If you’ve ever struggled with confidence in building your business, this blog post is for you.
This blog post isn’t written to give advice so much as it is to comfort and console and to lift our gaze up from our personal struggles to the bigger context in which they lie.
It is a long post that might need more than one sitting to get through but the topic is worthy of the time invested. One doesn’t approach such a topic, so central to our experience of being human in the dominant cultures of the world, lightly or casually.
In mid-March of this 2016, I had a two and half hour Skype conversation with Yahya Bakkar (pictured here) in New Jersey who had been following my work for years. Many parts of the conversation struck me but one has stayed with me in particular.
He has been a motivational speaker and is working to coach and mentor young men to find self-confidence and to believe in themselves. I was inspired by his work and what it might mean for these boys with whom he’ll be working.
And he knows something about the need to believe in yourself as he was raised in a strict, religious family and was disowned by his adoptive father in his twenties because he wasn’t religious enough for him.
He also found his birth mother in his mid-twenties. She was living in Thailand and working at the airport. He flew her to the United States to visit for ten days. On the fifth day, she had a meltdown and, while he watched, tore up his only photo of himself as an infant. He’d left it, framed, by her bedside during the visit.
And then she left. He hasn’t spoken to her since.
So, as a young man, he had to learn to believe in himself because no one else would.
He had to love himself because none of the people who should have did.
And so he was going to teach these young men to believe in themselves too.
It reminds me of this quote from Hunter S. Thompson:
“We are all alone, born alone, die alone, and—in spite of True Romance magazines—we shall all someday look back on our lives and see that, in spite of our company, we were alone the whole way. I do not say lonely—at least, not all the time—but essentially, and finally, alone. This is what makes your self-respect so important, and I don’t see how you can respect yourself if you must look in the hearts and minds of others for your happiness.”
Those words could only, I have, have been spoken by someone born and raised in a modern culture. I don’t know if someone raised indigenously would understand this.
I was struck by both the beauty and the poverty of the whole situation. This approach of ‘believing in ourselves’, complete with its affirmations and incantations, its notes on the mirror and its positive self-talk, is a solution to a problem.
So, what’s the problem?
Well, we imagine it to be that we don’t believe in ourselves.
But why don’t we believe in ourselves?
Because we weren’t believed in.
This is important. Our lack of self-belief isn’t a personal failing. It’s not that we’re internally deficient or lack some confidence gene that everyone else had.
This might seem like I’m indicting his parents for not believing in him, but it’s a bigger story than that. Likely his parents never got believed in either. Who knows how long this lack of belief goes back. And, frankly, this job of being believed in is a village-sized job that has been foisted onto parents. It’s too big. It’s too much to ask of the parents and it might not actually be a job that is suited for parents particularly. Surely, the aunts and uncles and grandparents have some important role in fostering the young person’s belief in themselves. Surely the rest of the community plays some role.
But it’s deeper than that.
When I talk about being believed in I mean something deeper than looking at a child and saying, “You can do anything”.
In fact, I certainly don’t mean that.
I mean something more along the lines of a community expecting the arrival of the child and considering that this child might be coming to them from somewhere and that it might be bringing with it, in its tiny closed fists as it emerges from the womb, some sort of gifts for the community. I’m talking about the community believing that its well being hinges on those gifts being properly identified and fostered into their fullest fruition. I’m talking about the community, its elders in particular, clearly seeing the seeds that have been handed down to the village from those who came before in the form of this little one and doing their best to ascertain the proper role for them.
I’ve done a lot of thinking about niching. Most of my colleagues use the word niche to mean ‘target market’. But I tend to define it as something like, ‘your role in the community’ as it comes from the old French verb ‘nicher’ which means, ‘to make a nest’. And it’s worth noting that the bird makes the nest for their young. The chicks in the eggs don’t build the nest into which they will be born. And so, the role of culture needs to be about helping the young person to find their role.
