Before I Begin
Of all the things The Smile Project has given me, the thing I am the most thankful for is the opportunity it has given me to be vulnerable.
A few months ago, I was talking to a friend about how most people hide their insecurities under some dark mask of shame. Weirdly enough, I write about them and share them where everyone can see. In doing this, not only am I having the whole “cathartic writing experience” but I’m also trying to whisper hey… I see you. It’s okay. Me too.
Thank you to everyone who – through comments, likes, shares, and personal messages – has whispered back.
I practically grew up outside. We lived in the country of Western Pennsylvania and after we finished our school work, the world was our playground. We had the perfect climbing tree and the endless corn fields. We had the woods and the ponds and enough neighbors to play a perfect kickball game – no ghost runners.
One of our summer traditions was “Night Games.” As soon as the sun tiptoed away and our mothers declared they were in for the night, the kids shuffled out of their houses, convening in someone’s – usually my – driveway. Night Games consisted of typical back yard games like Capture the Flag or Ghost in the Graveyard or Night Watch (the after hours version of Day Watch).
Despite being one of the youngest neighbors, I was typically allowed to tag along under the watchful eyes of my older brothers. And you better believe I was just as good as the older kids…so I told myself.
I was proud. I wouldn’t be written off. It didn’t matter that I was the youngest and one of the only girls. I was just as fast and just as strong and nobody could tell me otherwise.
I’d always been athletic – from backyard shenanigans with my best friends to the dance class my mother eagerly signed me up for after raising two boys (just kidding, I lasted about a year). Eventually, I was put in some kind of youth soccer. I don’t remember much about it except that we had practice and games at the fields behind the Catholic church and at the end of each practice we’d grab our water bottles and run back to some patient mother in a mini-van before being carpooled home. Oh, suburbia.
Anyway, that’s really all I can remember. I don’t remember if my team was good. I don’t remember if I was good. I don’t know how old I was or even what other teams we played. But I do remember one crystal moment from a practice scrimmage.
I was bored. I don’t think kiddie-soccer was as exciting as Night Games but still, I was running and covering the girl on the opposite team that I had been told to cover. I can’t tell you what her name was, but she could have been my clone, just another tiny soccer girl aimlessly running around and then stopping on the field, away from everyone else, to refuel on oxygen.
Then she turned to me and said: Why do you play soccer? Fat girls can’t run.
Now. First of all, I can hold no ill will against my fellow pint-sized player. I truly doubt she had any idea what she was saying. After all, we were nearly identical in age, size, and probably weight. We were both just average looking kids – the kind of kid who at every check-up is told, yep, you’re right about average there. Great. The kind of kid who hears great and moves on, eager to do something else that doesn’t involve cotton swabs in ears and knee cap reflex tests.
The funny thing is, I don’t remember anything else from that day. I don’t know if we won…if I was sad…if I said something back…if I told my friend… nothing. But 15 years later, I remember that statement.
A couple months ago, I was at the gym with the free membership I have through work. Since the changing season meant it was too dark to run when I got home from work, for the first time in my life, I became a gym person. I was about to head down to the locker room when one of the personal trainers for the gym started conversing with me.
Are you new here?
It’s a very simple and honest question. There’s literally nothing wrong with that question. I was immediately defensive.
Oh, uhm, kind of. We have this membership through my job, so I just got it. Like, I’m still new to the job. Too. Uhm. But I had been running outside but now it’s too dark by the time I get home from work so yeah, I’ve been coming here now. It’s nice.
A simple yes would have done the trick. Still, he acted as though my rambling response was normal.
Oh cool. So you usually run outside?
Again, I felt the need to prove myself to this stranger I had literally met 30 seconds ago…I felt like I had to prove that – even though I maybe didn’t look like someone who could run – I did, in fact, run.
Yeah, so I ran cross country since middle school up through college. And then I got sick so I couldn’t work out for a long time. I’m really just getting back into everything now. So it’s just really nice to be able to do stuff again.
I could hear myself vomiting insecurity but still, he continued the conversation in a level manner. Somehow (because it’s his job) the talk ended with me agreeing to meet him on Friday for my free trial of a personal training workout.
I went back to the locker room and as I was rinsing the shampoo out of my hair I felt myself getting defensive again. Do I really look new? Do I really look like I don’t know what I’m doing? I know what I’m doing. I’ve been an athlete my whole life!
That’s when I realized I have a pride problem. That’s when I remembered that day at the soccer game. In little ways, I’ve spent my entire life being defensive over something as stupid as the words a seven-year-old didn’t even understand she was saying.
On Friday, I met with my personal trainer and immediately was ready to prove myself as an athlete. We started with some simple weight and core workouts. We had just done 15 reps of something when we moved onto pushups and he said: I won’t make you do 15 pushups; how about do 5.
Challenge accepted. I did my 15 pushups for every set and felt pretty confident once I could tell he had underestimated me.
See, cosmic universe. I’m worth more than you think.
Then I stopped myself and my smug thoughts. Okay. So I can do pushups. But I can’t do everything.
He took me to a machine I had never seen before and he demonstrated the workout. I awkwardly completely my first set on it and realized I’d been pretty foolish in my defensiveness. I had walked in eager to prove myself as a runner, an athlete, and just someone in good physical shape. I didn’t want to feel like that seven-year-old on the soccer field.
But then it hit me.
Nobody knows everything about anything.
I’ve been trying to prove myself since I was a little girl… trying to prove that I was strong enough, quick enough, tough enough to roll with the best. And I appreciate that. I appreciate the resilience that I learned from being the youngest in the room and I appreciate all the ways that it has pushed me to be better.
But I don’t know everything about anything. No matter how many pushups I can do, there will always be someone who can show me an exercise I’ve never seen. No matter how many books I read about Happiness, there will always be a new case study I haven’t uncovered. No matter how much I think I know about myself, there will always be moments of self-discovery that teach me when to swallow my pride.
We completed the workout and I felt like I had really held my own. I was proud of myself.
The next day, my body was so sore and my arms were so shaky, I could barely rinse the shampoo out of my hair. Turns out there’s a lot I don’t know about athletics…and maybe about myself.
I’d been thinking about the whole I have a pride problem thing since that day but I couldn’t place my finger on the answer until a few hours ago. I was back at my gym, this time rinsing the conditioner out of my hair when I realized I’ll never be a perfect expert in anything.
I don’t want to have all the answers about running. Or working out. Or music. Or puppet shows. I don’t even want to know all there is to know about Happiness. If you already know everything, you’re simply going through the motions of complacency.
And there’s no growth in routine.
I am grateful for those who come into our lives and shake things up. I’m grateful for those who challenge our beliefs and make us see things from a different angle. And most of all, I’m grateful for vulnerability…and all the advantages that come from having the courage to be honest and brave.