It’s been a long time since I sat down to write something outside of business comms. Since starting a new job in the management consulting industry in May, I’ve had little time for much living outside of work.
Between learning the ropes in a new industry, working alongside my peers on developing a major event, and trying to build a marketing team from scratch, there’s been little time to practice what I think of as necessary exercises in exploring both interior and exterior life.
Yet, as I find time for myself and for the important art of living increasingly out of my reach, their necessity becomes that much clearer to me.
I can sense that I’m a little out of balance. I’ve been missing my friends and family bitterly but have made less effort to reach them than is warranted. I haven’t been getting outside or to the gym enough. I’m behind on mountains of personal correspondence, and I so often have little to tell anyone what’s going on with me outside of work.
Is that who I’ve become?
I’d like to think otherwise—but if I am honest with myself, where I’m at is where I’ve so often been.
Earlier this year when I wasn’t too busy to see a counselor, I remember her asking me how I might describe myself to a stranger. Naturally, I started with my job and my studies. When she pressed me harder, I talked about my charity work and research interests, hoping that would suffice. It did not, so I then listed some characteristics that are usually true of me, and ideally things that are amenable to most people in society.
I mentioned that I care about other people a lot and try to illustrate as much in the way that I live and work. I told her that I was communicative and generally very patient with others. I said that if somebody needed help, it was likely that I’d volunteer—and that I could be relied upon to take care of business or to do the right thing more often than not, even (and perhaps especially) if it was hard.
I mentioned that when somebody asked me to take in a mutual friend at my apartment, I allowed it, no questions asked, because I couldn’t imagine how terrible I’d feel in those same shoes (and, secretly, I’ve long feared being in those sames shoes, because I don’t know what would happen to me).
Finally, she asked me a question that felt like a slap in the face.
“Do you think people love you for those things?”
“Not necessarily,” I said. “But I don’t know that that matters.”
Trying to be a good person might be a noble pursuit, but it does not entitle me to people’s love. I didn’t tell her that next part, but I’ve thought it for as long as I can remember.
“Have you ever considered that people might love you just for being you?” she asked.
In theory, sure, but god knows that I’d never really considered it. I’d never let myself explore that thought or speculate what that might feel like.
Instead, I’ve long lived my life as if I knew that they did not—could not—and so I needed to make up for it some other way.
I started to cry that day, but told my therapist, “I’m feeling a bit emotional now. Maybe we should stop.”
But we didn’t, and throughout our sessions I found myself learning that so much of my drive to be do and be everything—to strive for some kind of palatable greatness—was built on the ever present fear that I could not be loved by default. At least not by anyone but myself.
I think it’s important that I note here that not everything stems from fear. I do love myself (sometimes it’s a tough love).
I love myself enough to know that it is only right for me to honor the promise of the gifts I inherited from my kin, as well as those that I’ve developed on my own.
And I love myself enough to know that choosing to fall short of what I know I am capable would never sit right with me.
I am an exacting and driven person by nature and nurture; I love myself enough to honor that, too.
Finally, I know well enough to understand how readily I’ve calculated that if I could not be loved, I should settle for being competent, reliable, useful, pleasant enough and materially valuable. If nobody could say that I light up a room or that I was one of those people one comes to love easily, at least they could say that I was remarkable in terms of output.
As I write these things now, I think it’s important for me to note that these are not calculations that formed in a vacuum.
I am a Black person (and how I love us). I have seen and lived evidence of how brazenly unloved we are in this world—how readily we are discarded both in spirit and in flesh by people and institutions, especially if we are not deemed both highly useful and palatable (or readily-fetishized) enough to be entertaining at best, but non-threatening at the very least.
I’ve drank the bitter dregs of knowing that come from being all of these things and more, and still falling short of a perpetually moving goalpost. This is the common story of my life, and one I endeavor not to take too personally, although on some level I know that it is.
But all this self-knowledge is moot if it is not practicable.
Truth without reconciliation amounts to less than air; it is the mechanism of prayer without the fire of intent.
As I examine the topography of my life and find that I am not living it—not being but perpetually doing and becoming—I realize that I am not practicing self-love. I am fulfilling the functions of a machine; betraying the spark of life in me, and for what? An external approbation and security that I have long suspected to be a gamble?
Surely I can do better than that.
The depth at which I’ve fallen from the hard climb to true self-respect and acceptance I found during the COVID lockdowns—which left me to cultivate a loving relationship with myself and he alone—becomes that much more apparent, and I realize that I have to start the climb again.
I love my work – but there is an essential self that I suspect I’ve lost touch with of late.
In the months ahead, I am dedicating myself to finding him again.
I’m looking for him in the words that make their way out of my mind and into our waking lives.