It would come as no surprise to my closest of friends that my biggest regret transpired on a hill on a hot summer day, a few years back. It was known as a “magic” hill, where friends gathered to camp and share time, stories, food and music, and embark on mini-adventures down the trail to swim in the creek. It was on that hill, at the end of the weekend, where I made what could possibly be the worst decision of my life. A decision where I gave up on something so good, so beautiful, and so wonderful, that the aftermath of which would ripple ahead and effect my future in ways I never imagined. Why did I do what I did? Why would I invite that kind of pain onto myself and those close to me, that I would re-enact in my brain again and again for time to come? I tried fooling myself. Rationalizing to myself and others why it was the right decision. But in retrospect, I think my reasons were subconsciously invented. The bottom line - and it took me a long time to realize this - is that I didn’t think I deserved something that good. I didn’t deserve to be happy.
“Deserving.” I’ve had mixed feelings about that word. For most of my life, definitely up through that day on the hill, I really didn’t think anyone deserved anything. “Oh, because you’re human? Well get in line with the other seven billion of us, all packed on the same speck of dust floating around the cold, vast universe, and wait your turn to explain why you’re so special.” That last statement might make you think I didn’t care about others, which isn’t true. Saying such a thing just made it easier to justify my own self-deprecation, because what I didn’t hold much value in was myself. Where did this come from? It would be too easy to point to something in my childhood, or something about society, or pressures facing men in our culture, or some other stereotypical experience. But I think the truth is more insidious and unfortunately ingrained to self-conscious, albeit not fully self-aware, existence. Bluntly put, we create our own suffering. “You are your own worst enemy” is resoundingly true, as it’s not what others do to us that hurts most - it’s what we do to ourselves that is the most damaging.
When something good is happening to you, do you always accept it without question, or do you sometimes feel like it must be too good to be true? Perhaps maybe even suspiciously look for an ulterior motive if that good thing came from someone else? That last question probably has more to do with trust than with your sense of deserving, but it can be laced with the thought “I can’t accept this; good things aren’t meant for me.” What about compliments? I have had a hard time with those. I am getting better with just saying “thank you,” but in the back of my mind there’s the struggle to actually accept it. In cases of performance, like a compliment for a job well done, my mind nags me with “I could have done better.” Although sometimes I think there can be positive side effects to that, in fueling our drive to improve ourselves, for example.
So how can we learn acceptance? How, in the quiet, solitary moments when our minds are free to move toward a state of rest, or drag us into memories of loss or regret - how can we let ourselves be at peace? The answer is incredibly simple, but it is also incredibly difficult. Cliché but true, “we have to love ourselves”. Ugh, I can’t tell you how frustrated that statement has made me in the past! I have always found it so easy to help others, to support them, to listen to them, and yes - to love them. But loving myself was always at the very end of the to-do list. Everyone else had to come first before I allowed myself anything. I’m not going to regurgitate the same spiel countless others have written regarding the importance and benefits of loving yourself. My question was whether we deserve the happiness it brings. Is happiness an inherent right, or do we have to earn it? One could postulate that we have a responsibility to be happy, as our happiness (or lack thereof) affects others. But just for a moment, take everyone else out of the picture: no family, friends, acquaintances, strangers, or enemies - no anyone. Only ourselves. Who or what is left to give us the right to be happy? How does that right come into being?
It is ultimately, honestly, and dare I say heroically, manifested as a choice. Just as our self-consciousness can invent and perpetuate our own suffering, it also empowers us with the ability to create our own happiness. You alone define your own self-worth, so you alone determine whether or not you are deserving. But that choice is not one that is made “once and done”. You have to choose it over and over again, throughout the day, every day. It takes many forms, like self-forgiveness and self-empowerment. If you think this is easy, and you feel bad for others who don’t have it conquered quite like you have, you might want to pause and re-evaluate. “Check yourself,” as they say. Like relationships with others, your relationship with yourself takes dedication and work, and it never stops.
So we make that choice. The choice that says, “Yes, I am deserving. I have worth. I can accept good things. I will allow myself to be happy.” We choose this countless times over small things and over big things. In times when someone compliments us, when we get good or bad news, when we are faced with a challenge, when we succeed, and when we fail. It is only through repetition that this will become more and more our automatic response, more safe, and more natural. This is core to our true nature, and we realize that once we unlearn the old habits and teach ourselves healthy ones. We internalize that through practice, and it is then that we become most able to help others in doing the same thing. As a parent, I know this is what I want for my children, but I can’t just teach it to them with words. It needs to be through action, and most effectively, by example.
It took me a long time to walk down from that hill. Years, in fact. I acknowledge a part of me will always be up there, but I think that’s okay. It’s a sampling of my life, and I have learned how to accept it, grow from it, and move forward. I have chosen happiness. I deserve it.