In Christianity, there’s an inescapable glorification of martyrdom. Around every corner, there’s a scripture about laying down one’s life for his friends, or losing one’s life to gain it, or giving away all your possessions. Then there’s the whole thing about Jesus and the cross. I grew up believing that sacrificing yourself for the well-being of someone else is our greatest calling.
I’ve wrestled with this for a long time. I think the world could use more altruistic humans, especially now. And self-interest is hardcoded into our DNA–it’s not something we need to learn. When the lion attacked, our ancestors were the ones who outran Uncle Bobby. Uncle Bobby didn’t get a chance to pass on his genes. That’s how this whole thing works, right? And if human beings are intrinsically concerned with survival–if watching out for #1 is a given–what could be harmful about preaching sacrificial love, about aspiring to something greater?
Emily and I dated long-distance right up until our wedding day. She was finishing college in Chattanooga, and I was working in Nashville. We were each other’s first serious relationship. It’s no secret that marriage is hard work, but not for the reasons I thought it would be. I assumed the hard part would be overcoming my inherent selfishness, burning away the pieces of myself that single-me was holding on to. Married-me would need to lay down his life completely, to give up everything. Ultimately, in that, I would find myself.
I have a friend who has been through a lot. Because of his tumultuous childhood, he was forced to learn at an early age the importance of loving and accepting yourself just as you are. When Emily and I were first married, he tried to enlighten me. I was telling him that this marriage thing was even harder than I expected, that I felt inadequate, like maybe I wasn’t cut out for it. Was I a bad partner? “You can’t love her until you love yourself,” he said. And I rolled my eyes so hard.
The classic cliche. If he had gone on to say you’ll accept the love you think you deserve, I would have thrown him out the window.
I told him that was selfish. No happily married person says things like had to start looking out for myself or had to focus on me. A quality partnership is built on sacrifice. You give everything you have to your family–to your breaking point, sometimes. But that’s what marriage is.
Marriage was hard for me not because I was selfish, not because I couldn’t muster up the willingness to look after someone other than myself. It was hard because I constantly felt like I wasn’t sacrificing enough. I believed so strongly that I was made to lay down my life for my partner that I could never measure up to my own expectations. This resulted in two things. One, I was ashamed of my own needs. And two, it became impossible for Emily to share hers, as I felt that the presence of her needs only represented my lack in meeting them. I saw them as my own failure. The ironic thing is that I was actually making her needs about me.
It’s difficult to confront just how often I want to be someone I’m not. I feel it when I’m anxious about a meeting or when I’m frustrated with my kids. I feel it when I know my wife needs emotional support, but I’m too drained to offer it. I feel it when I read the same paragraph over and over again, struggling to focus. If I could just be less anxious and better focused.
When we were newlyweds, I had the idea that married-me would be something different than single-me. Something more evolved. If I worked really hard, put in enough effort, I’d learn how to be this new, better version of myself. It took conversations with close friends, my wife’s encouragement, and good therapy to get to a place where I believed regular ol’ me was the person Emily loved and wanted.
After a few years of marriage, I finally started to understand that she didn’t want me to be better. She simply wanted honestly. It wasn’t actually that complicated. If I needed something, I had to give her the opportunity to say yes–rather than hold it in and feel some sort of resentful self-righteousness.
Now that we have young kids, I’m constantly faced with the same challenge. Is regular me a good enough dad? I feel myself falling back into the desire to be someone else–someone with more energy and consistent rules and peace of mind. A fun dad, if you will.
Here’s the reality, though. The more I voice what I need and shamelessly receive it, the more energy I have left for my loved ones. It’s as simple as that. The more readily I accept who I am, the quicker I recover from anxiety, frustration, or exhaustion. Why? Because I’m not layering feelings on top of each other. I’m not feeling anxious about my anxiety and shame about my identity and anger about my anger.
I can simply be who I am. I can feel what I feel. One layer at a time.
Acceptance is hard. Really hard. When I was in the hospital with crippling anxiety, my doctor let me know that our goal was not to get rid of anxiety. It was to manage it. To feel it, not fear it. To become friends with it.
Maybe the same thing applies to my whole self. Maybe acceptance and love go hand in hand. And maybe they really are the precursors to loving others well.
“For after all, the best thing one can do when it is raining is let it rain.”
― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow