“Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.”
― Anne Lamott
At times I wonder how I can better use the last part of my life. I believe we should live our lives as a lesson for others. I did not do that for many years even though I was an elementary school teacher and a kindergarten teacher. Although I didn’t recognize it, fear ruled my life until I was in my middle years.
In high school, I wrote an essay that prompted my English teacher to request a meeting with me after school. I had written about my fear that my mother would die. That fear crashed into my mind so often, even I knew it was irrational. It wasn’t that she was a sickly person. In fact, she was the healthiest of my parents – both mentally and physically. I did not meet with my English teacher. I did not want to discuss it with her.
Because of my low self-esteem in my teens, I feared being without a boyfriend when other girls and my sister always had someone. I went to my first school dance with other girls – not with a boy – and felt humiliated the entire time. Looking back I realize I was overwhelmed by fear of what others might think of me. In fact, that was my greatest fear most of my life. I wanted my family, especially my father, to be proud of me, and I’d not do anything that might bring disgrace on myself or on those I loved.
Making excellent grades in school brought praise from my mother. I could hardly wait to show her the marks on my papers or the report cards sent home by my teachers. I now know why that made me feel so good. For that short time, my fight or flight mode disintegrated, and the calming parts of my brain worked overtime. Those happy feelings dissipated as soon as Mother sent me to show the results to my father. He barely glanced my way, murmured uh-huh, and returned to his newspaper. I walked away feeling, once again, that I could not do enough to gain his approval.
Probably the reason I loved reading was that during those hours when I lost myself in another’s life or in another place, I had no fear. In a way, it was like meditation. What we need most when we are weighted down with fearful thoughts is distraction. Reading was my distraction. It let my brain rest from my self-imposed stresses.
In my forties, I turned to oil painting after my mother suffered a cerebral hemorrhage that robbed her of her independence. I signed up for lessons with an artist who taught me more than how to use a brush and paint. We became good friends. She saw talent I had not known I had, and built my self-confidence when she invited me to join her in judging a contest at the local Art Museum.
I loved creating paintings, especially when my family bragged on them. I gave one to my mother and it was hung in a prominent place in the family room where, at every gathering, my brothers and sisters saw it. I donated a painting to our church for a fundraiser and puffed with pride when I was told it sold before any other. I was asked by my sister-in-law to paint something to hang in her house – the house that looked like a picture in Architectural Digest Magazine.
Fear came roaring in after I said to her, “Yes, I will be happy to paint something for you.” It had to be large, rectangular, and of a certain size to fit the space where she wanted it to hang. At night I'd lie in bed, unable to sleep, and wondering why on earth I ever said I'd do that. I was not that good. I was such a rank amateur and there was no way I could paint something she would like. Fear of failure kept my fight-or-flight brain chemicals flowing like a raging river.
Maybe she will forget about it. Maybe she was just being nice and wanted me to think she would like one of my paintings. She couldn’t possibly want something I had done hanging on her wall, along with expensive paintings she had collected for years. Oh, Lord, help me think of some excuse to give her. What can I say that will not hurt her feelings – I mean if she really wants a painting – but please help me get out of this.
I prayed back then about everything. That was before I knew that whatever will be, will be to quote a Doris Day song.
When my sister-in-law passed away a year ago, her daughter told me she had that painting with my name on it, the one that had hung in her mother's house all these years.
By the time I was fifty years old, I had experienced what I considered my worst fears and I had lived through them. I considered myself, finally, grown up – an adult at last. Although I had thought myself as mature as I could be, it took losing my mother for me to realize that I had some serious soul-searching to do. My worst fear had come and taken its toll on me. Grief almost crippled me, but I recognized the need for counseling. I was fortunate enough to find a sensitive young man, a psychologist, who recognized in me, many things I had not seen. I am a stronger person today for having sought his help at that time.
When I suffered the absolutely worst experience of my life, the loss of my husband and my way of life for 45 years, that strength and the way to deal with it, was embedded deeply in my conscious mind. I did not fear that I would never overcome my grief. I knew I had to endure it, take on the pain, not hide from it, and that in time I'd come through it, not the same as I was, but I would make it.
I also knew it was all up to me.
Looking back, now that I know fear is my worst enemy and one that I can conquer by being mindful, living in the moment and being present in my own life, how I wish I could go back and share this with the young woman I was. But I cannot.
I can, however, live my life as a lighthouse for others who need what I can offer, who follow the light, and observe.