Over the past decade I have come to accept and embrace my role abilities and gifts as a woman, a writer and a teacher, gratified to see the effect I can have on my dear readers and those who come to study or retreat at the Anima Sanctuary. We’ve gotten hundreds of letters, describing the wonderful healing, scary explorations and important growth resulting from their time here, dispelling any doubts I might have harbored.
Yet, like many women I know, I still find myself needing to confront and deal with deep-seated insecurities from time to time. They come — I’ve discovered — not from a failure to love my true self or value my inherent gifts, so much as from the unhealthy imagining that I need to have all the same gifts and abilities as others do.
From the time we are kids, we’re led to constantly compare ourselves to other women, and especially to the women on TV and in the magazines, resulting too much of the time in feelings of inadequacy. Worse still, there is usually someone in our lives who seems to be the epitome of what parents or boys or society adores the most.
In my case, it was my nemesis Maggie, a girl who lived down the street and rode with me to school every day. She was the archetypal “Perfect Girl.” Not only was she very beautiful, she got the most perfect grades in class year after year, and had so many clothes that it seemed she never wore the same outfit twice.
Her house was a gorgeous, old and mysterious mansion, where her mother baked homemade pastries while she slept in a hand-carved oak canopy bed covered with antique lace. I bugged my mother to get me a canopy bed after seeing hers, but mine was bought at Sears and of course was nothing like Maggie’s. Predictably, the boy that I had the hugest crush on fell for Maggie.
While she was always polite, it felt like she looked down on me and seemed a little embarrassed to have to say hello when our paths crossed in the hallways. I never thought I was ugly, but figured if only I were prettier and had better clothes, the popular kids would like me better, and they’d want to pick me first for their teams in gym instead of always nearly last.
No matter how well I did in school, I still worried because I wasn’t as good as the very best students. I excelled at track and cross country, not because I had a natural talent, but because I pushed myself so hard that I was able to win races in spite of my awkward gait.
Even moving from upper middle class Massachusetts to the hip neighborhoods of San Francisco, involved trying to be somebody I wasn’t: super hip and savvy, clever, independent, more interested in sexual variety than finding true love. I dressed the part, shaved my head, wore torn black clothes and black lipstick, yet still didn’t feel like I belonged even there among the self proclaimed “freaks”.
To many, a divorce is due to comparing one’s own marriage to what we imagine to be the happiness of others, even though we usually never see the struggles they really go through. There would be fewer race wars if one color wasn’t imagining the other color to be richer or more endowed, born with more advantages or coddled by government programs.
The real threat from Russia never came from communism, which was a failure on its own, but from the resentment and envy that comes with comparing their gross national product and consumer luxuries to those of Americans.
Suicide and clinical depression wouldn’t be so common, if we in modern society hadn’t gotten into the habit of comparing our abilities to those we believe have more, while downplaying our own innate qualities, and taking our developed skills and accomplishments for granted.
It’s likely not a good idea for a carpenter to always be comparing his work to that of other carpenters... and it makes less sense for him to compare his abilities and efforts to those of affluent stock brokers or television he-men. Nor for a sick old man to compare himself to an exuberant teen, or a woman to compare her physical strength to that of a large and laboring man.
When I told our partner Wolf I was sad that I might never be as strong and decisive as him, he replied, in a lovely piece of writing, that “I am not and will never be as naturally blissful, undemanding, child-like, easy going or plain old pleasant to be around. I could never sing like you, able to make the river smile and the trees dance. I could never touch people’s hearts with my cooking the way you do, if I practiced a thousand years. You can make clumsiness appear graceful, while my every slip-up looks ridiculous and deserved.
Compared to you, I’m insufficiently accepting of other people and not nearly forgiving enough of their transgressions, weaknesses or faults. When wounded, I’m more likely to hit the other’s cheek than to turn mine. I can be discerning to the point of being unbearably critical, motivated to the extent of pushing too hard, and alert to the point of being aggravatingly overstrung.
I might have to feel bad about myself, if I thought it reasonable to expect me to be like you. By your smiling, brown-haired measure I’m not nearly considerate enough, patient enough, accepting enough, relaxed enough, or even sweet enough...”
For 14 years now, I’ve been in a devoted relationship where my real self and natural abilities have been affirmed and nurtured, while living in an inspirited wilderness canyon that tends to destroy every illusion and self-placating lie.
The people in my life care for me for who I truly am, and not what I might ever wish to be. I recognize my essential gifts now, and teach our students from that place of authenticity with all its attendant power. Like a reformed alcoholic, however, the challenge not to compare myself to others never goes completely away.
While I am honored for my example of presence and the special magic of the food I prepare, complimented for how easy it is for people to bare their hurting hearts to me, and thanked for the delight and playfulness that I inspire, I still have to be on guard not to ruin the moment with regrets that I’m not a wonderfully confident orator like our Anima co-director Kiva Rose.
The flip-side, of course, is how perfectly our differing talents and temperaments complement each other. While not being total opposites, we are definitely pieces of a puzzle with qualities that make our world here in the canyon feel more whole. She is the Grizzly Bear, self aware, gifted with dreaming, connection with plants, intuition.
I am the Elk, blissed-out with my head in the clover. I so appreciate her ability to communicate with words, and how she celebrates my ability to communicate without words, through heart, touch, and gesture. Together, we reap the benefits of her discernment, awareness and groundedness with my natural compassion, ability to trust and to see the best in people.
To give wholly, we have to be whole. This is what we teach in Anima, as much as anything else. And wholeness is the lifelong reclaiming and growing of all our healthful, essential parts. To accomplish that, we have to accept our weaknesses as well as strengths, and get over trying to live up to a model that we, or our parents, or society hold up as ideal.
We need to get over any illusion that better grades or more accomplishments would make our life more heartful or purposeful, that we need to be as sweet as a certain friend or as pushy as our boss in order to get ahead, or that plastic surgery on our breasts or changing the way we talk could bring us happiness or true love. At the same time, it would benefit us to develop the skills that don’t come naturally, exercise weak muscles, learn what’s hard, push our limits and boundaries, explore new ways of being and doing.
To the extent that I am able to teach or inspire anyone, it is by being all I am. In the moment, as in the end, the best we can be is the best of all we really are, continuously getting stronger and more able... not like the women (or men) we measure ourselves against, but more like ourselves, like nobody else! We need to be both adamant and vigilant when it comes to how we perceive others and our selves.
Loba enjoys her life at her wild riverside home, the Anima School sanctuary in New Mexico. She and her partners host folks for wilderness retreats, teach inspiring lifeways and herbal correspondence courses (www.AnimaCenter.org) and organize the exciting Traditions In Western Herbalism Conference to be held September 15th-18th at the fabled Ghost Ranch (www.TraditionsInWesternHerbalism.org). Her stories and recipes can be found at: www.AnimaCenter.org/blog