My father died when I was nine years old from multiple sclerosis and I never had a strong male role model growing up. Those male role models became men, most of whom I never met except in passing. They were men who wrote the personal growth books I devoured with a hunger I couldn’t understand. Leo Buscaglia, Stephen Covey, Tony Robbins, Gregg Braden and more. I was trying to elder myself with personal growth books because there were no elders around.
That wasn’t my mom’s job.
It wasn’t even just my family’s job.
It’s not a job that they, alone, were capable of. It’s too big.
The personal growth scene is big on confidence as a thing to cultivate.
After all, if you don’t have it, what might happen? It’s like a ticking time-bomb we know might go off. If we don’t become confident by a certain point, then it could be too late and the timer might run out, and the bomb could explode leaving us with a life of quiet desperation.
And yet, the desperation is present now in the way we approach this getting of confidence. It’s present in the way we talk about confidence as something we can ‘get’.
The desperation is present because the bomb we’re terrified might detonate already went off so many generations ago and we are standing in the crater of it. We are standing in the poverty of the dismantled village. We are left fending for our own belief in ourselves. We are left with a fractured, individualized understanding of who we are. Instead of understanding ourselves as a part of a community we are left to understand ourselves as some static, atomized individual who is responsible for making themselves feel worthy.
We are told that we need to parent ourselves. And I’m not arguing with this or suggesting this kind of therapy isn’t vitally important work to do. I’m grateful that the ones who do it are out there. But I am suggesting that the existence of this work and the clear need for it is a sign of the deep poverty of this culture and collapse of village mindedness.
It is madness.
Of course, we feel desperate about it all.
“If you haven’t been fed, become bread.”
I think we also forget how much of authentic confidence comes from real competence.
If you are good at something you will tend to feel confident about it.
When we are doing something we aren’t good at and we fail, it’s a terrible feeling. People have been let down. People have been hurt. We didn’t do a good job. If we’re an alive, empathetic human being, we’re going to feel bad about that because, in our heart of hearts, we’d never want to hurt someone.
When someone isn’t skilled in an area and is being asked to take on a big job in that arena, the appropriate response is not, “You can do it! Just believe in yourself.”
In a traditional culture, you’d never become a medicine person after taking a year-long course. You’d be mentored. You’d apprentice to someone. You’d be set up for success and not failure. You’d have support. And you would have, likely, been recognized as someone to groom for this role from a young age.
If a young person was born with a fascination in stories, maybe they might become a story teller. If they were more athletic, maybe a hunter. If they were drawn to crafting, maybe that.
But, in this culture, we are raised to conform, fit in, be a cog in the wheel of industry and progress. In this culture, we are told how to be based on our gender. In this culture, we are put into boxes of reward and punishment. In this culture, we are led so far astray from the reason we might be here, the gifts we brought in the trust that our community would recognize them, that even finding our way back there is a miracle. And finding our way back to that without help? It’s a miracle.
I found myself amazed at the work this Yahya was doing. “What you have done is Herculean” I told him. “It’s huge. You’ve taken on the work of a whole village in trying to find those gifts and then craft a way to give them. It’s too big. Robert Bly has the line, “If you haven’t been fed, become bread.” You’ve done that. You’ve become bread for these young men. And my hope is that your work with them helps ease their burden, that it’s another step towards some sort of a village so that those to come aren’t left with the too heavy burden of trying to figure out their gifts on their own or believing in themselves.”
The following is something I came across on Facebook. I can’t verify the truth of this story, though I have heard of it from other sources I trust as well,
“There is a tribe in Africa called the Himba tribe, where the birth date of a child is counted not from when they were born, nor from when they are conceived but from the day that the child was a thought in its mother’s mind. And when a woman decides that she will have a child, she goes off and sits under a tree, by herself, and she listens until she can hear the song of the child that wants to come. And after she’s heard the song of this child, she comes back to the man who will be the child’s father, and teaches it to him. And then, when they make love to physically conceive the child, some of that time they sing the song of the child, as a way to invite it.
