Over the past weekend, I attended the Heal a Woman to Heal a Nation conference in Baltimore, MD for the second year in a row. This time, I brought a group of young women from the women's leadership group I advise. During last year's conference, the keynote speaker talked about securing our own oxygen masks before assisting others. I promptly came home from the conference and wrote a blog post about how much that concept resonated with me and how I was going to make some changes so that I could be more effective as a counselor, beginning with learning how to care for myself. (You can read that blog post here.)
A year has passed, and in that time, I have accomplished some things that indicate that I am moving forward in my life. I began to write more, which is not a hobby, but as much a necessity for me as breathing. I took some time off from ministry, which had become more like something I had to do than something I got to do. I moved, and in the process of moving I purged things from my past that no longer had any place in my life. I stopped trying to hold on to a relationship where we were obviously both on different pages. I helped plan a successful women's leadership conference for the third year in a row, this time with Michelle Obama's former chief of staff as our keynote speaker. I attended a leadership institute for directors and aspiring directors of college opportunity programs. I applied for a doctoral program and was accepted. Just in the past week, I helped plan activities for two groups of high school students who came to visit our college on the same day. I also completed the arrangements for the trip to Baltimore with eleven young women from the leadership group. All of this planning occurred in the midst of my regular job duties and my plans for implementing a new student initiative. Moving forward. Full steam ahead.
If you're reading this, I would expect that you would be tired by now. Or have a headache. Or you might be thinking about all of the things you have gotten done, or need to do. It's okay! I have a paradigm shift for you!
First, let me acknowledge that I'm not sure I ever kept the promises I made to myself to take care of myself before trying to take care of others. Okay, I know I didn't. I know this because in the past year, in the midst of accomplishing so much, I cried so much. It was never more evident than two weeks ago, when I found out I'd been accepted to a Ph.D. program in Higher Education. I was so happy on the day I found out, then two days later, I freaked out. I thought about how close I am to achieving this dream I've had my whole life, and how at this point in my life I thought I would have had a husband and children, and going back to school would be the icing on the cake. In reality, I was feeling like school was going to be the cake, and might keep me from having the family I want more than anything. Freaking out.
As I was sitting in the workshops and listening to the panel discussion at the Heal a Woman to Heal a Nation conference, every once in awhile tears would well up in my eyes. Every time the tears came, I stopped to ask why they were there. And every time the answer was the same: I had done it again. I had put everything and everyone before myself. I had adopted the fighter's stance once again, striving to hold on to everything I had worked so hard for.
During one of those high school visits I mentioned above, I gave an impromptu testimony of my life to local high school students. I talked about how my family lived in a shack in Puerto Rico, and my mother had never been allowed to go to school, so she couldn't read or write. I recalled being in the first grade, walking to my home in the housing projects in Brooklyn thinking, "I am going to do well in school because I don't want to live in the projects for the rest of my life." I knew that I had to be the best and that I had to work harder than anyone I knew in order to succeed. I told the students that my parents were on welfare and disability, that I could not even afford college, but that I made it, and that I am starting a doctoral program in the fall. They applauded. Applauded. All the while, I was thinking, "This is for them. This is so that they know they can make it too." All of my accomplishments, especially those of the past year, have been applauded by others. Two things came out of that testimony for me: I fight because I grew up thinking I had to, and I don't do it for me, I do it for others to know that nothing is impossible. But all of my accomplishments, while moving me forward professionally and personally, haven't brought me happiness.
Then I heard the words I needed to hear at the conference. Right before lunch, a short documentary about successful African-American relationships called "Black Love Lives" was screened. Although I didn't have the opportunity to watch the entire documentary, I heard a phrase from the film repeated several times by the visionary director of Heal a Woman to Heal a Nation, Inc.: "Before you find your soulmate, you must find your own soul."
In the last six words of that phrase, I had found the cause of my discontent. I need to find my own soul. Not my purpose; my purpose gets lived out every day. Not my spirit; my spirit has been revived and shines brightly in me as a reflection of my relationship with God. Not my heart; my heart has been opened up and I've learned to genuinely, unconditionally love others. My soul has been lost. My soul is that place within me that is only mine. The place where only one or two others speak the same language. The place where I celebrate myself, and know that I am not my accomplishments. I'm not my failures. I'm just me.
Last fall, when I made the decision to cut back on ministry, I automatically looked for something to take its place. I looked at the books I'd started to write but hadn't finished. I asked my writer friend for advice, because I wasn't sure that I even wanted to go back to those books I'd started. He said that I needed to do nothing for awhile so that I could hear from my soul. I asked him, "Do you mean my spirit? Because I hear from God all the time in my spirit." He said something to the effect of, "No. Your soul. Your spirit is where God speaks to you. Your soul is where you speak to yourself."
Here's the paradigm shift: I propose that we are not our accomplishments, though they make us feel better about ourselves. We are not even our purpose, although that is how we are used by God to impact others. I propose that we stop to listen to our own souls, because if we don't, we are ignoring the very place God created for us to become our authentic selves; the true place of happiness.
So I ask myself now, "When will I commit to finding my own soul?" Because as long as I don't, I will strive and fight for everything I have and everything that I want. And I will cry, because the tears are my soul's message to me that it longs to be found.