I’ve learned that when something really annoys me, makes me squirm in my chair and wrinkle my entire self into a disapproving frown, I should take a closer look.
What is it about this that’s ruffling me the wrong way? (I’m just going to leave those mixed metaphors there.)
I read about Elizabeth Gilbert’s “magic journal prompt” at YogaJournal.com last week in an article penned by the author, but headlined as if she was talking about herself in the third person.
(People talking about themselves in the third person is one of those things that makes me squirm.)
The prompt is supposed to help the reader “access the divine, unconditional love that’s within us all.” The idea of unconditional love makes me squirm. I believe the beautiful goodness humans are capable of, that power we call “God,” is in our DNA.
We are born with a need for nurture – before we have the awareness necessary to give love, we need to be cared for in order to thrive/survive. Most children receive a blend of nurture mixed with harsher lessons – neglect, resentment, frustration, impatience. I don’t believe I have been loved without condition. Ever. By anyone. Argue with me if you want, but this is honestly how I feel. So how bold would it be for me to assume I am capable of giving love, without restriction, in return?
I feel immense love for hundreds of people, including those who have wronged me. But I suspect there are limits. I have learned the hard way to put on my own oxygen mask first.
Back to Gilbert. She writes:
Every single day, I write a letter—a dialogue between myself and Love. It’s shockingly simple and radically life changing. All you have to do in order to respond to yourself as Love is imagine what you wish somebody else would say to you, and write it down. What have you been longing to hear another human being say to you your entire life? You write that.
Every day? Who has time for that? Oh, yeah. Elizabeth Gilbert does. And here we see my resentment bubbling up. Let me confess that I disapproved of the author before I had read a word she wrote. See my Goodreads review of City of Girls. I am one of those who assumed her guilty of “priv-lit” and therefore could not bring myself to read words that would salt my wounds. People like me, restricted by my budget and responsibilities to children, could never live the unencumbered way Gilbert’s protagonists seem to take for granted.
I can admit hearing the loving words I have been denied could be life-changing, but the idea of writing a self-love letter to myself every day is an absurd luxury.
The thing I wanted most for much of my childhood was to feel loved by my father. And then, long after I let that obsession go, when I was 47 years old, he moved into my house and hugged me and told me he loved me every day. Did it feel good? I don’t know. It’s possible I was suffering from depression, but I remember feeling frightened by my coldness. I had learned to get along without this. I didn’t know what to do with it now.
What is it I long to hear? I suspect I’ve stopped wanting because it’s the desire that’s painful. I’ve had to work a long time to accept the world as it is and not long for it to be otherwise.
Are the dreams still there? It is honest to think they have vanished because I’ve learned to shift perspective away from selfish desire.
Would resurrecting those dreams allow me to reach them or will I be setting myself up for disappointment? Do I really want what I always thought I wanted? What if I’ve come to terms with mediocrity? Is it possible that I’m happy enough sleeping alone in an unglamorous rental, driving a 15-year-old Subaru, working as a community college adjunct with two part-time jobs, slowly writing scripts that are not marketable enough to be produced by the map makers?
I don’t like these questions Elizabeth Gilbert. And perhaps that’s why I should be asking them. Asking the hard questions, coming to the truth about the dark parts of ourselves we’d rather not spend time with, is what writers do who want to create resonant work, who want to connect with readers who are lost and scared and looking for comfort in story.
Look, I went first. Tear open the wound and let the blood flow. We will heal again. That’s what the body does for us. It knows how to heal itself. That magic, too, is in our DNA.