Rainer Marie Rilke once said that if we want to write, than we should write what we know. Here is what I know: my college, for some reason unbeknownst to me, is filled with especially beautiful, trendy people. I really don’t know where they all came from. Sometimes I wonder if they’ve started requiring photos in the undergrad admission application, and they just accept the good-looking crowd (but I’m sure I’m wrong). Call it “facial profiling.” Anyway, I found that it has been incredibly easy to dislike these beautiful trendy people. It’s almost shocking how easy it is.
I recently just got back from a three-month stay in Belize. Belize is a tiny country facing the Caribbean Ocean on the Central American mainland. It borders Guatemala. Belize taught me a lot of things: how to live simply, how to enjoy the people around you, how to take it easy and not rush. I learned some valuable life lessons. However, one of the most important lessons I took away from living in Belize was learning how to love myself.
I am originally from Southern California, where, unfortunately, despite my terrific upbringing, I found myself with a severe complex. From a very young age, I knew that I had an image that I wanted, and I was under the impression that you attained this image by the way you dressed and how your body looked. So ever since I was in sixth grade, I was constantly striving to look a certain way so that I would be cool, so that I would be accepted and so that boys would like me.
I was never satisfied with myself. I also had this idea that I was only valued if I had a boyfriend. Since I hadn’t dated anyone of significance since the eighth grade, my value decreased rapidly in my own eyes. Suddenly I found myself entering college with a people-pleasing complex. There were so many good-looking guys at my school, and I “knew” that they wanted the small skinny blondes. I was definitely not that. And so I grew to hate myself. I hated the way I dressed, hated my weight, I hated my hair. I hated everything about myself and was never satisfied with any of the changes I made. I never verbally expressed that to anyone, but I’m sure everyone could tell. It becomes self-defeating. You try and become what people want you to become, but they know you aren’t being real with them and don’t like you anyway.
Sounds pretty hopeless right?
Self-rejection is not and has never been in God’s will for humanity. Often in the Church, self-rejection is masked under the guise of humility, but trust me that is a falsehood that many people buy into; it ends up damaging many. Jesus said that the two greatest commandments were to love God and love others as you love yourself. I came to realize through my time at college that if God was really calling me to love others, I had to learn how to love myself first. There was no way I could love another person if I was secretly comparing myself to him or her and hating them for their cute style, their skinny waste or their amazingly outgoing personality.
So where does Belize play into all of this? Enter: Latin American/Caribbean culture. As I lived and worked among a new group of people, I slowly started to see that they saw the world in a different light. They were not shy to tell me what they thought of me, and they were not shy in telling me what they thought of themselves. In fact, I was skinnier than I thought; I was pretty and most of all, I was accepted in their circle of trust, because they just chose to love me, regardless of what I looked like. Suddenly, I found myself content and happy to be just as I am. I was given a taste of freedom from an image that I had to attain, from a clothing trend I had to set, from a look I had to acquire. I was free to really be myself.
Anyone who has come back home to American culture often knows that it’s coming home where one experiences the most culture shock. I personally thought I did well initially on my first few days back in the States. But I didn’t realize or anticipate the fact that culture shock can last for weeks and can take different forms in the lives of different people. What did my culture shock manifest into? Bitterness.
We recently had Shawn McDonald come and play at our school, and I sat there, in the crowd of beautiful, college-aged humans with tears just running down my face, because I couldn’t stand being where I was: essentially in a crowd of people that I couldn’t love. That’s when it hit me: I can’t love these people. I could never love these people. I cried out to God just then, to love them through me, because I couldn’t. Maybe that’s what being in a relationship with God means: to understand our poverty of love. But it’s in this poverty of love that I able to experience God in amazing ways … when I become overwhelmed with love for people on my campus, I know that love isn’t mine. I don’t have it in me to love what my mind says I should hate. And that’s when I feel God dwelling inside me, becoming in me what I could never be.