What a crazy statement! Joy killed my soul? Not exactly. More precisely, it was JOY that killed my soul. Perhaps I should explain. I have noticed an epidemic of low self-esteem in our society. I believe there are many contributors to this problem, but I want to focus on one that I suspect is very influential. Let me start by saying that I have lots of friends who are religious, and very devout. My brother-in-law is a Lutheran minister, and another friend is a Catholic blogger. They are great people. I am not here to bash on Christianity or religion in general. It is just this one notion that I would like people to rethink.
When I was a child, my parents took us to church regularly. My father’s best friend was the pastor of our church and so I grew up with all the influence of a fundamental Bible-based church. I attended Vacation Bible School every summer, and Sunday school the rest of the year. One concept specifically that I learned and took to heart did a lot of damage to my psyche, and that is what I will speak about here. That concept is J.O.Y.
I was taught that this acronym means that the way to have joy in your life is to put Jesus first, Others second, and Yourself last. That sounds lovely and altruistic on the surface, and it made a lot of sense to me as an impressionable young child. But the deeper meaning that I took away from it was that I am so worthless than I only deserve to be last. Everyone else is more important than I am. I am the least worthy. Everyone else’s needs have to be met before I can look at my own. My mother recently assured me that that is not what they meant, and as an adult, I believe her. But just as young children often misinterpret their parents’ fighting as being their (the children’s) fault, I, too, misinterpreted J.O.Y. I wonder how many other children have.
I grew up to develop severe self-esteem issues. As a teenager, I rebelliously turned to sex to try to feel like I was wanted, like I had value. I married at age 19 when I was two months pregnant to a man who was 17 years my senior. Needless to say, that marriage didn’t last long. At age 21, I left him because he had all the psychological power and I was miserable. I immediately found myself in another relationship and got married again the day after I turned 23. Within a year, that relationship went downhill. We had financial difficulties, and he often liked to remind me what a charmed life he had led before he met me. He was practically rolling in the dough until we got together. Looking back, it is obvious that wasn’t the case, since a mere month or so after we moved in together, he had his truck repossessed. But everything was my fault. Because I had learned that my needs came last, I believed him. I stuck with him for another decade. It wasn’t until I was so depressed, and feeling so powerless that I started planning suicide, that I finally came to see that I needed help. I stayed alive for my children. I left him, and I felt like a failure. Again.
I no longer consciously believe that the only way to joy is by putting Jesus and Others first. But the damage was done 30 years ago, unintentionally by people who loved me dearly. I now prefer what I call the Airplane Philosophy. When going through the safety instructions when boarding a plane, the attendants advise you to put your own oxygen mask on first before turning to help others. After our own needs are met, we can then turn our attention to help others. We really can’t effectively help anyone else if we are too busy gasping for air ourselves. This is NOT selfishness. This is self-care. You can only help others when you are in a position to do so. My logical mind embraces this as common sense, but that part of my brain that exists between logical mind and lizard brain still struggles due to the JOY concept I learned as a child.
I have since found much joy in life, but it was by putting my own needs first. Not to sound flip, but Jesus can take care of himself quite well. He doesn’t need me to do it for him. I think that a key distinction is needs vs. wants. My wants should wait until others’ needs have been met, and I am quite comfortable with that idea. But I need to attend to my own needs, before I focus on the needs of others, and their wants can wait, thank you very much.
Do you have self-esteem issues? Do you struggle to reconcile what you know logically with what you believe? I would love to hear your thoughts.