I was watching “Doctor Strange,” the Marvel movie, when I was floored by a scene. When the Ancient One is dying and talking with Dr. Strange, she drops three truth bombs that reverberated through my soul.
You see, like Dr. Strange, I’ve had my previous life stolen from me. I wasn’t a surgeon, and the theft didn’t happen through a car wreck, but I’m not the same person I was three years ago. Due to a combination of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and seizures that are largely uncontrolled, I have moved from a high-level consulting job to being unemployed and unemployable. I have struggled with self-identity and purpose ever since. Then the Ancient One spoke to Dr. Strange, and to me.
The first thing the Ancient One said was, “You have such a capacity for goodness.”
I’ve struggled so much with this for the better part of the last three years. I feel like the best parts of myself have been stripped away, and all that remains is rubbish. My identity is still very much attached to my capacity to earn money and provide help to my friends. I feel as though I have moments where I am worthwhile, where I offer something of value to someone, but my mental illnesses have stolen much of these capacities from me.
Literally, I have almost nothing to offer people most of the time. I don’t know how to reconcile that concept with the idea that I have a capacity for great goodness. I know it to be true, though, because I have a consistent, visceral emotional response to this thought.
I talked to one of my best friends, and she removed some of the mystery in this truth that feels untrue. She shared three things with me that helped me understand more about this statement:
- Your usefulness isn’t static and fixed; it’s dynamic, and you’re likely to find your capacity increasing once the hard season begins resolving.
- You’re more useful than you realize.
- Goodness is not equivalent with usefulness. We worship at the shrine of capitalism in America, and this confuses things between these two words.
I talked to another best friend, and she took a different approach. She gave me a laundry list of things that I have a capacity for good at. She told me that I’m rusty at most of them, but they’re not gone. The fundamental piece of goodness that I have, when I’m in practice, is that, when I look at people, I don’t see their flaws, but I see their potential. I see what healed looks like for the wounded. I see what activated looks like for the sidelined. And, I not only see it, I encourage and speak it into being with my words and my hope. There is great goodness in this single skill, even if I never recover any other skills that I deem useful.
Now it’s up to me to remember how to do these things, and to reimagine myself in that same role again.
The second thing the Ancient One said is, “Arrogance and fear still keep you from learning the simplest and most significant lesson of all — it’s not about you.”
Arrogance and fear both have a role to play in this lesson.
Arrogance, because I have to come to grips with the fact that I am not the center of the universe. Yes, my life has been a struggle the last three-plus years, but that doesn’t mean the world has tipped on its axis. Just because my world is flipped upside-down doesn’t mean everyone else’s has, though with the coronavirus this may be true in different ways for everyone. There’s a certain level of arrogance that comes with this built-in assumption that I didn’t even realize I had. Why isn’t everyone else stopping and taking notice of my pain? Because the world doesn’t revolve around me.
Fear plays an equally important role. I think of the idea this way — if it’s not about me, maybe I’m not that important after all. Maybe the world can get along just fine without me. The arrogance is really the shield that hides this fear, which can be summed up in one question: What if I really, truly don’t matter that much at all?
The truth is a subtle combination of these nearly contradictory truths about arrogance and fear: I am both infinitely significant and infinitely irreplaceable. There is no copy of me in the world, so what I bring to the table is unique, brought only by me. No matter how little that might be, or no matter how little it might feel like, it’s something only I can offer.
Almost 20 years ago, a wise friend told me I needed to understand that the world isn’t about me if I really want to succeed in it. She said it with a smile on her face and delivered it in kindness, but it rocked me then, and still does every time I reconsider the moment.
There’s some sadness in my heart that I’m still battling the same battle as I was two decades ago, but I think this is ego on a different level. Like Dr. Strange, I have watched my greatest gifts go by the wayside, and I can do very little about it. I am having to learn what it means to lean into providence in a way I never have before.
The third thing the Ancient One said is, “You could have your old life back, and the world would be all the lesser for it.”
With Dr. Strange, it was a solid promise and a choice he had to make. He could choose to fix his hands using magic and return to his old job as a surgeon, or he could pick up a different set of skills to fight a different battle.
I’m don’t have the same type of offer. There is no magic to cure my PTSD or dissociative episodes, and beyond that, I don’t think my old life is out there waiting for me to return. I can’t return, because I’m not the same person who came into this battle. I’ve learned empathy at new levels. I’ve understood pain in new and sometimes maddening ways. I’ve gained an appreciation for therapy and those who use it. I know firsthand the confusion of a lost thought, never to be found again.
I knew none of these things on the front end of my PTSD raising its ugly head, and that’s the kicker. I have the privilege and the responsibility to figure out what to now do with these new skills. While I’m no mystic, I’m confident of this — there’s a reason for all these things to have happened to me, and the world will be the lesser for it if I do nothing with them.