It wasn’t until I started my current position, nearly three years ago, when I was able to admit just how much daily unhappiness I experienced as a full-time pastoral musician. For the last 7 years that I worked in Queens, I was physically positioned in a part of the worship space where it was impossible to go for an entire Sunday without some sort of unsolicited parishioner feedback. I lacked the age-acquired humility that would have allowed me to push back the curtains of my ego, so to distinguish between a desire to relate, and a sincere, invested interest in my musicianship. When other people were pleased with me, I was pleased with them and with myself. When others were displeased, I projected my self-loathing onto them. I’m grateful that my recent experience in pastoral ministry has navigated me towards an horizon of abundant promise. I’ve been redirected towards the love of God who shines in my heart.
For at least 15 years of my life, I believed I was unworthy & unloveable. I operated in a constant state of emotional flux. I had stopped believing in myself in my early adolescence. I was swayed by the external influences of family, teachers and peers who wanted what was “best,” for me, and by “best,” they meant, whatever would make me wealthy. I drank a popular variety of Kool-Aid which was tinted by the patina of old pennies, and steeped with tea-bags of shredded dollar bills. Looking back, I did better financially as a church-musician than as I did as a pastoral person, but I was so disgusted with myself for my punch-drunk self-abandonment that I developed a compulsive shopping habit to distract myself.
I didn’t like who I had become. I didn’t want to admit to my higher self that I didn’t like who I had become. For a variety of complex reasons, I was so committed to being some unreal person, that I forgot my own inner beauty even existed. All that mattered was what others thought about me. I took everything personally. I soaked up everything like a sponge-cake, sweetened by the cordials of compliments, and tainted by the angostura bitters of what were probably some very valid complaints. I embraced the positive feedback as valuable insight. When I received negative feedback, I projected my own sense of personal dissatisfaction onto the observing party, and nursed my inner misery in dramatically unhealthy ways. Eventually, the time came for me to disembark the Kingda Ka of self-esteem. I am so glad that roller coaster ride is over.
When my sense of self was at its lowest, I felt like I had the most to prove. I got to a point where I was incapable to accept responsibility for my mistakes. I felt like I had so much to prove to others. In the company of certain professional circles, I felt so inadequate within, and so invested in the perpetual ego pageant. It always sounded like everyone else was doing something so much better than I was.
The standards for competition seemed increasingly unrealistic until one of my older friends towed me to a place of transfiguring enlightenment. In one of our conversations, we came upon the topics of criticism, insecurity and our most embarrasing ministerial moments. As we recounted our gaffes, each one resonated more than the one prior. Finally, we confessed to one another that there were times when both of us had espoused a rather repulsive air of superiority. We had even been arrogant at times! In a minute, I exhaled the years of inadequacy which had been stored within the lungs of my spirit. I didn’t feel the need to overcompensate any longer. I stopped worrying about what everyone else thought of my musicianship. Did I like how I played and sang?
Surprisingly, the answer was no. I didn’t like the way I was playing. I was lazy. I didn’t practice. I didn’t invest any effort. I worked at it a little bit when I realize that playing music full-time wasn’t for me. My father affirmed this months later, almost out of nowhere, he suggested that I start looking for opportunities to my other talents. I think my eyes filled with tears at that moment. I forgot that I even had other talents. I still enjoy playing music from time to time, but I feel closer to God when I focus energy on developing other creative gifts.
Looking back, I think the times when I was most resistant to criticism was actually when the criticism was true! These valid observations were shrill chirps of an alarm clock my toss-turn tired self wanted to fling across the room, so to remain in the lazy hazy land of lucid dreams. I wish I had known better. I wish I could have gotten out of the unmade bed of complacency a bit earlier in life.
Honest criticism in the pastoral arena does not elicit such a visceral reaction anymore. Most of the time, it’s true! I take comfort in what I can do well, I recognize where I need work, and I accept that there are areas where I do not excel. These days, the personal struggles that I face are different. Perhaps because of my own personal season of self-deception, I’ve noticed that I am particularly sensitive when I feel deceived by others. For this very reason, I’ve had to make some difficult decisions that I will be sharing with my readers, hopefully very soon.
Ultimately, when something feels out of alignment, I’ve learned to pay attention to that feeling. It’s a famliar one. I felt it regularly for over a decade and tried to ignore it. The greatest disservice was to myself, as I buried so much treasure in my ignorance- treasure interred in the past. Now, when handed a plate of gritty, unpalpable truth, I do my best to pan the silt for a nugget of self-awareness gold. More often than not, I find something valuable. As I’ve implemented this challenging personal practice, it seems that whenever I try it on for size, the truth is always a flattering choice.