I hit a shame spiral this week, and I’m going to tell you how I pulled myself out of it. It was about these new, very cute corduroy pants I bought for my youngest, who is eight.
My own life feels absurd at the moment. I’m making dinner and running kids to sports while we grieve what is happening in Palestine, while our Jewish friends grapple with deep fear and reopened trauma. Meanwhile, of course, terrible things continue to happen all over– this week, I was reading about the Democratic Republic of Congo, and I’m well aware that I am typing this on a machine that is part of that particular hurt.
It’s important to acknowledge these things, because deep down, we already know these truths, and when we pretend otherwise, it makes us feel crazy. It separates us from our true place in the world.
I am part of the problem. My lifestyle is part of the problem. My pleasures and privileges have unintended repercussions.
My god, how do we live with ourselves?
My answer might surprise you.
We must begin by treating ourselves with great tenderness, even though we are undoubtedly (even if accidentally) participating in violent oppressive systems.
This is counterintuitive, but beating ourselves up– beating anyone up– has never yet caused a longterm positive change in behavior.
When I am tender to myself, I soften.
I had to remember this truth this week when I bought some adorable brown corduroy pants for my littlest one. He needed some pants, I found a sale, added some things for his siblings, got everything in the cart, checked out– and wham, on the heels of my triumphant glow, I felt a creeping guilt because I know perfectly well that the big company I bought from is not a very good global citizen. In fact, what I had bought was the very definition of fast fashion. I have a horrible suspicion that the clothes my kids wear might be made by other children.
Who am I? What am I even doing?
I felt sick.
First, I yelled at myself.
Seriously?!? Fast fashion?!? How callous can you be?!?! I’m disgusted. You know how these things are all connected. You’re saving time and money and destroying our world. Greta Thunberg would be ashamed.
I tussled with myself for a while until I remembered that when I yell at myself I always tighten, stiffen, harden. My armor goes up.
Furthermore, in this battle with myself my defensiveness began to turn aggressive: Listen I have five kids, there are only three tiny thrift stores on this island, it would be a fulltime job to try to clothe them secondhand even if the stock was there which it isn’t! We already do LOADS of hand-me-downs, and it is a TON of work to track and store and wash and fold and label and haul out rubbermaid tins and half the time the things their size are out of season anyway and it is SO defeating!!! Grrr! And I can’t AFFORD the beautiful sunstainable shit– don’t you think I wish I could?!? At $300 a sweater, how much would it cost to clothe my FIVE children who continue to grow at astonishing rates?!?
I got angrier and angrier, generating more and more self-righteous heat… as I felt more and more ashamed.
This never works, beloveds.
So I sighed.
And I tried speaking tenderly to myself, like this:
Oh, honey. You have really mixed feelings about these clothes you just bought. Part of you feels guilt and grief, because you know that you are contributing both to a human rights horror (working conditions, child labor) and an environmental one (chemical dyes, appalling levels of waste, the oil it burns to ship them here). You HATE this. You hate this deep down to your bones. This is out of alignment with who you truly long to be– someone who doesn’t hurt anybody. It feels so terrible to be out of alignment. The dissonance jostles in you like a broken bone. And yet also part of you is crying out in true desperation– “I am running as FAST as I can to keep up with this life, I am drawing on my deepest reserves every day, drawing my own well dryer than I know I should. And while I might WANT to be the kind of person who can SEW my kids’ clothes, I just cannot.” I hear her. She is sincere. After scraping our budget carefully, these are the funds you can responsibly allocate toward clothes. And after saving hand-me-downs and looking in the local thrift stores, you came up with the bare minimum of affordable pieces that will make your kids’ clothes work this winter. They are the linchpin that makes getting dressed each morning not a hellscape for your husband (who gets the kids out the door each day) and keeps them warm and shows the world that they have parents who are paying attention and also tries to honor their individual tastes and styles knowing that while this might seem like a frivolous concern to some, clothes touch deep and painful nerves of identity, gender, expression, and safety for others. You found a sale. You got all the right things in the right size into the cart. This was a heroic feat in its own right. It took a whole evening, but you did it even though you were tired from working a full day and then feeding everyone. Part of you feels indignantly proud of the jigsaw puzzle you solved. Another part of you feels appalled, absolutely disgusted, that a) you spent this much time thinking about clothes for your kids when other kids are dying or worse and b) that we just spent even MORE time having a precious little ineffective moral crisis over it when there are such big things happening in the world. Oh, honey, I know. I see it. I see you.
WHEN I CAN WITNESS MYSELF LIKE THIS? WITH THIS LEVEL OF COMPASSION AND CARE?
Guess what happens.
I weep a few relieved tears.
Yeah, all of that. All of that is true. I feel seen.
I sigh a little sigh.
And then, I can have compassion on myself for doing the best that I can. And out of that compassion, that slightly-bigger-than-before heartspace, I can also see that while I might have been doing the best I could in that moment, I want to do better in the next.
I want to live in this world leaving it more loved and less ravaged.
And while I might not know how to do the kids’ clothes thing any better than this, I find a kind of vow welling up inside myself to do better where I can.
I’m reminded once again to check out that local farm that raises pork and beef right here on the island. That’s one way I know how to do better. I can mark the Tuesday local farmer market on my calendar instead of buying veg shipped from another continent.
The difference in this energy shift is immense. Not “I should” but “I genuinely want to.”
Not “I am such a horrible person that to make up for it I ought to” but “it will feel so good to do the things that make me the person I want to be.”
I can’t yell myself into goodness.
We can’t yell each other into kindness.
But we can witness our collective, complicated, contradictory truths. We can listen deeply. We can soften, to each other and to ourselves. We can offer healing balm to the hurts inside us, and then we can offer our healed heart to others.
I know you might be thinking, what good is this when atrocities are still happening?
And my answer is: we cannot give tenderness to others if have never experienced it ourselves. And we have to practice on the small shit if we expect to be any good at the big stuff.
When we give compassion to ourselves first, we make ourselves people who are at least AVAILABLE to see each other with soft eyes. I’d rather have those people running things and negotiating peace and justice than people operating out of untreated hurt and trauma– wouldn’t you?
It all has to start somewhere.
So bring yourself tenderness. Slow it down. And see what wells up in you.
Maybe it will be a little more beautiful than before.