Restoring Perspective

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Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

When I was growing up, I was always the shortest in every class. I didn’t open my mouth much, didn’t like to get involved, and preferred to watch everything from the sidelines. You wouldn’t think that now, I know. But it wasn’t always easy for me to make friends. I didn’t like talking to strangers, didn’t think then that most friends start out as strangers. I was often slow to pick up on socially acceptable behaviors, like saying please and thank you, or holding the door for others,  or complimenting people for their kindness. I think I was also much too harsh with my friends. Sometimes I was too honest. Sometimes I didn’t know to keep my opinions to myself. I was told I was way too serious for my age, couldn’t take a joke, hurt people’s feelings when I made jokes, and then felt bad that I had no friends. It was a vicious cycle. I was often suspicious of new experiences and new people, not always willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. On top of that, I was highly sensitive about what people said about me. I was often critical, easily disappointed, frequently discouraged, and when I held a grudge, boy, did I hold a grudge! No, this is not a public confession. We got rid of that in the middle ages. But I grew up, and I’m all better now, thank you.

I never knew about “low self-esteem” for most of my life. These days, you can spot low self-esteem a mile away. That meant those of us afflicted with low self-esteem couldn’t tell anyone about it, primarily because we didn’t have the slightest clue what it was or that we had it. And even when we did finally find out about it, it wasn’t like there was a cure. Admitting it only compounded the problem. It would be like throwing a party, and inviting other people but not yourself. And sympathy wasn’t always forthcoming. “You’re making too big a deal of it. Just get over yourself.” But it’s not something you just get over, like flicking a switch. Instead, people who suffer low self-esteem might compensate by seeking negative attention, turning to anti-social behavior, making bad decisions in an effort to shock, confuse, anger or defy their perceived tormentors, in effect rejecting those who reject them. I went the opposite way. I was a straight A student. In my head if nowhere else, I would be better than them. But neither response guarantees balance, not immediately anyway. Reality is more likely to take hold with time and experience, and a lot of encouragement, a lot of patience, a lot of compassion.

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The Mayo Clinic defines self-esteem “as your over-all opinion of yourself – how you honestly feel about yourself with all of your successes, abilities, flaws and limits. When you have healthy self-esteem, you feel good about yourself and see yourself as deserving others’ respect. When you have low self-esteem, on the other hand, you put little value on your opinions and ideas, and you constantly worry that you aren’t “good enough.””

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In the gospel, Jesus looked up to find the tax collector Zacchaeus sitting in a tree. To compensate for his short stature, Zaccheus pursued a career that brought instant respect and made him feel important, even if it came with instant scorn as well. He was easily wealthier than his neighbors, and probably mingled with a much glitzier crowd. But being a tax collector, many considered him a public sinner! Still Jesus took the time to stop, even when we are told he merely intended to pass through the town. He sought out a man whom no one would notice, whom most despised, and extended to him a great kindness. “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” And with that chance meeting with Jesus, the vertically-challenged tax collector sitting in a tree was a changed man. It might sound too simplistic a resolution, that just one encounter with Jesus would bring about such a radical transformation. We don’t know what they talked about at dinner, but we can be sure the encounter was profoundly eye-opening and life-changing. And a couple of places in scripture today also tell us some wonderful truths about God and what God sees in us.

The book of Wisdom paints an image of God that leaves us in awe. Our God is greater than the universe. And in the larger scheme of things, God has much better things to attend to than an insignificant, imperfect and sinful race as the children of Adam and Eve. Yet that is exactly what we are told God does. Remember that the mystery of the incarnation, of God made flesh, has not yet been revealed. No one would have ever imagined God would lower himself to become one of us, much less teach us, heal our ills, and offer himself in sacrifice to free us from our sins. Here the sacred author, sometimes identified as King Solomon, marvels at God’s patience, compassion and care for the human race. “You have mercy on all … and overlook people’s sins that they may repent. You rebuke offenders little by little, warn them and remind them of the sins they are committing, that they may abandon their wickedness and believe in you.” This is such a far cry from the image of a punishing God, an image which Father or Sister or mom and dad invoked when exasperated and frustrated by our intransigence as children, telling us in no uncertain terms that God was displeased beyond imagining, and that we were destined for hellfire and damnation. Clearly, God desires just the opposite, our healing, our reconciliation and our peace. And Jesus would stop to call Zacchaeus down from a tree. What, we should ask, has God not yet done to tell us of his great love for us?

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I found a 3 minute video on YouTube some years ago on the comparative sizes of earth and a couple of stars (http://youtu.be/c8CgDGhYKe8). It starts off with a sweeping view of earth rising into the stratosphere, above mountains and deserts and oceans and clouds while Gregorian chant plays in the background. Then the sun comes up behind the earth, a gigantic ball of fire approximately 8 light minutes away. Immediately the earth is dwarfed into nothingness, a tiny black dot against the sun’s surface. Then the supergiant star Rigel from the constellation Orion comes up behind the sun, from a distance of 800 light years, dwarfing the sun into nothingness in turn. Then the red hypergiant star VY Canis Majoris comes up behind Rigel, from a distance of 5000 light years, dwarfing Rigel into a tiny white dot. I did some more research and found out that this largest known star in the universe is 1.7 billion miles across. I was in awe. It made me think how insignificant I am in this vast universe, how insignificant my problems and concerns.

And yet the God who created the universe and everything in it stoops down to tell us of his great concern and care for us. If you think too highly of yourself or your concerns, watch the video. It will cut you down a couple of notches. And if you suffer from low self-esteem, remember that God is willing to pause and call you down from a tree, out of a hole, into the light. We are never insignificant in God’s eyes. How then can we fail to acknowledge our own dignity, having been called into being by our great and glorious God, who heals our wounds, who sent his own Son to suffer and die to reconcile us to himself, and who welcomes us home at the end of our journey into his embrace for all eternity? Every now and again, we need to restore perspective in the way we see ourselves and the world around us. We may be insignificant in all creation, but we are most precious in the eyes of God.

Rolo B Castillo © 2013