When my mother was in her 70s, she developed a rep as a neighborhood wise woman. She would take her dog, Clark, for walks that lasted hours, striking up conversations with other dog-walkers, moms, college students, homeless guys … she didn’t discriminate.
She was interested in other people’s lives, and listened attentively when they talked. Sure, she loved to give advice and quote aphorisms, but in all fairness her advice was usually pretty good, and the quotations she’d trot out were apt.
It was around this time her favorite aphorism became “charity begins at home.” She said she finally understood what it meant. Not “Take care of your own before you get generous with anyone else,” or “teach charity at home if you want your children to grow up to be charitable people.”
She said the real meaning was “be charitable to yourself.”
Unfortunately, as with most of my mother’s wisdom, at the time I mostly just wished she’d stop saying it as if she’d found the freakin’ key to nirvana.
More than a decade later, though, I finally get it.
It’s so easy to believe the worst about ourselves. We constantly receive messages from family, friends, and society that tell us how we should be, so when we aren’t that way, our conditioning tells us we’ve failed yet again, and that awful inner voice is quick to remind us that we suck.
We’re quick to believe it, too, because we’ve grown up with these messages, and at heart we’re still afraid we’re helpless and will be abandoned to fend for ourselves if our tribe decides we’re not worthy of its protection. And at the same time, we’ve been taught that believing good things about ourselves is nearly a greater evil than actually doing bad things. Saying we’re good at something is bragging, and truly believing we’re good at it is getting a swelled head.
Most of us seem to operate under the assumption that the minute we believe something positive about ourselves POOF! Pumpkin-to-carriage style, instead of our likable, humble self, there will be an arrogant, amoral dickwad and from there it’s just a short hop to total global apocalypse.
This is where we begin to practice true charity.
Give yourself a break. Allow yourself to believe something nice about yourself. If you’re worried about setting off a chain of catastrophic events or if you’re just having one of those mud-colored-glasses kind of days, start small. I mean small. Sometimes the only chink in the negativity armor I can find is my feet. I like my feet. They’re narrow but not too narrow, a size that’s easy to find shoes for, and my toes are nicely shaped. Even if on bad days all I can come up with to say in my own favor is that I have attractive tootsies, it’s a start.
By finding one thing to genuinely like, we can derail the self-hate train. We can start to forgive ourselves for our shortcomings, and as we do that, we start noticing other things we like about us. From there we realize that even though we’re not the best at everything and there really are some things we suck at, we don’t suck.
We’re people like everyone else, with some great qualities and some flaws and excellent driving skills or great penmanship or remarkably attractive feet, and maybe the people who like us and tell us so aren’t lying, deluded weirdos after all.
Once that happens, miraculously, we have more “coin” to spend or even give away. Turns out finding fault with ourselves takes a ridiculous amount of emotional energy, so not only are we too tired to do anything for ourselves, we don’t have anything to spare for others. The same way they say it takes fewer muscles to smile than to frown, it takes less energy to cut ourselves some slack than to beat ourselves up.
Slip an occasional mental high-five into the steady stream of Gibbs-slaps to the back of the head that make up our usual self-coaching styles, and we’re no longer tapped out 24/7. We can share a little.
So yeah, charity begins at home. That’s just not where it ends.
Photo by Erik Odiin on Unsplash