to be reminded, of all the ways I fall 100% short of the trends- powders and mushrooms and teas, ancient remedies and $20 grain-free cassava tortillas delivered on the backs of organic doves. Food and lifestyle choices as a status symbol of success and goodness is exacerbated now in pregnancy. There is worth derived from absolute diligence or adhering to the “rules.” The way others practice wellness feels like an indicator of moral goodness and when I fail to meet their supposed expectations and my actual expectations, coupled with the constant attention on a body I’ve never tried to attract attention too, what’s produced is the companion of comparison-shame.
(I recognize that the morality part of it is my own filter. My husband once reminded me that I view irrelevant acts as moral choices, as good or bad, and that stunts me. So when I don’t eat the same as that person I am bad and they are good. Do you remember that exercise in school when you would look at a handful of images and it would say, one of these is not like the other? I can often feel like the not.)
Do not create theology out of experience. -Melissa Helzer
I’ve never been one for January resolutions. Instead, at the beginning of the year I had more of a craving. I craved quiet, nourishment, and movement and to give myself the freedom to not do it all perfectly- without comparison.
Somehow we are already at the tail-end of the year. I feel the weight of a massive life-season shift happening and if ever a season called for quiet, it would be now. I am trying to find the discipline to “clear the mechanism” as Billy Chapel would say, to find enough silence to know how to move forward and eliminate the pressure of outside (invited) influence. To nurture without the pressure of perfect. How then do I do this when I have packed my mind with all the other; cannot find the space for the crowd of images? When I let myself get stuck by comparison or false definitions of self. I am tired of the stuck-ness that I can feel and that I see around me. The obstacles that get all the say and prevent the breakthrough. When we write our names next to all the others and fixate on the question marks.
I have certainly told myself a lot of stories in my interpretation of images and I’ve let others tell me stories as well. But what if I really held on to the images of a truth-telling God instead, rested in His expansive stillness and the visual narrative of being well taken care of and well equipped?
The truth is that I don’t have to keep up, I just have to keep going. Although old tendencies can appear in new seasons, I can refuse to sigh and put my head down. When looking without the lens of past, comparison, or assumption, there is poetry in the picture of here and now and what is ahead. Resolutions come in revolutions, miraculous and healing in their specificity.
“You will keep in perfect peace the one whose mind is steadfast (that is, committed and focused on you-in both inclination and character), because he trusts and takes refuge in You (with hope and confindent expectation.) Trust (confidently) in the Lord forever (HE is your fortress, your shield, your banner.) Isaiah 26:3,4