For some people the hardest thing to say is “I love you.” For others it’s “I’m sorry.”
The most difficult words for me are “This is what it costs.”
I can love and apologize all day long, but when it’s time for me to say how much money I need for something I’m making out of wood, my insides clinch up like an old man who just ate a whole jar of dollar store peanut butter.
“That’ll be…” I stammer, “how about er...the price will be...uh…say…maybe $[ insert amount that is about half what the thing is actually worth ]. Does that sound ok?” I mumble. Then before they can answer I add, “I love you. I’m sorry.”
Politely ignoring that awkward last part, the person usually says yes.
I won’t say I’m a starving artist, and neither will my bathroom scale. But I will say that most artists undervalue themselves regularly. Most of us don’t believe we’re worth as much as we actually are.
And we look with wonder upon those who do. Sometimes you’ll find me at the grocery store, mouth agape, marveling at a price tag. “Wow, look at you, you box of cereal,” I’ll say. “You know what you’re worth and you just say it. No wavering, no apologies, you just come right out and say $4.39. Well done, my friend.” And with tears forming in my eyes, “Teach me your ways. I want to learn from you.”
When you find yourself jealous of Grape-Nuts it might be time to lie down.
On a soft couch. In a psychiatrist’s office. To figure out where this struggle to believe in yourself comes from.
Because this solitary mind game I play (and often lose) isn’t about how much my work is worth. Not really. It’s about how much I’m worth. If I believe I’m a valuable person, I’ll believe I deserve to be treated that way. I’ll believe I deserve good pay. I’ll be able to stand up straight and say the price without apology.
OK but, I’ve been waiting my whole life for my self-esteem to fix itself and it hasn’t yet. Even after 71 million Facebook memes telling me to love myself, somehow I still struggle. I know, it doesn’t make sense. All those sunsets and yoga ladies with their arms raised and heart-shaped river rocks, how am I not yet completely in love with me?
I’m sorry to say that my self-esteem issues are chronic. I’ve learned this to be true.
But luckily, I think I’ve learned something else to be true too.
First a story. All names changed to protect the various human weaknesses.
Last week I met up with my newish friend Brad. On our first beer I told him everything I just told you, because I’m in the middle of quoting a new audio cabinet for a client and it’s heavy on my mind. He listened intently.
Then on our second, he told me about a woman he dated when back he was single, Katie. “The trick was,” he said, twisting his half-empty glass on the weathered picnic table, “Katie wasn’t single. She was married, and they had two young kids.” He sat up straight and took in a deep breath. I wondered whether I should take his beer away or order him a third. He went on.
“We knew each other in college, twenty years ago. She found me on Facebook and sent me this crazy message about how she had a huge crush on me back then and had spent two decades wondering where I was and what I was doing. She was excited to hear I was divorced and said we should meet up. I was seeing the pictures of her husband and kids, but I figured hey that’s her problem, not mine, right?” He forced a laugh.
“She was pretty enough, I was lonely enough. So I said sure. She made an excuse to get away and we met at a bar and then went to the Hyatt for the night. The Hyatt.” His eyes widened. “She’s got money.”
As guys always do, Brad pulled out his phone to show me her picture. I took it and saw an attractive, well dressed woman, posing with a small child in each arm. Three big smiles, one missing.
“She’s pretty,” I said. As I handed it back I snuck a glance at Brad for a quick comparison. To be honest, apologies to my friend, it wasn’t really a match. Brad um...has a really great personality.
He went on to tell me about their three year affair. How crazy and exciting it was, but how everything was on her terms. She was the one with everything to lose, so she was the one making all the decisions. Where and when they would meet, how long they could talk on the phone. She was in control.
“At first it felt great, but as the months went on,” he said, “I got more and more and more depressed. I’d see her happy family pictures on Facebook from my sad apartment couch. I wondered where it was all going, if she’d ever actually leave her husband to be with me, like she promised she would someday. I felt powerless, used.”
“And pretty soon I started to feel the guilt,” he tugged at the cardboard coaster under his glass, “and I started to wonder why she didn’t feel it, you know? Like, why did I feel more sorry for her family than she did?”
“That’s weird,” I said.
“Ya, it was weird. And whenever I tried to talk to her about my unhappiness, she’d explode. She’d get really angry and cry and tell me how hard she’s working to make it all possible and how dare I try to make her feel bad. So then I’d feel bad, and confused, and not bring it up for a while. And then later I would, and the same thing would happen. This was the cycle.”
“So that’s when you ended it?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “everything I’m telling you started about three months in. So this was pretty much how the whole relationship went.”
I made no expression. “I can tell you’re wondering why I kept doing it, why I stayed in it for three years,” he said.
“Can you?” I smiled.
“Yes, everyone does. And the answer is I don’t know why. But I guess the real answer, the deep down sad answer, is that I didn’t have that much else going on. I don’t have a lot of money and I’m not terribly good looking.” I feigned disagreement, he ignored it. He pulled a knee up and turned sideways to straddle the bench. “So the ladies weren’t exactly breaking into my apartment window every night, you know?”
