It had been a pretty shitty week. A terrible month. An unbearable year. A painful decade.
Some days, the cumulative affect of depression fills my bones with lead and my heart with existential nihilism.
Most of those days this weight climbs onto my shoulders before I even get out of bed.
But some days, I wake feeling meh and decide to push through, pulling determination from God knows where.
One summer day two years ago, I was pushing through general all around self-doubt with denial.
I had a routine and I was going to stick to it. Forget how I actually felt. And that’s how I convinced myself to get out of bed that morning.
The day did not reward me. It challenged me. And by mid-afternoon I was ready to go back to bed.
Luckily, there was a public beach nearby.
On my way out of my apartment, I dropped my coffee-filled travel mug. It exploded all over me. It broke.
The bus driver sneered at me. I stumbled off the step and the toe of my sneaker caught on the lip, the trajectory almost pitching me face first onto the pavement.
No matter, I thought, in complete denial to how things were piling up. I was going to an oasis that I planned to start including in my vacation routine.
A greasy-spoon serving dead cheap eggs that had a view of the lake.
Nothing mattered because I had discovered a heaven that I could afford.
When I wasn’t staring out over the lake, the knowledge of its presence filled me with peace.
The only thing that was going to rip me away from the place was the call to stretch my legs and actually sit in nature with my back against a tree by the lake.
I gathered my things into my backpack and headed up to the front to pay for my meal.
The screen on the machine that takes bank cards went dark after I punched in my PIN (1234). There was a shrill noise and then silence.
My waitress looked at me and apologized. The machine had been acting up on and off that morning. Did I have cash?
Shit. No. No I don’t have any cash. Oh my God now what am I going to do? There’s not even an ATM around here. Is there? Is there an ATM nearby?
There was not.
With one sentence, I was forced to face all that denial about my self-worth.
There’s nothing to confront feeling worthless like being given a gift.
My waitress said, “Don’t worry about it, I got this one.”
She’d seen me once before in her life.
This woman who relied on tips to pay her bills so casually and gracefully told me that she would pay for my meal.
I was equally mortified and grateful.
After some convincing, I left the restaurant with plans to take the city bus back into town and find an ATM and then take the bus back to pay with cash.
But I decided to take a quick walk around the lakeshore first.
My legs became heavier as I walked, thinking about what it really meant that I was scared and ashamed to accept the gift when I was in a jam.
It hit me. I was in denial about how well I had been doing. I felt so worthless that I couldn’t even accept a genuinely heartfelt gift without having something to give in return.
This realization knocked the wind out of me. I had spent a solid three years before that fervently destroying old beliefs that fed my core esteem issues and replacing them with new ones that supported self-love.
I’d spent three years meticulously testing these new beliefs. Saying and doing things until I could really feel it in my heart. Weeding out each fragment of self-depreciation as it came up. Starting from scratch when things didn’t work.
I sat in the grass by the lake and put my head in my hands. After a few minutes and some deep breaths that stemmed my tears, I was ready to take out my journal and work it through.
This was going to be resolved – finally – once and for all, I decided.
And then something unexpected happened. Two ducklings just old enough to explore the inlets without mom swam by.
One duck saw a rock and expertly navigated to the right to swim around it. The other duck swam right into it. She tried to swim over it. She looked so silly and cute that I laughed. The very serious spell of overwhelm was broken.
She tried a few different times. Then she swam to the left of the rock and paddled her webbed feet faster to catch up with her sister.
The laughter and childlike joy at feeling in awe of nature in the form of that duck had ousted the heavy fear that I was never going to kick the low-self worth problem.
And as I sat there with my heart open, the truth of worth was suddenly clear.
That duck didn’t give me $20, she didn’t sit next to me and talk me out of my fear, and she didn’t point me to replicable studies that showed humans can fully recover self-worth, even after thirty-five.
That duck was there. She was there at the exact moment I needed the blessing she gave me without having any awareness that she was giving me anything.
That duck was being a duck. She was doing her duck things in the lake. Swimming. Exploring. Paddling.
And by being herself without inhibition, she ignited joy in my heart.
That duck gave me a powerful gift by going about her regular day not noticing or caring that I was there.
In my mind, a thought: maybe just being me is enough, maybe in some way, my presence could be like that duck and ignite something personal and private and wonderful within another without me trying to bring something of value to each table.
This is when I cried. I hate to cry. Especially where people might see me and have awkward feelings about having to be witness to my pain.
For years I’ve gone out of my way to be enough and also to not be too much, which, in some cases, included me not crying because it brought up feelings of inadequacy in those close to me.
But sitting there on the grass, as that duck paddled away, I cried. Somehow the insight that came through that duckling made me feel safe enough in the moment to risk the accusations of being too much.
Being myself is maybe, possibly a gift somehow.
The next day I went back to the restaurant with enough cash to pay for two meals. And my waitress was there. And she told me that me coming back was a gift to her heart.
Though I expressed my gratitude, I never did find the words to tell her how her unexpected and unconditional generosity lead me to such a powerful understanding of worth.
Still, I now try to carry $20 with me in case a machine is down and there’s no ATM nearby.
Just in case.