Kindness for Unkindness

For whatever reason, there are certain memories that stick with you. The details may become fuzzy as the years pass by, but there’s usually some defining moment within the memory that ties you to it. I remember being in elementary school, rollerblading in circles in our garage, and having a moment where I thought, “If anyone knew the real me, nobody would be able to love me.”

I don’t like writing that now. I don’t like sharing it with the world. I don’t like seeing how early we begin betraying our own selves. I don’t like admitting that I haven’t always liked myself. But, that, I’m realizing, is, in fact, at the root of how we do or do not process our past (and current) experiences.

I lived for two winters in South Dakota. Winters in South Dakota, unlike many places these days, are still real winters. They’re cold and dark and quiet and slow. Winters are important. Winters are the time to slow down, to hibernate, to reflect and process so that you may be ready to grow again come spring when the snow turns to mud and the world is, as e. e. cummings would describe, “puddle-wonderful.”

It was in South Dakota’s winters that I had to finally look elementary school me in the eyes and see if I had room to hold her pain with care, to make sure she saw that she belongs. It was in South Dakota’s winter that I began reading about—and trying my best to practice—self-compassion. The most interesting, and possibly most human, piece of this self-compassion journey I’ve discovered is that I am unkindest to myself thinking about how unkind I was to myself in a past memory.

Why didn’t I take better care of myself? Why didn’t I love the things that made me unique more? Why did I put the weight of fixing everything on my own two shoulders? Why didn’t I use my voice? Why didn’t I play it safer? Why did I end up playing it so safe?

It’s a classic situation of the “second dart.” The first dart (having been unkind to oneself) hurts. The second dart (having unkind emotions towards oneself by judging that past self) may hurt more.

I no longer believe elementary school me. Over the years, I have gained friends who I know would open their doors to me, no questions asked, if ever my weary heart needed a place to rest. I have loved deeply and have been loved deeply. In my thirties, I am the happiest and proudest of my true self as I ever have been—even when life hurts a little (or a lot).

The day before yesterday, I was sipping cider by the Little Pigeon River in the Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee, trying to find all the pieces to make this blog gel, and it dawned on me that I must go rollerblading. I wasn’t sure what I would find in that rollerblading, but it seemed an important part of the creative process. So, I headed home and dug through boxes until I had in front of me a pair of rollerblades, some wrist guards, and a helmet. I would set out in the morning to blade along the river path and be, oh, so reflective and deep about life and compassion.

By morning, it was pouring rain with no signs in the forecast for letting up. So, I ended up staying home, making peace with the rain, feeling its reminder to come home to myself, and I had a difficult conversation I’d been avoiding instead. Sometimes this is what self-compassion looks like—walking into the pain, letting it belong, allowing space for that difficult conversation.

“It’s ok. You belong here.”

The more I can say this now to the parts that ache, the kinder I can be to myself and others in the future. The more I can say this now to my past feelings, the more I can gently pluck those second darts from my skin and truly heal—the more elementary school me can belong and blade on.

Occasionally, this self-compassion process has seemed a bit cerebral to me, and getting a little too cerebral has felt like a lonely place. But, what I’ve come to learn about my experience of being unkind to myself for having been unkind to myself is how deeply rooted it is in our shared humanity. Self-compassion is the understanding that I’m not the only person to exist on this earth who at some point believed she was unlovable. In a three-part talk on belonging, meditation teacher Tara Brach read the following from author Mark Nepo:

My soul tells me, we were
all broken from the same nameless
heart, and every living thing
wakes with a piece of that original
heart aching its way into blossom.
This is why we know each other
below our strangeness, why when
we fall, we lift each other, or when
in pain, we hold each other, why
when sudden with joy, we dance
together. Life is the many pieces
of that great heart loving itself
back together.

Life is the many pieces of that great heart loving itself back together. How beautiful, how comforting that I can show you my hurt heart and my past selves and that you can understand that pain, that we can love our pieces back together—together.

This is difficult right now. Everyone feels this way sometimes. May we be kind to ourselves in this moment. May we give ourselves the compassion we need. And may we all blade on when the weather clears.

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