And then, when the mother is pregnant, the mother teaches that child’s song to the midwives and the old women of the village, so that when the child is born, the old women and the people around her sing the child’s song to welcome it. And then, as the child grows up, the other villagers are taught the child’s song. If the child falls, or hurts its knee, someone picks it up and sings its song to it. Or perhaps the child does something wonderful, or goes through the rites of puberty, then as a way of honoring this person, the people of the village sing his or her song.
In the African tribe there is one other occasion upon which the villagers sing to the child. If at any time during his or her life, the person commits a crime or aberrant social act, the individual is called to the center of the village and the people in the community form a circle around them. Then they sing their song to them.
The tribe recognizes that the correction for antisocial behavior is not punishment; it is love and the remembrance of identity. When you recognize your own song, you have no desire or need to do anything that would hurt another.
And it goes this way through their life. In marriage, the songs are sung, together. And finally, when this child is lying in bed, ready to die, all the villagers know his or her song, and they sing—for the last time—the song to that person.”
The industry of believing in ourselves is often a band-aid solution to a deep laceration. It’s covering up something so immense. It’s an industry that whispers to the sapling, “Water yourself. Be your own Sun. Be your own soil.” As Stephen Jenkinson puts it,
“If you’re on the receiving end of that stuff long enough, what happens is, there’s this little bud that grows up from you being bombarded with somebody being certain that you’re loveable, no matter what you think. And that little bud is a bud of worthiness. That you didn’t do anything to conjure, or manufacture. It’s not a meritocracy getting loved, getting grieved, getting understood and seen. It isn’t. It’s a consequence that you’ve got sane people around you. That’s what it is. But if you have this bud of worthiness that somehow, involuntarily starts to take up room and your take on yourself? The inevitable consequence is your ability to love somebody is born there.”
In the video below, Poet Maya Angelou once recounts to comedian Dave Chappelle about her experience of meeting young rapper Tupac Shakur. The way she related to him was the way an elder relates to young people, a feeding of their deep importance in the scheme of things. This kind of interaction is one that every young person deserves on a regular basis. What she does to Tupac is not to feed his ego, but to feed his soul and to tether him back into the history of his people. She places him back into belonging. She nails him back to time and place. She tells him, “This is who you are. This is where you are. This is when you are.”
And how many young people will ever be on the receiving end of such a moment? How many will be fed in this way? How many will ever even meet someone capable of this kind of beauty?
I recall one story I heard from an elder who was sitting with a young man, an activist wrestling with the state of the world.
“I am depressed,” said the young man.
“Yes, you are.” said the elder. “But, depressed as you may be, while we are here together, you won’t be depressed alone.”
He was affirming his feelings. He wasn’t trying to change him. He was letting him know he mattered enough to have company in the matter.
While speaking to a group of kids at Vashon High School in St. Louis, ET the Hip Hop Preacher, a black motivational speaker, was confronted with deeply disrespectful behaviour from his audience of mostly black students. His response was not to attack or shut them down but to confront them with a fierce love and honesty.
There are so many ways this kind of love and believing in people can look.
But most of us didn’t get a lot of it.
This culture is full of olders on drugs but has a deep poverty of elders dispensing medicine. This culture is full of young people with gifts to give and no one to recognize those gifts.
Tad: So, how did you get involved in, with this work of helping people find their gifts?
David: Yeah, it started, oh, very early on. I would say one of the first mentors that I found when I was lost in my mid-life crisis, in that crisis all of my old identities didn’t work anymore. I had been running a business, I left that. My marriage broke down, so I was no longer a husband and a father, a worker. All of those identities that I really thought — when people would ask me who I am, I would describe myself in those terms.
When I left all of that, it was like the deep question: “Who am I?” It started to haunt me, and I had some time and I had some means so then I started to explore. One of the first mentors that I came across was a fellow named James Hillman, who just passed away last year. He has a wonderful book called “The Soul’s Code,” and that was my first hint that there’s some sort of code, there’s some sort of pattern and it’s really unique to each person.
The metaphor that he used was — just like the acorn that has the blueprint of the mighty oak tree, it’s that specific. Each person has something of a unique pattern, and that’s very different from a lot of how the culture represents us as more of a blank slate. I think the term is “tabula rasa.”
