Let me begin my story by saying that I had a wonderful, almost idyllic childhood. Born into a Christian home in the mid 40’s of parents with high moral standards, an unparalleled sense of ethics and honesty, and a belief that their two children (a boy and a girl) could do and become anything they set their minds to accomplish. College was a “given,” just a matter of where and what degree we would choose to pursue. There would be sacrifice, for sure, but they were ready, willing and dedicated to our success. Not only as future professionals, but as good, worthwhile God-fearing, contributing members of society. The bar was set very high! We were so loved!
Sounds perfect…right??? Well, not so fast. It had some drawbacks and as I matured, the “guidelines” I had internalized in my youth became shackles, the “prison of perfectionism.” My parents seemed to live it so well and made it look so easy, I just accepted it as my Book of Life!
My very intelligent father graduated from high school at 16 and from college at 20. Along with being an extremely talented musician, he was the Superintendent of Schools in our relatively small town of Johnson City, New York. He was considered a local celebrity along with the mayor, pastors, priests and funeral directors. He was the choir director at our church and my mom was the church secretary. Are you getting the picture? My brother and I had Perfect Attendance pins we could have tripped over! We did not go shopping or to any public event without being properly attired. My mother always wore a hat and gloves and her hair was always coiffed elegantly. Did I mention that this was the late 40’s and 50's? Of course, as a child I thought this was a bit much, but it was expected.
Whenever I left the house I was reminded to be on my best behavior because “I might not know them but they knew me.” I remember as an eighth grader going to the local movie theater on a Friday night and my boyfriend (which meant nothing more than I liked him more than the others) put his arm around the back of my theater chair. My parents had heard about it by the time I got home at 9 o’clock! People really were watching me! I started to become paranoid! I was also learning that I was who people thought I was (at least that was my perception of it.) That, in turn, became a constant concern - that my parents would be judged and/or held accountable for my behavior. This was a lot of pressure for a young child who adored her parents. But I tried so hard to be what I thought others wanted to see, that it became part of who I was, even long after I left home.
I’m sure you all remember the colloquialisms your parents said on a regular basis (Words of Wisdom in a nutshell). In our home, we had several. But those with the most impact were, “Keep your mouth shut and let people think you are dumb rather than open it and remove all doubt!” Funny? Yes! Cruel? Not intentionally! My translation/interpretation of that was to make sure I was correct before I said anything. My perception was that one should say nothing rather than say something and take a chance that it’s wrong. I can’t count how many times I sat mute in a classroom or at a conference or meeting, afraid to take a chance that my response would be regarded as dumb or foolish, only to find out that I knew the correct response all along! I wonder how many children and adults are operating under that premise? My guess is a lot.
Another was, “Keep your words sweet, you may have to eat them!” Funny? Yes. Cruel? No. Good advice, probably. But have you ever had golden opportunities elude you because you were trying to word and reword a response? I certainly have! However, it did earn me the “Golden Shovel Award” (I bet you can figure that one out!). And there were many others, but none that had as profound an impact on my life as these two.
These two colloquialisms, though well-intentioned and to the point, left me with a very critical mind. Not only for myself, but often for others as well. There was a wrong and a right. A black and a white. Gray areas lacked perfection. I was (am) always second guessing my decisions for almost everything. At times I have felt my life was a stage production, doing and saying what would have been a well written script. One example: I love to decorate and redecorate my home. But often, projects sit idle for days, weeks and even months, while I ponder the perfect solution. I pour over ideas in magazines, Pinterest, even TV shows looking for the “right” solution. I’m thinking of how others will like it rather than just being concerned with how I will like it! Just as in my childhood, trying to decide what others expect of me.
These critical thoughts (at least internally) extend to others, too. I find myself looking for what their real intentions are. It’s difficult to take people at “face value.” There must be more behind their “mask”. This has, at times, robbed me of relationships because of the lack of honesty in our interactions.
So is there light at the end of the tunnel? Oh, yes! God has always been in my life. First in the faith of a child, but later through life’s experiences. He is a faithful God and has always been there to pick me up and comfort me when I was down, and gently lead me toward the light. There have been a few times in my adult life when despair was so heavy, I never thought I would see the light again. But then, it would start as a flicker and then grow steadily to a bright, awesome brilliance as we walked together. And, yes, sometimes He carried me. As I felt His acceptance of the real me with all its flaws and imperfections, and marveled at the forgiveness He gives, I learned to be more accepting. First of myself and then of others. Just as I was not judged, I learned to not judge others (at least I’m working at it). After all, He is the Creator, the Artist of the masterpiece in each of us! Why would I have the audacity to think I need to hone His artistry? I have learned to laugh at my own blunders and accept the things I cannot change. Just maybe, no change is really necessary!
And I’m learning to accept and respect all that life has to offer by accepting what was, what is, and what will be. I have been so blessed, beginning with those incredible parents who gave everything of themselves and asked nothing in return. I have a beautiful son and daughter and four incredibly smart, handsome, talented grandsons! I accept that God has a real purpose for me and that purpose is not to change others or become anyone other than what He wants me to be. So now, if I open my mouth and what comes out seems dumb, I can live with that. If, occasionally, I have to eat my words or say I’m sorry, it’s not defeat. Life is not a contest! And, thanks to a new man in my life, I go out in public without the hat, gloves and perfectly coiffed hair. Am I concerned about what people think? Maybe a little...habits die slowly. But I know that real beauty comes from within, does not change with public opinion and is not ruled by “words of wisdom” unless they come from Him.
So...I finally feel free to be the real me!!!!! Hallelujah!
Karen is the proud mom and confidante of “Warrior Mama,” Brooke, and Grandma to those three adorable boys, plus one more in Jupiter, Florida, where she resides. Warrior Mama, as she is known to you, is her best friend and trusted advisor (as they now begin to experience life’s shifting roles). She is a retired elementary school administrator of 17 years. She taught many children in classrooms from kindergarten through middle school in New York, North Carolina and Florida. She also had the honor of directing the implementation of the first full-time gifted program in Palm Beach County, Florida. She loves to travel, listen to music and participate in a water aerobics program. At 73, she is enjoying fresh, exciting and enriching experiences with a new man in her life! Her motto: Put a smile on your face, a song in your heart and live each day in a way that honors and pleases our Savior! You never know what He has in store for you!