A number of years ago, my husband and I went to visit my son and his family who were living in northern Virginia at the time. We did some of the usual Washington, D.C., touristy things—Holocaust Museum, Smithsonian, the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery, Lincoln Monument, etc. My husband is something of a Civil War history buff, so after we finished visiting the historical sites in D.C., my husband and I along with my son, his wife and their 18-month old daughter took off on a three-day excursion through Pennsylvania. The first day we drove through the beautiful Pennsylvania Dutch country of Lancaster County, the second was spent at the chocolate-themed Hersheypark (where my husband bought strawberry flavored Whoppers—a product that, as far as I know, never went to market), and finally ended up at Gettysburg on the third day.
We left Gettysburg in the afternoon and headed back to my son’s home in Virginia. Dinner time came so we stopped at a random restaurant along our route. When we entered the restaurant, a young man took us to a table, gave us menus, and informed us that our server would be along soon. A few minutes later, this same young man—I’m guessing he was about 17—returned to our table. He nervously explained that, because they were short-staffed that evening, he would be taking our order, something he had never done before.
Most of the conversational interchanges took place between the young man and my husband, Craig, who has this incredible gift of being able to talk to anyone and make them feel comfortable. In that context, Craig had taken to addressing this young man as “Chief”—“Thanks, Chief.” “Chief, could we get a high chair for our granddaughter?” “What do you recommend, Chief?” “What’s your favorite, Chief?”
“Chief” took our order, and we received our food without any mistakes on his part. As we were finishing our meal, which was satisfactory but unremarkable, the young man returned to bring us our bill. My husband had one last question: “So what’s your name?”
Our substitute server got the strangest look on his face, almost as if he didn’t know the answer. I don’t know if he was thinking that the customer is always right or what, but he hesitatingly and with a question in his voice replied, “Chief?” I think we held it together until he was out of sight before we started laughing. As you might imagine, this incident has lovingly been incorporated into the Sorenson Family annals.
I thought of this story when I heard the following quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” Our nervous novice server was apparently willing to be whomever the customer wanted him to be.
There are so many voices telling us we should or shouldn’t be one thing or another that being yourself is not an easy thing. For starters, in order to be yourself, you first have to know who you are. This is a project I am still working on.
Many years ago I went to a conference for women and attended a class on self-esteem. The speaker asked us to visualize ourselves dressed in layers of coats. Each coat represented a role that we played in life—wife, mother, daughter, neighbor, etc. He then asked us to imagine taking each coat off one at a time, putting aside each role or label in an effort to discover our “real” selves. This was during the early years of my depression when my self-image was at an all-time low and, while I know the intent of this exercise was to help us learn to think of ourselves as something other than our roles and labels, for me it was a disaster. As I took off the last coat, I saw . . . nothing. Quite frankly, it terrified me. I realized I had no idea of a self beyond the ways others defined me.
I think that more than not having a concept of myself, the problem was that I was afraid to define myself. What if I characterized myself one way only to have someone tell me I was wrong? After all, in my thinking, my opinion had no value and being wrong was simply evidence that I was as insignificant and valueless as I felt, and I didn’t need any more proof of that.
Another problem I have had in defining myself is the fear that thinking positively about myself is somehow, if not a sin, at least inappropriate. There are things that I know I am good at, but I never feel like I can take any credit for them because they just come naturally. For example, I have no problem speaking or teaching in front of others; it’s is something that is both easy and enjoyable for me. But it’s always been that way. Consequently, it’s an ability I don’t feel like I can take credit for any more than I can take credit for having blue eyes.
Compounding this perspective is my habit of discounting the positive. It is still difficult for me to believe others would think highly of me if they knew what I am really like. It’s like my 10x mirror I use to put on my makeup. While it works great when I’m trying to get my eyeliner on straight, it also magnifies all my blemishes and chin whiskers in the process. I often use the same kind of internal mirror to look at my character, and, unfortunately mostly I see the things that I think I should be that I’m not or the things I think I shouldn’t be but that I am. And even more damaging, I see all the things I assume others think I should or shouldn’t be that I’m not living up to.
Knowing who I am continues to be a problem for me, one to which I have as yet to find a satisfactory solution. However, I read something a few days ago that has given me a tool for resolving this internal dilemma. In his book Increase in Learning: Spiritual patterns for obtaining your own answers, religious leader David A. Bednar speaks of the spiritual gift of discernment. Quoting Stephen L. Richards, he offers the following description of this gift of the Spirit:
First, I mention the gift of discernment, embodying the power to discriminate . . . between right and wrong. I believe that this gift when highly developed arises largely out of an acute sensitivity to impressions—spiritual impressions if you will—to read under the surface as it were, to detect hidden evil, and more importantly to find the good that may be concealed. The highest type of discernment is that which perceives in others and uncovers for them their better natures, the good inherent within them. (Stephen L. Richards quoted in Increase in Learning, David A. Bednar, p. 58, emphasis added)
The author goes on to explain that one way in which this gift operates is to help us “find and bring forth the good that may be concealed in us.” (Ibid., p 59, emphasis added)
How encouraging this counsel is to me. Not only does it suggest that there might be hidden goodness within me, but also that there is a way for me to discover what it is. It gives me hope that maybe there is more to me than the magnified character flaws that fill my vision. Most important, it gives me courage to ask God to show me the true nature of who and what and how I am, “to see [myself] as [I am] seen” through His eyes (1 Corinthians 13:12).
There is one truth about myself that I already know—my name isn’t “Chief.”
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