I attended Catholic school as a child and vividly remember the excitement as blaring sirens drew hundreds of of plaid skirts and navy shorts into a dozen single-file lines. When the monthly fire drills went well, the principal–a stern, gray-haired nun–would announce a “free dress day.”
The prospective of leaving my stiff skirts and collared shirt at home filled me with joy, even though the excessively modest dress code still applied to the casual attire. I would spend the rest of the day debating whether to wear my yellow shorts, purple sweatpants, or patriotic dress in place of my boring school uniform.
The next morning, I would inevitably suffer a complete meltdown because I still hadn’t decided what I would wear to school. I would change five times, then cry as my mom shepherded my siblings and me into the minivan.
The blending of my indecisive nature with the desire to look “cool” was a recipe for disaster. Eventually, I decided to simply wear my uniform every day, even on those special “get out of jail free” days.
Thankfully, I’ve come a long way since those days of childhood angst and anguish.
“You’re just standing on one little ball of dirt and spinning around one of the stars. From that perspective, do you really care what people think about your clothes or your car?”
― Michael A. Singer, The Untethered Soul
Nowadays, I rotate through the same three pairs of pants and seven shirts on a weekly basis, while my boyfriend alternates between two pairs of pants and four shirts. We are currently staying at his parents’ house while our home is undergoing a remodel. Amusingly, his mother has taken note of our habits of simplicity. And she’s not shy about her disapproval.
My personal journey has led to many realizations, including–perhaps most importantly–the idea that I have the privilege of setting priorities in my own life. Frankly, wearing fashionable clothing and gaining social approval fall pretty low on that list. Instead, I focus my resources towards personal growth, supportive relationships, career development, hobbies and passions, and forging meaning from experience.
The more I expose myself to the world beyond my doorstep, the easier it is to take Singer’s perspective: I’m merely a fleck of dust on spinning ball of dirt amidst a vastly large expanse of cosmic debris.
The universe does not revolve around me. In the grand scope of things, my clothing and reputation have no bearing on the fact that I will eventually be transformed back into the atomic energy from which this body I now inhabit was once cast.
I have so much compassion for my younger self–that insecure young girl who had yet to fully embrace the idea that true beauty comes from within. I wish I could sit her down and somehow convey that brands, body types, and classmates’ opinions don’t matter in the least. I wish I could remind her to focus on building character, practicing compassion, and striving to make a positive difference in the world.
Three years ago, someone backed into my new car and then drove away. Removing the small dent would have cost $1,300 and filing a claim with insurance would have drastically raised my rate. I spent two weeks oscillating between anger and acceptance until, finally, I had two profound realizations.
Firstly, I’m planning to keep this car until it dies, so this will surely be the first of many dents. My priority is a safe and reliable car, and the dent compromised nothing more than its aesthetic value.
Secondly, the money could be put to better use on nearly anything else, including paying down my car loan. I immediately withdrew $1,300 from my emergency savings account and redirected the funds to my car loan.
What’s funny about that anecdote is that everyone around me was insistent that I repair the unsightly dent in my driver’s side door. My coworkers, friends, and even parking lot strangers lamented the fact that my otherwise like-new car now had a small flaw. I smiled to myself each time, knowing I had made the decision that aligned with my values.
“People tend to burden themselves with so many choices. But, in the end, you can throw it all away and just make one basic, underlying decision: Do you want to be happy, or do you not want to be happy? It’s really that simple. Once you make that choice, your path through life becomes totally clear.”
― Michael A. Singer, The Untethered Soul
I find it interesting that the very bystanders who suggest that I buy new clothing, replace my 5-year-old car, and travel to exotic places do not seem happy themselves. The women with the 5,000 square foot custom home and the guy with four luxury vehicles are always seeking out more; the friend with an overflowing closet is constantly obsessing about updating her wardrobe.
On the other hand, it’s those who live simple and peaceful lives with few possessions that seem to require the least. I’ve spoken about acceptance before and I suspect those who are content with what they already own understand that we create our own reality, independent of events, possessions, and the opinions of others.
As humans, we’ve found tactics to avoid the deep pains of rejection, scarcity, and fear. We might maintain a socially-acceptable weight, wear certain clothes, talk in a particular way, and adopt a popular opinion to protect our hearts. You might lead a busy social life to avoid the pain of rejection. Yet, if you haven’t confronted the pain source, your self-esteem may be challenged if you’re left off the invite list for a big party.