It’s actually echoed in many indigenous traditions around, and like you say, the Catholic mystics also discovered that people have these innate or inherent gifts of spirit, that’s the way they articulated it. James Hillman called it “the soul’s code.”
Then I started in my research, I met an African shaman who really still — he’s quite modern in the sense that he has a couple of PhD’s, but he went through a traditional initiation. His name is Malidoma Somé, and he says in their culture when the mother is pregnant with a new child, the medicine person or their shaman actually interviews the child when it’s in the womb through a kind of hypnosis, I suppose. They find out that the child has a unique purpose, a unique destiny.
This is probably the oldest tradition on the face of the planet since modern research is showing that we all originated in Africa at one point, and this is an ancient idea that we’re — each person is unique and how to find that uniqueness and have it unfold.
A lot from our education system focuses on kind of standardized testing and there’s a lot of mixed messages like “You can be anything you want to be.” Well, that’s kind of life telling the acorn that it could be a rose or a sunflower, where it’s actually more precise in, you know, we’re fortunate enough if we can be who we’re meant to be. That’s going to take some help, I think, some guidance.
If you struggle with believing in yourself it’s because, properly, I don’t think that it should be your job. It’s a job that’s too big for you. It’s a village sized job being taken on by an individual. It should have been the job of everyone around you as you grew up to help you find the perfect role for you in your community and to become good at it so that your community could receive your gifts.
“…in their culture when the mother is pregnant with a new child, the medicine person or their shaman actually interviews the child when it’s in the womb through a kind of hypnosis, I suppose. They find out that the child has a unique purpose, a unique destiny.”
If you struggle with believing in yourself, the truth is that you may always be plagued with this.
You may never get the confirmation from the world that you need.
It may be too late for you.
But, again, “if you haven’t been fed, become bread”.
If you didn’t get it from your family, you can be that for others.
Being wounded doesn’t mean you can’t heal others. It just means you know how important the medicine is.
If you don’t believe in yourself, then see if you can’t walk your way towards believing in others and why they’re here. And see if that can’t be something more than a reflex, blanket reaction of positive affirmations. See if you can make it particular to those you meet as you narrow your eyes a little to make out the types of seeds they carry with them in their fists that they never dared to open because they were terrified to lose what they’d been entrusted with knowing full well that their family and community had no capacity to see or help them plant those seeds so they can grow. If you’re very lucky, maybe some of those people will relax their fists open and you can sit next to them and help them in learning to weave them into that bigger blanket of a village that might be one day.
It’s good to distinguish, in all of this healing work, the difference between healing and a cure.
A cure means the problem is gone.
Healing means that some measure of wholeness has been restored.
And, often, we don’t find a cure, but we do find healing.
“A good half of every treatment that probes at all deeply consists in the doctor’s examining himself… it is his own hurt that gives a measure of his power to heal. The doctor is effective only when he himself is affected. Only the wounded physician heals. But when the doctor wears his personality like a coat of armour, he has no effect.”— Carl Jung
The archetype of “The Wounded Healer”, as we know it now, seems to have originated with Carl Jung (1875-1961) in the Greek myth of Chiron (a centaur, was known as a wise teacher, healer and prophet) who, in the process of overcoming the pain of his own wounds, came to be known to us in modern times as the compassionate master teacher of the arts of healing and medicine, privy to the secrets of life and death.
During a skirmish with a rowdy bunch of centaurs Hercules, carelessly and accidentally wounded his friend and mentor, Chiron, in the knee with one of his arrows.
The arrows Hercules had chosen to use on this particular day were arrows coated with the blood of the monster Hydra. Arrows coated with the blood of the Hydra were known to cause painful wounds that would never heal.
Being an immortal, Chiron would never be able to heal from the wound caused by Hercules, and being immortal he could never die.
He then retreated to his cave to heal himself, and, in so doing, created the healing arts. Ironically and despite this great achievement, his wound never healed. He had spent his entire life becoming very accomplished in the use of healing with herbs and other methods, but he could not alleviate his own pain. But, in his own search for personal healing, his ability to heal and teach others grew.
