They were so nervous they could barely pronounce their own names.
Last month, my oldest son Aidan participated in his first Scholastic Bowl match. His younger siblings and I arrived, not really knowing what to expect. In hindsight, though, I should have known. After all, I was thirteen once.
I remember what it was like to feel like my worth was up for grabs every time I opened my mouth, to feel like the outcome of every endeavor would either prove my worth or reveal my lack thereof. In other words, I remember what it was like to feel shame. The truth is, somedays, I still feel it. We all do.
Because we’ve still got a scared kid inside of us somewhere.
As rookie Scholastic Bowl spectators, we wound up in the wrong room with two teams from other schools, but we watched anyway. At the beginning of the match, the captain of each team had to rise, introduce himself, and introduce his four teammates. Both captains, upon standing, turned bright red, spoke with quavering voices, spat out the names as clearly as possible through all the adrenaline, and sat down as if someone had kicked their legs out from under them.
When you don’t know that your worth is infinite, eternal, and precisely equal to everyone else’s, any moment of life can feel exquisitely dangerous.
In other words, when we believe that what we do is who we are—that our successes and failures are the best estimate of our value—then every Scholastic Bowl and athletic contest and class project and friendship and marriage and job and career and calling becomes a high-wire act.
Will our sense of self survive to walk another day, or will we free fall into the net below, which collects the masses of people who don’t really matter after all?
This fear can make an ordinary Scholastic Bowl match on an ordinary Thursday afternoon feel like your life’s final exam, when the truth is, it’s simply a brushstroke—a bit of color splashed on the canvas of a life—one moment in an ordinary, but potentially beautiful, existence. Shame blows everything out of proportion, distorts every image in the rearview mirror.
In life, there are no final exams, only small brushstrokes.
Lately, I’ve been writing a lot about the book I’m publishing—one reader even scolded me for turning “a once helpful blog into a blatant marketing opportunity.” But the truth is, for more than five years, on this blog, I’ve simply been writing about the brushstrokes of my life. Now, my book is another brushstroke. I have to write about it because, right now, it is what’s happening in my life. At the same time, if I allow my shame to blow it out of proportion—turning it into my life’s final exam—like a middle school Scholastic Bowler, I’ll barely be able to pronounce my own name.
The poet Rumi writes, “Everyone has been made for some particular work, and the desire for that work has been put in every heart.”
Shame will keep you in your head, where the story is all about proving yourself. However, the great calling upon your life is to find your way into the center of your heart, where the story is simply about being yourself—loving what you love, and living what you are here to live.
If you’re like most of us, you have a lifetime of brushstrokes waiting at the center of you. It is time to quit walking the high-wire of your shame. It is time to start walking on the solid ground of your truest, worthiest self. It is time to paint what you want to paint upon the canvas of your life.
One ordinary brushstroke at a time.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.