“I see. Something is better than nothing.” I said. “So how did it end? I mean you’re married now to Sarah.”
“Well, since I couldn’t talk to Katie about my feelings, I started talking to my friends. Just to tell someone, you know? I felt miserable all the time, almost suicidal. So I confided in three different people. Poor saps,” he shook his head.
“Laura was always very sweet about it. She’d listen well and wish me the best, saying she just wants everyone involved to be happy. Tom would hear it all with great interest, maybe too great. He seemed a bit voyeuristic about it, but at least he did listen. And Richard,” he said, “poor Richard, listened patiently for a while and then got tired of it. I eventually stopped bothering him.”
“I could see it getting old,” I said.
“Ya,” he said with a cringe, “it’s pretty embarrassing when I look back on it.”
“I bet. But how did it end? Maybe you forgot my question.”
“No I didn’t.” He pulled his leg back over the bench and squared up to me again. “There was this other friend, Jenna. We’re pretty close. Lesbian, so nothing weird like that. But we had lunch one day, and for whatever reason I just took a risk started telling her about me and Katie. And KABOOM!! She just like LOST HER FUCKING MIND!!” The picnic table shook as he gestured the explosion.
The couple at the other end looked at us, annoyed. Brad was too distracted to notice, so I apologized and turned back to him. “So she went crazy at you? What because of the adultery?”
“No,” he said. “She exploded at me because of how I was treating myself.”
“I don’t understand. Why was she so angry?”
“Because,” he looked into my confused eyes, “she loves me, and she knows how much I’m worth. And it made her furious to know that I was allowing Katie to treat me this way. She wasn’t even angry at Katie, she doesn’t even know Katie. She was angry at me! For allowing it!” He sat back, “I went to her looking for sympathy, for someone to take my side or whatever, and instead she hit me right in the mouth. Metaphorically. Although literally might have been less painful.” He took a drink.
“OK, so?” I said.
“Well so, that toothpaste wasn’t going back in the tube. Jenna knew about it now and she didn’t let up. For months afterward she hounded me every day. Calling, texting. Literally like every day, asking if I’d ended it yet, barking at me when I said no. ‘You’re better than this, Brad!!,’ she’d scream over the phone, or an all caps text, ‘YOU DESERVE SO MUCH BETTER!! AAAAARGH!!”
“That sounds annoying.”
“It was awful. I hated it. I avoided Jenna, or tried to. And then one day, in the middle of a fight with Katie, something snapped. I heard a very calm voice from inside, ‘I’m better than this. I deserve so much better.’ I told her I wanted to be done, and I said please don’t try to contact me again, and I hung up.” He mimed taking a phone from his ear and setting it on the table.
“And that was it?”
“And that,” he raised his empty hands, “was it. Capital I capital T.”
His actual phone beeped in his pocket. He chugged the last half of his beer and dropped the glass down hard. In his suddenly smiling face I could see Sarah’s. They say married people start to look alike after many years, but with these two it was happening faster.
He looked at his phone and smiled. “Sarah, just wondering when I’ll be home.” He typed back as we stood up to go. “What you need, Mark, is a Jenna. Someone to bark really loud at you when you forget how much you’re worth. I’ve seen your work, it’s amazing. Stop selling yourself short.”
The next morning I texted the audio cabinet drawings to two woodworker friends. “Help me,” I said, “I have no idea what this thing is worth.” They both texted back roughly the same number, which was twice what I had been thinking. My wife Alyssa, a working artist, strongly agreed with them.
I winced and emailed their number to the client.
There’s something I read in my seminary days. I think it was Bonhoeffer, something like, “I need to be in community with others, because the Christ in my brother’s words is stronger than the Christ in my own heart.” My own heart has always been a mixed-up muddied mess of beliefs and feelings and insecurities and griefs and weaknesses and cravings and guilts and fears. But the word I get from people who know me and love me is usually clear and sharp.
I know this isn’t the popular thought these days. I know it’s all about learning to love myself, not needing someone else to validate me. But after a half-century of trying, and failing, and being loved back to sanity by the beautiful people around me -- people who rely on me to do the same, by the way -- I’m writing this to defiantly pronounce that we all do need a Jenna. Or many Jennas. People who see how unfathomably valuable we are and say it, bark it, SCREAM IT IN ALL CAPS if they have to, to get the message into our thick, insecure, self-doubting skulls.
I was in the car when the email dinged. It was my client. “Sounds good, where should I send the deposit?” I let out a deep breath and pulled over to respond, and to text my two friends and Alyssa to say thank you.
As I put it back in gear I checked the mirror for traffic. I leaned in for a second to see my own face. It looked tired. Tired of worrying, I guess. For a moment I saw someone else, someone not-me. Someone I’d burdened with far too much fear for far too long. “I love you,” I told him. “I’m sorry.”
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