On the Moontides blog, I found these good words.
Chiron reminds to us that it is only by being willing to face, consciously experience and go through our wound do we receive its blessing.We are all wounded healers in one way or another, and many of us have been directed and made wise through our own painful childhood experiences. Hence, it is through these very experiences of hurt and pain that we can best help others…and it is not just helping those who are suffering similar experiences. In fact, the healing process applies to ourselves as well because each time we relive our pain in order to help others, we are also again dealing with and healing ourselves just a little bit more.
We each have the ability and perseverance to go beyond our issues, our problems and troubles, and not have suffering label us as who we are. There are many men and women – probably in our daily lives – who are an inspiration and testimony to that. Chiron symbolizes those who find the strength through suffering to help others avoid the pain they themselves have had to undergo. We are often directed and made wise by own painful childhood experiences. Chiron’s house and sign show where we have been deeply wounded and may hold the key to our own healing. Chiron takes us on a journey through our darkness, personally and collectively. He teaches us that our wounds contain a gift, and that the process of healing oneself is a journey back to greater wholeness and integrity…the gift of who we truly are. His story reminds us of the magic, relief and healing that can occur when we fully accept and honour who we are.
A Chironian wound is an injury that will never, ever totally heal.
We learn, suffer and grow from dealing with this sensitive area . . . but the wounding will never totally heal and go away. This Chironian wounding is then a special area where we can help others. The more work we put into our own healing and learning, the more useful we will be to others. Having a wound alone doesn’t qualify you for anything in particular but Chiron also teaches us that we can still be a blessing to the world with unhealed wounds.
“The most important question is not how to get rid of our own wounds, but how to make our wounds a source of healing…it’s like the Grand Canyon is a wound in the Earth, but if you go into that wound, there’s a healing force coming out.” — Henri Nouwen
This culture is obsessed with the self.
We imagine ourselves to be self-made and value self-esteem. We try to teach young people about self-respect and self-worth. When we are dumped or heartbroken, we are told to practice self-love.
What if instead of manufacturing belief in ourselves, we could muster up some of the honest grief for having never been believed in the first place? Maybe that might be a more honest path to follow. Maybe that grief could remind us that we showed up here with something to give. Maybe the grief could point us back in the direction of the village we left so long ago.
What if, instead of trying to avoid our lack of belief in ourselves, we could learn that lack of belief and come to understand what it does to us? What if we could testify to what it does to someone when others look through them? What if we could give voice to the grief of never having been seen so that others might follow that our well-wept tears to water the seeds in our unopened fists? Isn’t this what many of the greatest artists in the world have done? They have turned their own suffering into art and beauty.
What’s missing is the grieving that this world full of people who don’t believe in themselves. What’s missing is the grieving of what’s been lost and what we never knew. What’s missing is a village full of grandmothers and grandfathers who help us find our way. When we don’t grieve its absence we have no chance at cultivating its presence. Our grieving it is our remembering that it matters. It is our affirming and praising its importance.
When we grieve, we aren’t cured, but we do receive some portion of healing.
So, if you’re looking for a cure to your lack of belief in yourself, consider that inwards may not be the only direction to face because the feelings of belonging, peace and happiness we’re after don’t come this alone.
“The devotion to personal contentment is the depression machine, it generates the depression. It makes the depression inevitable which of course obliges you to work harder to be happy and there we are. But how does it do that? Because it whispers to you that happiness should be the discernible consequence of you winning, of you trying hard, of your best intent being in the forefront of all your design. And a lot of people in the world, ancestrally, knew long ago that being content or that sense of well-being, that’s a consequence of your willingness to help the world live. That your happiness is actually a corollary—let me change happiness—that your health is a corollary of the health of everything around you.” —Stephen Jenkinson
If you are trying to ‘get confidence’ (as if it were something you could buy off the shelf at the local mall) you may be trying to find a remedy for something that has no cure. You may be a tree planted in the crater where a bomb went off, struggling to survive and feeling that it’s your fault that you don’t grow stronger not even knowing what it would be like to be a part of an old growth forest. And, if you learn of that heartbreaking impossibility, then you are left with the realization that the old growth forest isn’t for you. You will never live to see it and you deserve it as much as any human being ever born. You were not born in the old growth. It will be a thousand years before it arrives.
