What are you carrying?

“Always, we begin again.” – St. Benedict

I don’t carry a purse. Everything about a purse feels cumbersome:

· No matter how you wear it, it’s always slightly uncomfortable.

· I always put too much stuff in it, so it gets messy…and gross.

· I’m at risk of losing or leaving it when I’m at a restaurant, coffee shop, or other public place.

· It’s annoying to carry if you’re walking for long periods of time.

· They’re typically too feminine for my taste.

Currently, I use a non-ironic fanny pack (it’s black and from REI, so it looks cool and outdoorsy). Everything that I like about it is the solution for all the reasons I don’t like purses, but especially because I can forget I’m wearing it. I can walk around the grocery store, hands-free, not trying to keep it up on my shoulder or in the crook of my elbow; I’m only carrying the absolute essentials, like my phone, keys, and wallet. My fanny pack gives me freedom (in the most insignificant and material sense).

In a spiritual sense, I have spent a lot of my life carrying around a purse, an equally wearisome one:

· No matter how I carry it, it’s always weighing me down.

· The things I put in it are almost always gross and messy and therefore make me feel gross and messy.

· I don’t know what to do with it when I’m in public.

· The farther and longer I go in life, the harder it is and the heavier it becomes.

· I don’t like it because of how I feel that it defines my identity, but at the same time, it feels like a necessary part of my identity.

I hope you’re intuiting that this purse is not filled with keys, makeup, Advil, or crumpled receipts. This “purse” is filled with things like the careless word I spoke to a coworker last week, disappointment about how I lead a Bible study, and regret for not accomplishing my to-do list yesterday. And even though I don’t want to carry around all of my negative thoughts and harsh self-critique, I find myself with that purse on my shoulder, and putting it down feels even more difficult than figuring out how or why I picked it up in the first place.

A few years ago, I realized that I hated waking up in the morning, because the minute I was conscious, the faultfinding commenced:

“You should have woken up earlier, you won’t have time to read your Bible before work. You’re a bad Christian.”

“You should have been more efficient and disciplined with your day yesterday.”

“You could have gone to bed earlier.”

“There’s no way you can get everything done today.”

And so on.

The thoughts were so immediate that it felt like someone was standing beside my bed, waiting for my eyes to open, only to instantly begin berating me. This set my tone for the rest of the day. I would lug around these thoughts to the car, to my workplace, and some of them would stay around until I went to bed.

Do you do the same thing? Do you start your day by slinging your purse (or your backpack, or your briefcase, or whatever carries your millstone) onto your shoulder? Do you bear the weight of the day before, the disappointment and regret and anxiety? Does it hinder you and make you feel gross and weak?

Eventually, I took all of this to my counselor. She pinpointed the issue–I am too hard on myself. I’m not a perfectionist, but I have this driving, core belief that everything matters, that all decisions, big or small, are a result of my values–and a bad decision is either not in line with my values (and is therefore a mistake) or a sign that I have a bad value (which is even more reprehensible). Now, this might sound good and true. A lot of those negative thoughts were also essentially true–"You could have gone to bed earlier"–, but they were only ever condemning and never constructive. Her advice was to be kinder to myself, to talk to myself the way I would talk to a friend or a child. And so, in the mornings, when the negative thoughts would come flooding in, I would immediately build dams with opposing thoughts, kinder thoughts. Most of the time it was simply saying, “It’s ok. You’re ok. It’s a new day. You can take it one step at a time.” This helped me to take some things out of the purse before walking out the door–or to leave it altogether.

It’s taken me a long time to let this practice transform me. Last week, I had one morning where I woke up with a strong conviction that no matter what the day or the week before had held, this day was a clean slate, a fresh start, and that I didn’t have to carry anything from the day before. Although this doesn’t happen every day, it was encouraging.

It’s also taken me some time to dig deeper. “I’m too hard on myself” is a very simple way of saying that my posture towards myself isn’t what it should be. For many years, I’ve thought that being “too hard” on myself was actually good, that I was just doing what God does by holding myself to a high standard of right-living. But that’s the problem–I was trying to do what God does. The negative thoughts were proceeding from my own discernment of how poorly I met the standards I created. The “purse” was the burden of my self-judgement. I had stepped outside of myself and climbed onto the throne of God, sure that I was capable of determining right and wrong in my life, satisfied in tearing myself down without ever building back up. Beyond being kinder to myself, I have to answer this question: “how do I correct my relationship to myself?”

In Humble Roots, Hannah Anderson gives a simple answer: humility. She explains that humility is the virtue that brings us peace with God and with ourselves, because “humility is a proper understanding of who God is and who we are as a result” (103). Pride occurs when we see God as less than He is and ourselves as more than we are, as self-judgement leads us to do. Anderson writes that humility “teaches us that the only person who has the right to condemn us is God Himself…When we navel-gaze or become preoccupied with our weaknesses, we’re simply turning our attention back on ourselves; and by judging ourselves, we put ourselves in God’s place” (108). The focus on self and shortcomings–which is the habit that birthed those negative morning thoughts for me–is not only not life-giving, it’s taking on a role I was never meant for. This isn’t the same thing as ignoring your sin; this is standing on the peak of condemnation and falling down the slippery slope of pride until you land in the pit of angst at the bottom. The only way out is to see yourself for who you are–a human, imperfect and limited in all you feel and understand about yourself and the rest of the world–and who God is–the One who judges and the One who doles out more grace than you would ever give yourself.

Sometimes I picture God’s voice thundering across all the earth: “’Be still, and know that I am God’” (Psalm 46:10, NIV). It’s a command for me to stop climbing up on the seat of judgement. It’s a reminder that the One who sits there is both worthy to judge and powerful enough to give grace. It’s a voice loud enough to knock pride straight out of my hands. Inevitably, our sin nature will throw a stone in our path, and we’ll trip over our pride and fall back into a place of self-condemnation and self-loathing. But that’s why I find the words of St. Benedict so comforting–not coddling but encouraging me to get out of bed in the morning: “Always, we begin again.” Every morning–every moment–is an opportunity to cast off pride and the burden of your own judgement and take up the easy yoke of humility.


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