We don’t hear this word much anymore, despite the significant play it’s gotten in the past. In days of yore (whose?), being called a heretic could end with some kind of jail sentence on a good day. Now? I can’t remember the last time I even heard the word. Well, until Sunday when there was discussion of the anniversary of Martin Luther posting the 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, that’s okay. I promise I’m not about to go all history teacher (even though I was one) or theologian (even though I’m married to one) on you. It’s that heretic word that I’m interested in. And I’m interested in it because my very scholarly minister told us that heretic, translated in the ancient Greek, just means one who chooses. Huh. All of this trouble in our collective history over people who choose.
I started thinking about that yesterday and I was immediately aware of how many of my clients experience discomfort, shame, family conflict and oceans of self-doubt because they are choosers. These are women who have decided that the script that society provides for all of us doesn’t work for them and so they have chosen (as one so aptly put it) to live off-script. They have chosen to consciously do something different. They’ve chosen not to marry. They’ve chosen not to have children. They’ve chosen to outpace their partners financially. They’ve chosen to be the working parent while a partner stays home. They’ve chosen to change career paths, pursue higher education at inconvenient times, become yogis and healers. They’ve chosen to leave marriages that other people think are just fine. They’ve chosen to stop giving a crap about tablescapes (yes, that’s a thing) and perfect dinners and what the neighbors think. They’ve chosen to do them instead.
There is no death sentence awaiting them. They won’t be burned at the stake for deciding not to marry or have children. They won’t be jailed for choosing to pursue the arts as a profession. They won’t be interrogated for having a messy entryway. But they will feel the weight of discomfort. And in my experience, they will believe that the discomfort comes from the judgments that other people will have about them. “My parents really want me to be married.” And maybe they do. I have no idea. “My parents want grandchildren so bad they can taste them.” That’s gross, but I get it. “My family can’t believe I’m leaving him.” Yes, there is perhaps judgment out there.
What matters, though, is what we do with that perceived judgment.
One of my marvelous mentors, Martha Beck, (I almost left out the comma so that marvelous mentor Martha would just flow better – it’s a sickness) has a sentence that I just love for these kinds of situations. Actually she has more than one, and I’ll share the two that are top of mind right now in case one works better for you than the other: “I respectfully don’t care,” and: “They just get to feel that way.”
These sentences represent one way that we, as choosers (I say “we” because I can assure that anyone who has the title of “life coach” is a chooser for sure), can respond to these judgments, complaints and discomfort in others when we encounter it. We can respectfully not care and we can acknowledge that they get to feel that way.
How does this help? This helps because it keeps us from confusing their discomfort with our own. It keeps us honest about the location of our difficulties when we walk down the chooser path. In my experience, it is not the judgments that others have of my choices so much as my reaction to all of that that causes me to suffer. It is only when I take their judgment and turn it into crippling self-doubt or insecurity that I have a problem. It is only when I use those judgments as stand-ins for my own self-judgment, self-criticism and fear that I get into trouble.
If I can, instead, acknowledge that they get to feel how they feel and that I don’t have to care about that I save myself one layer of discomfort, and I push myself toward the emotional honesty that comes with saying: “Sometimes being a chooser is hard. I am tired. I am afraid. I worry this won’t work out.” I push myself toward allowing the feelings that come with doing hard things and releasing them. I push myself toward a place where I can acknowledge what I’m thinking and all of the ways I’m getting in my own way. And once I’m there, I can make a different choice, because that’s what choosers do. I can use my choosing skills to acknowledge my own strength. I can use my choosing skills to acknowledge how far I’ve come on my path. I can use my choosing skills to make my own evaluation of how it’s working, knowing that at any time I can make a different choice. I am free.
If you feel like a heretic sometimes, if you’re a chooser and see the holiday season coming at you – full of opportunities to give everyone evidence of all of the ways you aren’t measuring up, take stock. Remember that the opinion that matters most is yours. Work on that one instead of trying to prove to everyone else that you’re okay. They’re going to think whatever they’re going to think. You can still be happy. You can still be free, even if you’re a heretic.