“The candle is not lit To give light, but to testify to the night.” – Robert Bly, The Night Abraham Called to the Stars: Poems
You were born now in the crater.
And so, what does this time and this place ask of you then? Perhaps, what it asks of you is to plant the saplings and tend to them, to be the source of that old growth for the ones yet to come. Perhaps the crater is asking you to redeem it and turn into a place worth coming from.
My friend Corin Raymond struggled with self-doubt for years and wrote songs about it. He was guided by the understanding that, if you need it, someone else will too. Jonathan Byrd calls these songs ‘Songs of Service’. “This is a song I worked on for many years, and I talk about it in the Record Lonesome Night book, how the song – even during the years it was unfinished – was a companion and a friend I could turn to. I had the idea when I was probably twenty, and I started writing it for a girl, but as the years went by, the “you” in the song became me. It became a letter to myself, a reaching out, an offer of friendship from the part of me that had faith that we were going to make it. It’s definitely one of the songs that saved me.”
What if we were less concerned about getting confidence and more concerned with creating beauty? And what if this included beautifully expressed grief? What if we were less concerned with acquiring belief in ourselves and more focused on believing in others? What if we stopped running from our low self-confidence and started getting to know it?
As David Richo put it in this beautiful book, How To Be An Adult,
“Our problem is not that, as children, our needs were unmet, but that, as adults, they are still unmourned… neediness itself tells us nothing about how much we need from others; it tells us how much we need to grieve the irrevocably barren past and evoke our own inner sources of nurturance… What was missed can never be made up for, only mourned and let go of… We are grieving the irretrievable aspects of what we lost and the irreplaceable aspect of what we missed. Only these two realizationslead to the resolution of grief because only these acknowledge, without denial, how truly bereft we were or are. From the pit of this deep admission that something is irrevocably over and fone, we finally stand clear of the insatiable need to find it again from our parents or partner. To have sought it was to have denied how utter was its absence. Griefwork done with consciousness builds self-esteem since it shows us our courageous faithfulness to the reality of loss. It authenticates us as adults who can say Yes to sadness, anger, and hurt. Such an heroic embrace of our own truth transforms emptiness into capacity. As Jung notes, ‘your inner emptiness conceals just as great a fullness if you only allow it.'”
If you don’t believe in yourself, I don’t blame you.
And it was never your job to begin with.
When someone says, “believe in yourself!”, it’s so worthless. It’s just words. And words aren’t food. So much of the meaning of your life is in the hands of others and the meaning they grant it by their actions and non-actions. When someone believes in you, there is no price that can be put on it.
One of my friends, in a conversation about this, shared with me, “This seems true and I find it so disheartening. I’ve never really valued myself and I’ve always struggled to try and believe that I had something to offer others. Now, if this is true then I’m left feeling both validated and powerless. Validated because I feel like the struggle to build my self-worth has never been successful and powerless because maybe I don’t have as much control over it as I had hoped.”
And, of course, we don’t.
But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do.
I’m not against pump up and motivation. I’m not against therapy, visualizations, meditations, and retreats to build up self-confidence. Those all seem to be a needed part of the story these days, and god bless the people who do that work, but the fact that it’s needed is an indictment of the deep poverty of our culture. It’s what we’ve been left with. It’s not a sign of our culture’s wisdom. It’s the evidence of how much wisdom has been lost.
I’m not against the work people are doing to help other’s believe in themselves, and surely there must be a diversity of perspectives and approaches on this in the world, but, before you can believe in yourself, you need to see yourself and, the one thing we can never really see is ourselves. The set up of the whole arrangement of our bodies is that we have eyes on the front of our heads that see most of our bodies but not all of it. There’s a lot of yourself you usually don’t see. Without a mirror, you can’t see the back of your head or neck or upper back. And so, it’s up to the community to see the rest of you. If you don’t have a community, you’re left to twist yourself into contortions to get some perspective on yourself or to walk around believing only in the parts of you that you can see.
