For our Youth Group at a church where Ashley served when we were first married, we had a wonderful couple, Dick and Carole, who helped us lead the group and were extraordinary advisors and planners. One evening they gave each of the participants a quiz that consisted of the following: How much of each day are the following people or conditions responsible for how you feel about yourself, others, or your circumstances? a) – your parents and siblings; b) – your teachers; c) – your friends; d) – the weather; e) – the mirror; f) – the opinions of other people. I believe there were other conditions on the list, but they all were pretty much along the same line. This quiz was aimed at Sr. High Youth, ages 15 – 18. They were handed a piece of paper on which a chart with boxes was drawn out for each one to fill in the percentages for each category. There were a large variety of responses, most of them saying the greatest instigator of their feelings was either their parents or their friends. Of course, from the discussion that followed, one glaring truth was learned: even if you think that someone or something else determines the way you feel, each of us is in fact solely responsible for the way we feel about anyone, or any situation or circumstance.
Our feelings are transitory, often in a state of flux, but nobody can “make” you feel anything without your express permission. It was a real eye-opener for those young people, and also gave the adults present a reason to pause and reflect. It is so easy to say “the devil made me do it,” or to feel insulted or hurt because someone else said insulting or hurtful things…we can very easily fall into the trap of believing everyone’s opinions and judgments but our own.
I am a prime example of someone who takes far too much to heart the opinions of others – especially negative ones, and thus allow myself to become hurt or feel degraded. I am the largest stumbling block in developing a higher sense of self-esteem. I am also perfectly willing to dismiss any compliments or encouragement thrown my way, like a bone to a dog, because I so often choose to feel miserable about myself, physically, mentally, and spiritually: after all everybody else thinks that way about me! But I am also a paradox; because at the same time I allow my feelings of self-worth to dwindle, I also have within me a still, small voice of God that tells me I am acceptable to God just as I am – and sometimes I will even listen!
Lately, in terms of my own self-esteem, I have allowed my own body-image, what I see in the mirror to do all the talking and to make all the judgments. I really should just leave out the word “lately,” because I have struggled with this problem for almost my entire life. I have kept a strangle-hold on memories of horrible, hurtful comments made to me in reference to my appearance, while I have completely dismissed the opinions of people with opposite comments and opinions from altering the way I allow myself to feel. After all, my parents had to say nice things. They could not possibly be objective about me. In particular, I remember vividly one Valentine’s day, at a time when every child received a valentine from every other student in the their class, that EVERY SINGLE VALENTINE I received from my classmates that day had a picture of an elephant or a hippo on it. I was crushed, and have been unable, obviously, to let that go. Only after I became a parent did I realize that the people who love you unconditionally are the only ones who really know what you look like, what you are like, and who you really are. I still feel that Ashley and I are the best judges of the handsomeness of our sons, because we have known them from the very beginning, we know so much of their hearts and characters, and sometimes we are even clued in to what’s on their minds, but we have always been able to see the things in them that other people who do not know or love them (yet) cannot see. Perhaps that can be viewed as bias, but I firmly believe that it is the truth. I know now, that it was the same with my parents, and that knowledge we have of one another is only a small part of the knowledge and divine love that God, our Creator, has for each one of us.
My mother was of average height for women of her time, about 5’4″, but my Dad, being of Swedish extraction was very tall, especially for his time (basketball players nowadays – whew!), being 6’6″. He at one point in his adult life was somewhat overweight, but for a fairly short period of time. Otherwise he was, although a “big” man, very well-proportioned and as handsome as any daughter could dream for a father. My mother was a beautiful, rather petite woman, (although one of her sisters was obese as an adult), but her true beauty came from her laughter, her smiles, and the twinkle in her eyes. As far as body-build goes, I definitely took after my father. I grew tall quickly, was always taller than anyone else – girls or boys – in my elementary school classes, and while at various stages I was “chubby,” I was not fat – especially considering today’s rampant obesity among children. I know this now only because of pictures of me from that time. I was always active outdoors – riding my bicycle, roller skating, playing tag, or flag football with my brothers. Never an especially fast runner, I was nevertheless a great kicker in kickball, and even through high school played intramural basketball, which I also really enjoyed. (I would have been on the regular high school league team, but the other girls disliked me – I was not their type – and the coaches felt I wouldn’t “fit in” with the other players. In other words, I was, by their standards and thus also mine, too fat.)
