Go to the bookstore – if you can still find one – and you’ll see shelves lined with self-help books written by people who never run out of ideas for how we can improve ourselves and enhance our self esteem.
Like diet books, every season brings new exclamation-pointed titles promising happiness through self-love, but their advice is always the same:
Do what feels right to you!
Live the life you want!
Do what makes you happy!
Live, laugh, love!
The conclusion is always the same, too: “Above all, believe in yourself and feel good about yourself, because you’re fabulous, just the way you are!”
If that were true, of course, the entire billion-dollar self-improvement industry would collapse, because all of us — drenched in the awareness of our fabulousness — would no longer need it. The self-help trade has a vested interest in making us believe that we hate ourselves because we don’t appreciate how special we all are, and that the secret to happiness can be purchased at a low, low price.
Our willingness to believe this is what keeps them in business. But there is a reason why they must constantly rework and rewrap that formula: You can only say “You are special” so many ways.
Sure, we know it; Mr. Rogers told us we were special years ago. Yes, we’re all unique. We all have individual strengths and gifts.
So what? We all have individual fears and faults and weaknesses, too. Why don’t we celebrate those, as well? They’re part of our uniqueness, aren’t they? Aren’t our negatives as important to acknowledge as our positives, because they come together to make our whole selves?
I do some things well, other things badly; I am a generous person, but an undisciplined housekeeper. I am fast to encourage, but also quick with an eyeroll. I am eager to help when help is needed, but I’m also selfish about my time. That’s me; the good and the not-great reside within me in mysterious dichotomy.
If I were only good, I’d be insufferable – more so than I already am.
If I were only dark, I’d be… well, I might go into politics.
Okay, joking, right? It’s a joke! Everybody lighten up. You know what? One way to be happier in your life is to allow a humorous thought to come through without worrying that it might hurt some politician’s feelings. Politicians – if they are any good – already get the joke and can indulge in a little self-deprecating humor, themselves.
Of course “good people” go into politics. But that doesn’t make them good people any more than my going to Mass makes me a good person.
You know what makes us good people, and what also makes us feel good about ourselves?
Doing something for someone else, whether it’s something little, like taking the smaller piece of pizza, or something larger, like helping out at a St. Vincent de Paul center, or cleaning up a trash-strewn park – even if no one has asked you to.
Making a commitment to do something that takes you out of yourself does several important things:
- It immediately helps someone else. This is something you can feel legitimately good about: “I helped!”
- It teaches you about yourself – both the fabulous and the meh – and self-knowledge (all the books will tell you) is a primary key to feeling confident, a necessary component, we’re told, of joy.
To see your strengths in helping others, while also admitting to your limitations, balances self-esteem with humility. And that’s really the only way we should want our self-esteem: balanced.
The thing is, those limits? Those weaknesses? Those things you don’t handle so well? If your sense of yourself is balanced, and truly knowledgeable, they will spur you to faith, because once you realize something is beyond you, you start to look toward where the real power is. And usually that brings you to prayer, because prayer has power; it taps into the very source of power like a plug into an electrical outlet, and makes things go.
And the more we absorb the juice from that source, the more we light up; the more we glow. The more we glow the more we know, and that makes us confident (“I know in whom I have believed”) but not stuck up, because now we know everything is not all about us.
Happiness, like anything of real value, comes not at a low, low price. It costs us something.
So, to sum up: We put down the self-help book; we allow ourselves to laugh at stupid, silly things that really don’t hurt anyone – that opens up a circuit of joy.
Then we do something for someone else, small or large, or we even volunteer in the world. “I helped!” That makes us feel good. Feeling good about ourselves is what we’re all seeking, right?
Then we see that we can’t do everything, so we admit it, and that keeps us from feeling so good about ourselves that we become smug.
Then we turn toward the greatest source of help for the world, and tap into that. And we keep on.
We just keep on.