I’m not against the work of helping people believe in themselves but, in this culture at this time, much of that work seems to further the deification of our individualism. It’s the attempt to reify our capacity to be self-made. It’s the affirmation of our atomized understanding of this universe. It’s our saying. “I can exist without you. I don’t need you to believe in me… and you don’t need me either.”
And what is the end game of this all? Nobody needs anybody. Everybody is self-sufficient.
“Cha duine, duine ‘na aonar (A person by himself is not a person).” – Scottish Gaelic Proverb
I’m saying that worshipping at the altar of the self is a lonely place to be.
I’m not saying the pain isn’t real. It’s too real.
I’m not against reading books on positive thinking, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of the heart-brokeness that these times seem to ask of us, as long as it doesn’t stop us from using that grief, or being used by it, to make something beautiful to feed life. Grief is a reliable compass, pointing us in the direction of what matters. Grief is what connects us with the beauty and preciousness of life and reminds us that life is worth believing in. Our deep grief can be a form of high praise for the thing we never got. Grief is what motivates us to make sure that it still has a place in this world.
I’m saying that, as Vernon Howard put it, “the resistance to the disturbance is the disturbance.” Our resistance to grieving what we never had is the issue, not just that we never had it.
I’m saying that confidence is the natural by-product a sense of deep belonging to a people and place. It comes from our lived relationship to all of the people we know, all of the natural world and whatever that mysterious unseen world is. Belonging comes from relationship. Belonging is the seed from which a comfort in our own skin might sprout and bloom into a flower that some might name ‘confidence’. Confidence is the natural by-product of being supported in developing an articulated skillfulness in the expression of your natural gifts that others helped you identify.
I’m saying that the bromides of “You can do anything!”, “Believe in yourself,” and “You can do it,” are sometimes tonic and sometimes toxic. Sometimes they encourage people to keep going and sometimes they encourage people to do foolish things. Sometimes people should not believe they have the capacity to do things (e.g. “Sure! You could do brain surgery! You just have to be confident in yourself.” or “Sure you can lead this group through this healing ceremony!”). Sometimes confidence is misplaced.
Believing in ourselves, in the way this culture asks us to, seems to be an impossible task like Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down again before it reaches the top. Our modern approach to confidence mistakes the sources of our strength and any swagger we might have and ignores the gravity of the culture that we live in.
“The soldiers settled down to filling and lighting their clay pipes. They continued to ignore him as if he were a ghost and they could not see him. Perhaps he was in a dream. Or perhaps he was a ghost; perhaps he was dead already. How would you know if you were dead?” – Peter Behrens, The Law of Dreams
The story we are fed is that we’re supposed to be able to live in a culture that fundamentally looks through us, or sees us as a resource to be used or that sees us as inadequate in some fundamental way and be utterly unaffected by this. That’s the story we are told is true. You’re supposed to stand in the face of that and remain intact. According to whom?
This is madness.
During the Potato Famine in Ireland, many Irish fled their country to North America. But the route took many of them through Liverpool, a town that, according to John Kelly in his book The Graves Are Walking, “had grown steadily wealthier on the high-end vices of the white man: African slaves, sugar and tobacco. In 1807, when Britain abolished slavery, Liverpool – nimbler than other English seaports – identified immigration as the next growth area of human trafficking. By the 1820’s, the city offered regular passenger service to North America.” But even those Irish who, somehow, survived the famine that killed twice as many as the American Civil War, were often emotionally and spiritually crushed by their time in Liverpool. For most of them, “…Liverpool represented a first encounter with modernity… Under the sheltering umbrella of peasant culture, even the most humble could be esteemed. Of course, the peasant knew he was poor, but that was the result of being outmatched by life, and where was the shame in that? Many a man – many a fine man – had been outmatched by life. Besides, the peasant’s language, Irish, was such a glory, the saints in heaven spoke it. In Liverpool, modernity pitilessly deconstructed all the comforting myths of peasant culture; the emigrant suddenly found himself an object of horror and contempt… In Liverpool, the emigrant was forced to see himself – judge himself – by the standards and values of the modern world. The historian Robert Scally has called this change in perspective the ‘Liverpool Mirror.’ and it was as cruel as any pestilential Vauxhall cellar. Standing in front of his reflection, the peasant saw the poet, honored for his perfect image of the moon, and the ‘scholar’ revered for his ”priest’s knowledge of Latin’ dissolve into Punch’s ‘aboriginal Irishman: illiterate, savage,’ a speaker of a language ‘through which no light had flashed for a thousand years.’… some were broken utterly and completely by it.”
