I’ve tried fighting back: asserting, in the face of crippling self-doubt, that I have so much evidence of my own accomplishments that the shadow is absurd. Unfortunately, the positive-thinking route does not work. It has been more effective to accept the reality of the feeling while intellectually recognizing that it is based on a lie, a distortion of reality. Better yet has been to also offer up my sadness to the Lord in prayer, and turn my thoughts deliberately toward gratitude for all the good things in my life, which are many – to be grateful, even if I don’t feel happy.
Today, I was ambushed by the shadow. As I came home from work, it fell without warning across my inner vision, and all went gray. What if my writing is not as good as I think it is? What if my colleagues don’t really respect me? What if my self-image as a good teacher is just that, an image, and the reality is that I don’t help my students as much as I think I do?
Interwoven with this self-doubt was anger at my own self-pity. What have I got to be depressed about? Even just a few days ago, I had been reflecting with cheerful gratitude on all the good things in my life. I hated my own weakness, yet I knew that I could not argue myself out of this mood. Whether or not the feelings were justified, I felt like I was a failure. And the feeling impeded my work – just as the Enemy intended, I imagine.
I felt ill and tired. I wanted to work, but knew from experience that I would not be productive. I decided to take a nap instead. I took a couple of Advil and crawled into bed. My mind wanted to fret over these self-doubts, pull them to pieces, but I resisted, and instead prayed: Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord have mercy... Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy; Lord have mercy...
I drifted off into an odd half-sleeping, half-waking state. Not for long, really. But then I woke all the way up – totally awake – with an insight as clear in my mind as if it were a physical object placed in my hands.
It is not necessary for me to be a success – in anything.
I can be a failure.
Failure does not – cannot! – alter the fundamental reality of my life, which is that I am a child of God. I am an adopted sister of the Son, a beloved daughter of the Father, a temple of the Holy Spirit.
I want to do good work, and it is right that I do my best, honoring God in the use of His gifts – but after that, the results are not in my hands, and are not my concern. The good that I do, might be so hidden from me that I never see it.
Or, in truth, I might never accomplish anything of great worth. I might never have someone to particularly love me. I might never fulfill my hopes of building up my ministry and my work – it might go nowhere, and be forgotten or ignored.
I knew in theory that Christ’s love is unconditional, but I had not fully grasped what that meant. I could think about God loving me in spite of my failures... when those failures were in things I didn’t care all that much about, or if I failed in some areas but could offset them with successes elsewhere.
But what about failure in the things that matter deeply to me? What about failure in all that I desire, all that I hope?
I know, I know – it’s unlikely that I would fail so utterly. I mean, look at all the good things in my life already, right? But the Enemy knows how to play on the “what-ifs,” so let me look it right in the eye: I might turn out to be a failure in all that I do. What then?
Accepting that I might fail doesn’t mean that I don’t care – not at all. But it means that I am free.
If it is all right for me to fail, what can the Enemy hold over me? I can be forgotten, despised, and rejected, but so was Our Lord. Nothing that I feel is unknown to him; and none of my failures can separate me from him.
If I can fail today when I am strong and working in the world, then I need have no fear of the day when I am weak – when I cannot teach, or write, or serve others, but can only be served by others. I will still be who I am, a beloved child of God.
If the world’s judgment of my work does not enter into my relationship with the living God, then I am free to do the work that I am called to do, unselfconsciously.
If I can truly rest in my identity as a child of God, then I do not need to define myself by anything else. I can give thanks for the good things that come to me, and I can rejoice when the Lord allows me to see, at least partly, the fruits of my labor. I am free to be grateful, without fear and without the need to cling to these good things in case the darkness comes again.
For now, this moment, the shadow is gone as if it were never there. Thanks be to God! It might come back – it always has, before – but with God’s help I can look straight at it and not turn away. I think I fear it a little less today than before. May God help me to remember who I am.