Generally speaking, everything we do comes from a desire to avoid this deep-seated pain. That is, until we recognize our layers of sensitives and begin to deconstruct them. Most of us have experienced the pain of rejection and then subsequently worked harder to maintain friendships, ensuring that our words and behaviors are always acceptable to others. When someone says, “Wow, I thought you could afford a nicer car than that!” we may feel pain. Rather than trying to prevent this pain, whether by buying a nicer car or lashing out, we must look inward.
“Most misunderstandings in the world could be avoided if people would simply take the time to ask, “What else could this mean?”
― Shannon L. Alder
How could this comment cause pain? Why do I care about the opinion of others? What is this feeling I’m experiencing? Why is this happening?
People don’t often seek the source of the pain, but instead simply try to keep it from happening. I liken it to medical care. I don’t want to treat the symptoms, but want to understand the source of the symptoms so I can eliminate the trigger. I would rather find I have a dairy allergy and remove milk and cheese from my diet than spend the next 60 years filling my body with a synthetic symptom-slasher.
There is a common stereotype that Millennials are overly-sensitive. I think the root cause of this phenomenon is that everyone is avoiding their core pain to prove themselves worthy, yet this external focus invites the potential for pain in everything that happens. People end up so sensitive that they’re unable to make it through the day without experiencing pain or insecurity.
“The world is a tragedy to those who feel, but a comedy to those who think.”
― Horace Walpole
To get some distance from the feelings of pain, we must first gain some perspective. Go outside on a clear night and stare up into the night sky. Consider that you’re standing on a little ball of dirt in the middle of nowhere, looking up at only a fraction of the hundreds of billions of stars filling our galaxy. The little ball of dirt spinning beneath your feet is inhabited by seven billion humans and two million unique forms of life.
You are infinitesimal.
Last Saturday, I slept through my alarm and almost missed the farmer’s market. I woke up 13 minutes before they closed, roused my boyfriend, and hurriedly got dressed. I went into panic mode as we made our way out the door and down the street. Seeing my distress, my boyfriend told me to chill out and asked me, “What if we don’t make it in time? What if the booth is torn down and there’s no one in sight?”
The question grounded me, reminding me that the worst case scenario involved my prepaid CSA box being donated to charity. Was loosing $25 worth all the anxiety? No, it was not. Was acting ornery around the person sincerely trying to help me appropriate? No, not at all.
We arrived to the market five minutes after the scheduled closing time and my box was still there. If it hadn’t been, I think I would have still survived.
I’m not sure at what age it struck me that it doesn’t matter what people think about my clothes, or that I shouldn’t feel embarrassed about mispronouncing a word. I still have a ways to go on my journey, as I was reminded over the weekend, but I can also recognize that I’ve made progress.
“People are afraid of themselves, of their own reality; their feelings most of all. People talk about how great love is, but that’s bullshit. Love hurts. Feelings are disturbing. People are taught that pain is evil and dangerous. How can they deal with love if they’re afraid to feel? Pain is meant to wake us up. People try to hide their pain. But they’re wrong. Pain is something to carry, like a radio. You feel your strength in the experience of pain. It’s all in how you carry it. That’s what matters. Pain is a feeling. Your feelings are a part of you. Your own reality. If you feel ashamed of them, and hide them, you’re letting society destroy your reality. You should stand up for your right to feel your pain.”
― Jim Morrison
Once you begin to look inside yourself and own your pain, you will find that you are left with two foundational choices. One choice is to leave the pain inside and continue to struggle with the outside world. The other choice is to decide that you don’t want to spend your entire life avoiding the inner pain; you’d rather get rid of it.
Too few people ever dare to turn the process inward. Most people don’t even realize that there are running around with tender pockets of pain inside that need to be worked out.
What would your life be like if it wasn’t run be that pain? How much joy would you discover if you were perfectly comfortable in your own skin: driving your beat-up car, wearing your favorite loud shirts, and standing up for your unconventional beliefs?
You would grant yourself the power to walk across this world–this little ball of dirt–with more vibrancy and passion than ever before. You would invite beautiful experiences into your life and come to understand that love was buried beneath the pain and the fear.
You would be free.