Swagger doesn’t come from affirmations. It comes from belonging. It comes from having a people who have your back. Swagger comes from having a role in your community. Swagger comes from the end of self-concern which is the bloom on the flower of knowing your place in something so much bigger than you, something which your life is dedicated to feeding.
I’m saying that we can be the source of a world that would never place the burden of ‘believing in yourself’ on the shoulders of the young, a world where children would know that our love for them was a place they could rest and lean into not a prize to be won so that, when they are adults, they’ll know that they are here not to earn love but to spend it.
And, in reality, when my friend does his good work with young men around their self-confidence, his teaching the concept of ‘believing in yourself’ won’t be the power of his work. It will be his believing in the particular youth with whom he works, the look in his eyes and the fact that he makes time for them that tells them, “You matter.” The notion of self-confidence is the menu. His willingness to sit with them and listen and try to see what they’re seeing… that’s the food.
People seeing us and believing in us is food. We can’t live without it and we can’t self-generate it. We can question the thoughts that stop us from seeing all ways we have been and are being affirmed every day by simply being alive. We can question the thoughts that, “We’re worthless” but… it’s likely we even need help doing that.
Years ago, I heard an audio of Jack Canfield and he ended by telling the listener that, even if no one else in the world believed in them, he did. “I believe in you,” he said. And that message was a mixture of things. It was a beautiful and sincere message, the kind of message I am imagining he could have used when he was younger. And it was also a generic message, however genuine, to the masses. It was a ghost of the real thing that had very little power to touch anyone in a lasting way. It was an indictment of the culture that he felt, accurately, it was a needed message.
Many of us grew up not believing in ourselves. We grew up not knowing our gifts or strengths. We grew up not getting much of the emotional and spiritual food that we needed to become healthy human beings. The most terrible part of this all is how normal it has become. We look at the situation, if we see it as a situation at all, and we imagine that it has always been this way, that it is this way everywhere and that it will always be this way. “Of course,” we tell ourselves. “Humans are plagued with self-doubt and don’t believe in themselves! That’s how it is!”
It has become normal, but it is not natural.
The work Yahya is trying to do with young men is beautiful and it’s needed but what does it say about our culture that it’s needed?
There are other cultures who do not know these neuroses. We all descend from cultures like this. Remembering this is costly and asks a lot of us to see that. But, in seeing it and being willing to grieve the absence of it, our tears water the ground of our days to make it fertile for the possibility of the presence of it again in the days of those to come.
Decades ago, Audre Lorde said, “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” I don’t think she was endorsing self-definition here. I don’t think she was trying to make the case for defining ourselves as the height of any sort of personal empowerment. I think she was testifying to what it was like to be a strong, black woman in a time that vilified and demonized strong, black women. I think she was giving voice to the truth of how impossibly hard it is to love one’s self in the face of the sustained gaze of hatred and indifference; how unattainable it can seem to even see one’s self as real, substantial and of any consequence to a world that looks right through you when it looks at you. I imagine it might have been hard for her, as her fame grew, to also contend with being seen as something more than human by those who followed her works – the crushing weight of expectations and hopes that our own communities can foist on us that are too big to carry. I think she was testifying not to her strength but she was grieving aloud the poverty of a culture that required her to define herself.
The central poverty isn’t that we don’t believe in ourselves but that we have to.
Long Life, Honey in the Heart – Martin Prechtel