I realized the other day that I might be a good mentor to young people. Or at least have some good advice to give. It was a startling thought.
It came to me when I was busily procrastinating on writing this essay and several other risky tasks that held the danger of boosting my self-esteem and making me look good. I’m almost 50 and I’m in a business I can’t seem to get out of, no matter how much counseling and how many 12-step groups I attend: the business of cutting myself down to size and keeping myself there. I work mostly with young people at the moment. I’m serving in a yearlong, full-time volunteer program that I chose at a moment of personal and professional transition. I did the same thing just after graduating college years ago and it seemed like a good thing to return to, after a year of health-related and other crises. My colleagues in this program are mostly recent graduates. I well remember that feeling of being at a loose end after graduation and seeing only murk ahead, and the feeling of wanting to give back after a relatively privileged education. My cohort of fellow volunteers comprises mostly people in their 20s, who are where I was all those years ago. I just happened to have come around to the same crossroads a second time.
When I came out as bi nearly 10 years ago, I didn’t imagine I’d still be alone. It was a wonderful though scary time and I knew I’d soon find a relationship. Now that I knew my true nature, everything made sense and all parts of my life would come together, blossom, and harmonize. I also didn’t imagine that the so-called LGBT community (more like LGT) in that small town would reject me because I wasn’t lesbian enough. Or that by the time I moved to a more diverse urban area I’d reckon myself too depressed and too fat to date, figuring no one would really want this body or this mind.
That’s where I am—where I thought I was—but recently I went to a conference introducing the new volunteers to the program. Because I’ve been through the whole onboarding process before, and because I’ve had to tap into the welfare system due to my health, I had a lot of suggestions to offer on how to make a service lifestyle work. I talked about what supports are available from our sponsoring organization, how to apply for benefits, how to make it on a small stipend, and how to juggle a second job to make rent. In fact, I seemed to know more than the people whose job was to present on these topics at the conference. I noticed that people were actually listening to me when I contributed and even thanked me. It was an unusual feeling to be seen as an “expert” on something.
Strangely, no matter how hard I work at it, procrastination never seems to get anything done. My goals remained unmet over the following week. But in the midst of my procrastination project, I had two trains of thought. One ran on the well-worn track of anxiety, ugliness, and self-disgust (because I was procrastinating). The other train was sneaky at first but eventually I couldn’t avoid it: young people, including my housemates, nieces and nephews, tutoring clients, even fellow patients in the hospital, seemed to enjoy hearing about my life experiences and to find something helpful in them. Sometimes they even sought me out to talk to me. That train brought a dawning truth I couldn’t get away from: I have personal and professional skills that are needed, wanted, and valuable. I have accomplishments that others lack and—it seems—it’s okay to acknowledge that. I make people laugh, I can laugh at myself, and when I talk, people sometimes want to listen. Even my struggles—in fact, even some of my poor decisions and fumbling failures—have the potential to save others trouble, or at least make a good story.
The next step in this unwanted train of thought became this: maybe, then, if I’m a useful and worthwhile aunt, roomie, and co-worker, maybe I’d be a pleasant and even loveable and loving life partner. Maybe my fat and my mental illness won’t and don’t permanently cancel me out of companionship and love forever. If I can see past these things, maybe there are others who can too.
Aging, in fact, and even health problems, seem to be bringing me closer to the precondition of confidence: facing the fact of my own value.
It’s a terrifying thought. Because I’m comfortable where I am, down here in the dumps. I know this routine; I’ve got the business down pat. I know when to take inventory, who my suppliers are, how to make sure I’ve got a full complement of self-snark on hand.
I don’t know if anyone reading this is a Narnia book freak like me. Yeah, the later ones have some racist elements, and there’s a fair amount of sexism, but I can’t throw out the whole series and what I learned from it. In The Magician’s Nephew (in my opinion, the best of the bunch), the godlike Aslan says, “Oh Adam’s sons, how cleverly you defend yourselves against all that might do you good!” He’s talking about a character who simply will not hear the joy and new life available to him in a certain situation. He’s too afraid that it’s all a con and that his past bad deeds make him unacceptable among other creatures. This character armors himself against the potential benefits of his situation by telling himself it’s all nonsense and willing himself to be afraid of Aslan, the bearer of the good news.
Well, I can surely relate. I’ve prided myself on my own cleverness and my ability to sniff out bullshit. I tell myself that I’m astute enough not to be deceived by most people. “A good judge of character,” I call myself. But what if the one person I’ve allowed myself to be fooled by is….me? Maybe I’ve been duped by my own lines—every grifter has them. You know those lines. You’ve heard them. “You’re worth nothing.” “You’re a failure.” “Don’t feel good about something you’ve done—that’s snobbery, vanity, and self-centeredness.” “Don’t fool yourself—she’s better/pret- tier/smarter.” “You’re ugly. Look down, just keep walking, don’t bother doing a good job because it’s not like anyone’s going to notice if you work hard.”
What if I’ve been conned all along? What if what I have to offer isn’t cleverness but wisdom? What if I have not only intelligence, but good judgment, insight, and understanding?
What if I’m not only sharp, but also deep?
I read a quote somewhere that what we often call a fear of failure is really a fear of success. Deep down, the idea of realizing and using our power terrorizes people—well, it terrorizes me. We’re taught to think it’s wrong, selfish, and vain. The idea of being a success and all the attendant responsibilities, expectations, and consequences—mostly our expectations of ourselves—serves to keep us doing our mediocre best to remain stuck. It’s safer that way.
Aging is scary for me, yes. As I age, I have experienced greater physical problems and the fear of being alone for good. But at the same time, I’m realizing that one consequence of having struggled and overcome and stumbled and risen up again is that I can be funny, inspiring, and empathetic. I have counsel to offer and recommendations to make, and I have the humil- ity and compassion to do this without patronizing anyone or demanding anything.
The struggle continues. I wrestle with and against moments of self-love, acceptance, and confidence. I guess I might as well get used to it. It seems reasonable to foresee that as I continue to age, it might only get worse. Or better, depending on how you look at it.
A.M. is a writer, editor, writing tutor, and researcher in Baltimore. A veteran of the healthcare, nonprofit, and journalism industries, she also has expertise in mental health, body image, and the English language. Contact her at email@example.com.