Of course as a young child I spent a great deal of time reading, playing the piano and later the organ, and watching some television – particularly those programs for children: remember “Miss Frances and the Ding-Dong School?” Of course “Captain Kangaroo” along with Mr Green Jeans, Grandfather Clock, Bunny Rabbit and his ping-pong balls, Mr. Moose, and the others, including “Tom Terrific and Mighty Manfred the Wonder Dog!” But TV back then simply did not have the variety that it has today, nor were there the video games and other electronic distractions that keep so many children physically inactive and glued to the couch.
By the time I reached Jr.High School (a terrifying time in most young teenagers’ lives), I was almost my full height of 5’11-1/2″, at which I quite ungracefully arrived around 9th or 10th grade. It so happens that the beginning of seventh grade also coincided with my family’s move from Beaumont, Texas to Westport, CT. There simply are not many places in this country that differ more than those two communities. While I had been teased most of my life to that point as being “fat” or “ugly,” (even my two older brothers were guilty of that sometimes, but never in front of other people!), all of that pales in comparison to the peer abuse that was heaped upon me day after day, while in Jr. High School, as well as similar abuse from teachers and other adults. I went from being a rather vocal, “out-loud” sort of girl with all A’s in school to becoming very soft spoken (teased relentlessly about my Texas accent, I lost all traces of it within two months), frightened, and quiet girl who came to hate school and did only what was required to get by – mostly C’s and D’s, except for music classes. I also came up with pretty much every excuse in the book to avoid going to school, and I often begged to be transferred to another school, or a private school – any place where I thought I might be accepted. I learned during that period to become almost completely unwilling to stand up for anything I believed or thought, and would do or say practically anything in order to be accepted by the “in-crowd,” in vain hopes of being liked or welcomed into their closed society. Being completely rejected by almost all my peers (except for a precious few who are still my best friends), I partly owe my life to the kindness of the music teacher, Mr. John Hanulik, as without his wonderful acceptance of me as a human being, and his sweet sense of humor, and gifts as a teacher, I most likely would have committed suicide. I’m not sure I ever told him that, even though I was fortunate to have an association with him all the way from 7th grade through 12th. He was transferred to the schools I attended, and while he was not always my teacher, he was always a friend and advisor. I wish that I had told him that he saved my life…I went off to college, my family moved away from Connecticut, and it wasn’t until some years after his death that I heard he was gone. I wish I had taken the opportunity when I had the chance, to tell him how important he was in my life, and that his influence still works inside me. It is a major fact of my life, especially during those horrible adolescent years, that music was a life-saver. Both of the music educators that I had during those years, Mr. Hanulik, and Mr. George Weigle (the high school choral director, and also my church choir director), have made an indelible imprint on my life and are partially responsible for helping me to see myself as a talented, valuable person.
Somewhere in all this mess of a young life, even in spite of some very good times, I came to despise the way I looked, and started to blame my looks for all of my unhappiness. To some degree or another, this continues even to this day, although my awareness of it as a symptom of something larger and more complex, has helped me to let myself abandon some of the anger and resentment that goes hand-in-hand with self-esteem. I managed to get through high school relatively intact, and was accepted into the University of Connecticut as a music major (what else?). I did slowly over the years after college gradually become the obese person I had always been “accused” of being, but I tended to yo-yo up and down, and as it turned out, I could detect no difference in the mirror. I had always been fat and ugly, and I still was, and seemingly always would be unacceptable to myself, regardless of how thin I became, or how much weight I lost. Were I not a person who enjoys food as much as I do – all types of it – and have always associated it with good times and happiness – I could have become an anorexic, someone who could never be thin enough, even to the point of starving to death.
So part one of this two-part saga comes to an end as I enter college, start to form my own sense of identity, and make some small steps toward accepting responsibility for my feelings, although I sometimes took two steps forward and three steps back. I began the journey of adulthood…but the dreaded mirror I kept strapped to my back, a burden I seemed unwilling to let go.
“Create in me a clean heart, oh God, and renew a right spirit within me.” (Psalms 51:10)