I was one of those kids who loved to be in the spotlight. Maybe it was because, as a pastor’s kid, I was born into the gaze of a large community, or maybe it’s just in my nature, but I took to my role on stage with gusto. The attention felt welcome, fueling both a sense of belonging and my natural charisma and creativity.
Thankfully I have parents who encouraged my creative sense of expression from the start. I was allowed to dress myself from as early as I was physically able – maybe two or three years old. Even when members of my parent’s small rural Indiana church would vocally express distaste for me showing up on a summer Sunday morning wearing multiple uneven pigtails, a Strawberry Shortcake pajama dress and neon moon boots, my parents defended my choice and style, assuring others that it had nothing to do with my holiness or lack thereof.
My love of wild expression and time in the spotlight never changed, but how and who I showed up as, eventually did. By early elementary school, I learned that it wasn’t proper to “want” to be seen, heard or viewed as significant. If and when it happened, along with any affirmations given, I was conditioned to graciously dismiss and deflect it. It seemed to be a sign of selfishness, lack of femininity and ungodliness to have a strong sense of self or to enjoy being celebrated. I absorbed the confusing messages to give my gifts freely but also to make sure I wasn’t taking any joy in doing it. I contorted and constrained my natural expression in order to avoid being arrogant, self-centered or just “too much.”
These lessons were both in public and in private, and were heightened by my inherited role of spiritual leadership, as a member of the pastor’s family. I remember being in the car with my mother around nine years old and passionately singing along to Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All.” She turned off the radio mid-song and told me that “the greatest love of all” was not “inside of me” – the greatest love was the love of Jesus. Although my mother’s intentions with her children most certainly were to “teach them well and let them lead the way” — it was also clear that connecting to “the beauty (we) possess inside” was a slippery slope into secularism.
(To be fair, my amazing mother, like us all, has evolved in profound ways and may have a different theological interpretation of the song today.)
There were so many mixed messages like this – that I needed to accept and realize I was a unique and beloved child of God – but also, by my nature I was greedy, selfish and foolish. I learned that anything decent within me had nothing to do with me – and everything to do with what God was doing through me.
I can see the nuances and hold these paradoxes with more grace today. As a young woman, however, these messages left me residing in a space of disconnection from and shameful distaste for my body and soul that I have continued unwinding for much of my adult life.
By now, in my forties, I have embraced my love for being in the light. In most moment, I rest in who I am, with all my quirks and confusions and contradictions and messy edges.
It’s not surface affirmation for things I’ve done that ultimately fuels me, but being seen and celebrated for the fullness of who I am. Not everyone is energized by standing on stages or taking leadership roles, but I am, and that’s okay. In fact, it’s clear to me now that my desire for personal significance is actually the portal through which I give the greatest level of collective contribution. When I do what I naturally LOVE and shine fully for who I AM without deflection or apology, others are given permission to be unbound in their fullness too.
There’s no one for us to become – just our essence to fully come out with. In our natural state we each shine — and were created to be seen, heard and celebrated – not for what we’ve done – but for the full on amazingness of who we are as a soul. When we see and are seen in this way, giving our gifts becomes effortless, because we realize our presence is the gift.
Instead of fighting self-centeredness, I have permission to be centered in myself. What a relief.
With the greatest love of all.. inside, outside and through it all…