I volunteer at HeARTwords, a creative writing workshop for people with cognitive and physical disabilities, every other Saturday. The community is made up of an exceptional group of people who act as confidantes, caretakers, and counselors to each other.
Last week’s workshop began with one of the writers who has cerebral palsy saying that, “Art was the highest expression of inner beauty.” Even writing it just there, that sentence fills my heart and I’m brought to wonder about my own understanding and conception of others.
There’s truly wisdom to be gained from everyone and these people, who are so often dismissed or thought to be incapable, are incredible. They are comic book artists, musicians, students, and writers. One individual can list any number of countries on the spur of the moment. Another lays out the beautiful intricacies of mathematical and scientific facts within their writing.
However, the HeARTwords writers don’t always see their own luminescence. This past weekend, one of the writing prompts was to list at least four things that each writer liked about themselves and another was to list at least four things that each writer wanted to improve.
As a volunteer, I act as scribe and conversationalist, helping people like the kind, gentle woman who I was working with that day to get their words on paper.
“What are at least four positive things about yourself?” I asked.
“What does positive mean?” she said.
“It means good things. Things that you like about yourself.”
She sat and thought for a minute and then she said, “I love myself.”
"That’s great!" I thought and then I asked her to explain why she thought that was a good thing.
“I can have fun when I’m alone,” she said. It was a really good start, but the woman had a hard time thinking of other good attributes. We spent a good ten minutes talking them out until there were four bullet points on the page.
“What are at least four things that you would change about yourself?” I asked.
Without much prompting, the woman listed off several things that she wanted to do better at or be better at—eating healthier, losing weight, not watching TV. It dismayed me that this gem of a person had trouble seeing her own beauty and didn’t know an important word like “positive,” yet she didn’t have any trouble naming all of the things about herself that she didn’t like.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the power of belief. I believe I am not enough. I believe that I need to change x, y, z. Negative self-talk can be so damaging because you are the one who constructs your reality. When you think that you are less than, when you think you aren’t good enough, and when you think negatively, you become all of those things. Even the new internet humor of “I’m a millennial. How can I even adult?” is full of negativity. Why must we tell ourselves that we’re incapable?
Each person tells themselves a story and that story, in turn, becomes real to them. As Junot Diaz so brilliantly put when he came to Northwestern earlier this week, we each have “fantasies” and the real struggle is to not settle for the fantasies that we currently live with, but to replace them with “better fantasies.”
To me, that looks like a shift of attitude and self-conception. Yes, we should all be looking to improve and grow daily, but that desire for change should be tempered by a healthy view of our strengths and beauty as well. I encourage you to think about the story that you tell yourself.
In your personal fantasy are you your own knight, princess, or fearsome dragon? Or are you the unlovable witch or the evil sorcerer? When you tell yourself the story of your day, your week, or the years that add up to your life, are you looking at yourself with forgiveness and love just as you would look at a friend?
Or are you beating yourself up about things that you’ve told yourself over and over again that you can’t change? If you’re doing the latter, I’d encourage you to explore better self-feeling because you just might end up living that “better fantasy.”