After graduating in December, I moved back to my hometown in the northwest corner of Washington State.
I dreaded seeing the familiar faces that would remind me of the person that I had been during my growing years. Inevitably, I ran into those folks—and each time, I left the interactions feeling frustrated. Somehow, I had become that nervous, awkward and uncomfortable fifteen-year old person that I had been. I became that person who was gay, and afraid to tell anyone, fearing that the people who kept me afloat would abandon me to drift, or worse, to sink. I would leave these interactions thinking, That is not who I am now! I am confident, able, and out as a gay man. What’s going on?
I hated to be reminded of the person that I had been, and wondered, would anyone see me for who I am now?
One afternoon, I ran into my friend Andrea at a small branch of our local library. She was beaming: proud to have finished her undergraduate degree in Oregon, excitedly preparing for her wedding at the end of the summer, and studying for the MCAT- looking forward to medical school and the opportunity to provide medical services abroad.
We quickly ran through the previous four years- caught up on old friends, our families, boyfriends, and future plans. At once, I felt like the 22 year old person that I had been working so hard on. I told Andrea about my plans to escape to the islands and paint for a while – giving myself some room to decide what would come next. Yes, she said. I can see that! You’ve always been an artist, and an independent guy. That sounds like the perfect adventure for you.
I was shaken. Did Andrea mean to say that the fifteen-year old person that she had known had shown independence and creativity? He wasn’t JUST scared, closeted, and lonely? It took me a minute… But, I guess she was right, he did. I did. And I do now.
After I said goodbye, I realized, perhaps acknowledging who I had been could be a lesson in learning to love well. Loving the 15 year old Ben- the Ben that was nervous, lonely sometimes, wondering if he would ever fit in – if he could ever pass as “normal.” If I could learn to fiercely love that vulnerable boy- maybe it could be freeing, even liberating.
Instead of embarrassed recognition of who I had been, it became a sort of declaration- Yes! That was who I was. And this is who I am now. Look at me! I’ve grown. Loved. Given a little bit to the world. Graduated from college. Come out as a gay man in a world that can deny the beauty of difference. I’m proud of me!
I have come to believe that honoring all that I am—and all that I have been- can be a lesson in loving well. To love the hard parts can be an act of liberation- turning shame or embarrassment into a declaration: yes, that was me. And this is me now. Without the ashamed feelings- the alone and empty feelings, I would not be this man today. A man, who still sometimes feels shame, loneliness and worthlessness- just as we all do sometimes- But a man that is also practicing honesty. A mostly confident man. A passionate man. A man, committed to radical dignity. A man, learning to love well.
And It’s a process, this loving well, and it takes time and practice to be gentle with myself- to practice loving the awkward, uncomfortable and lonely parts.
But as I work at loving all of me, I know that I will be better able to give to the world. To be gentle with myself means I’m more able to be gentle with others, more able to give, share, collaborate, encourage, create and affirm- in short to do some good in the world.
And it’s not what a person DOES, but how a person IS in the world that matters most of all.
So I’ll work at loving well. Loving me and in turn my community, neighbors, strangers, and other people far away from my home in the Pacific Northwest. I’ll work at it. And I hope that I’m successful, at least most of the time.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.