My mother nearly loved me to death.
It took me decades to realize that I had always been living in an atmosphere of extreme scrutiny and evaluation. I often refer to it as “the look.”
“The look” came from my mother. I am clear about that. I am equally clear that I perpetuated and augmented the look as my own internal perspective. I spent a lifetime living in the glare of never good enough evaluation. What I did was never good enough. How I did it was never good enough. What I am was never good enough.
I could not possibly live a fulfilling life from that faulty premise. Certainly not a joyful life. It was an all-pervasive lens. I saw myself and so my world in just that way. Not good enough. I lived in a subtle yet constant wince. Consistent scrutiny and evaluation left me in a state of oppressive torment.
Now, my mother did not set out to torment me or my siblings. I used to believe that was so. I came to know that it was not. Through consistent and persistent self-forgiveness work I came to the definite conclusion that my mother loved me so much that she felt it was her duty to correct everything she perceived was imperfect about me. And she found a lot that was in her estimation imperfect. I was sorely in need of fixing. Even the things I did well could be done better with her advice and counsel. It was like living in the energies of a microscope and a sledgehammer.
This state of perpetual evaluation is how my mother also viewed herself. Having known my grandmother provided added clarity to this realization. My mom saw me the way she saw herself. And the way she saw herself was largely the way her mother saw her. I came to know it as generational torment. I always felt like I was being judged and almost always came up lacking. Criticism was a consistent context. If I could put words to what was never actually articulated they would be “I love you so much that I simply must tell you everything that is wrong about you.”
This is not a missive about disparaging my mother. This is far more a manifesto of freedom from the tyranny of what I took on from her. I perfected it. I ramped it up with decades of practice. I made a home in scrutiny and evaluation. I hung art in this self-imposed hell hotel and almost never left. Whatever endeavors I pursued were done from a draining inner atmosphere of judgment, criticism, evaluation, and condemnation. It is a true wonder that I ever accomplished anything.
I was for a number of years a performing artist. I started as a professional gospel singer and then transitioned into being a musical theatre performer. My mother would frequently attend concerts or shows I was participating in. I have clear memories of seeing my mom in the audience with her head held down. When once I asked her why she never actually watched the performance she told me that she couldn’t because she was terrified that I was going to mess up.
She was terrified that I was going to mess up.
What must that have been like for her?
I gave up the performing arts more than twenty-five years ago and began my current vocation of ministry and spiritual lecturing. It was upon these platforms that I began to discover the subtle scrutiny I had always lived within. Though my mother never attended any of the services or lectures I have given it did not free me of her influence. I began to realize that every group I spoke to either had a woman who was not looking at me, or a woman who had a distinctly distaining look on her face.
There always appeared to be a woman in the audience who was terrified I was going to mess up.
This realization began with dread and slowly evolved into almost delight. I would stand to begin my lectures and with no effort I would spot my mother in the audience. I would notice a feeling of scrutiny inside of me. I could sense a level of evaluation. I would notice, sense, yet not be affected by it in what I was doing. No one else knew that while they were listening to me speak of things totally unrelated a liberation was happening for and in me. I was still standing in the glare of my mother, yet I was not being governed by it. As I knew what I was experiencing and where it came from it had no authority over me. I clearly knew that the women out there were not my mother, and I was also clear that the “looks” I was applying to them were coming from me. And even if they were disapproving, I did not have to give them dominion over my expression. It was in my evolving freedom that I found the delight.
I firmly believe that we each have a mostly unconscious love -equation that until we become conscious of it will subtly if not overtly rule our experience. Part of my love equation was that love equals never good enough. Love equals I will tell you what is wrong with you. Love equals judgment, criticism, evaluation. Love equals scrutinizing stare.
Love equals I will love you nearly to death.
There may well be those still reading who might expect that this writing will culminate with a reporting that I am now totally free of the torment of scrutiny and evaluation. That I never, ever live with a sense of the look.
That is not how this missive ends.
It is not freedom from that is my experience. It is freedom with. I still feel wafts of the glare as I go about my days, and particularly my creative endeavors. I feel a level of evaluation every time I lecture, write, express. I still attract disapproving mother figures to my services and groups. And because I am aware of all of this the patterning no longer squelches my expression. I feel a wince, and I write, speak, express anyway. I always have people in my life more than eager to criticize me. Freedom means not that it doesn’t happen. Freedom is that it does not stop me. I survived my precious mother’s scrutiny. I can certainly survive yours.
My mother never knew the lasting influence she had over me. I am grateful that she did not. I would not have wanted for her the pain that would have caused for her. While it at times felt like she was nearly loving me to death she clearly did not. She is gone yet her influence remains and is continuing to evolve. I ponder in this moment if at some level she is reading along while I write. I wonder what she might say about this perhaps strikingly transparent essay. What criticism might she contribute? What observations might she edit out? Or might she be in a place now that would simply relish her son’s free expression?
Having nearly been loved to death has given me a transformed perspective on how I choose to live and to love now. I soften my well-practiced glare into a gaze. My scrutiny into a smile. My evaluations into appreciation. I watch the critic as I choose to express regardless of the feared critiques. It is my inner atmosphere that has changed and continues to change. I change from an awareness that though not perfectly I was indeed loved.
I am living proof that nearly being loved to death is in fact not a mortal wound.
Thanks, mom. You were and are the perfect teacher for me.