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March 2, 2020

Space Heater

When I was sitting in my office the other day, I happened to turn away from my desk for a moment and look down.
5 min read

As I was sitting in my office the other day, I happened to turn away from my desk for a moment and look down. There at my feet stood a space heater that I no longer use and have yet to give away or move to a different location in the house. From my vantage point directly above the apparatus, I got a really good look at its settings. I was surprised to see that it had only two, labeled “super” and “off.” Completely absent were the usual gradations of “high,” “medium,” and “low,” such as one might find on a dryer or a stove. Immediately, I recognized that I was staring at a depiction of myself, though I could not yet decipher what it showed.

Then I realized: there are only two states I tolerate in terms of how I function. I either run at super-high speed, expecting myself to accomplish all sorts of things in record time. Or I am completely shut down because I have been incapacitated by Something Serious, such as a lightning bolt strike or a car accident. Anything in-between those two extremes is not acceptable. Maybe for other people, but not for me.

I’ve suffered two illnesses back-to-back over the last month, besides having to contend with some challenges over the last several that have proven far more difficult to resolve than I anticipated. So I have had plenty of opportunity to observe how I treat myself when I’m stuck somewhere between unconscious and in overdrive. Here are the words that best describe the person I have been:

Harsh. Hyper-critical. Stingy with the praise and encouragement. Heavy-handed with the guilt and self-recrimination. And above all, immovable, in terms of trying to show myself any mercy.

I am not talking about the self I presented to other people during this stretch of days, although I’m sure my overall likeability took a hit. I’m talking about the emotions I felt toward myself, the thoughts I sent my own way when I was down and out.

Let me give you an example.

While sick I was up multiple times in the night with coughing fits and was also taking meds that made me groggy. I grew intensely angry with myself whenever I needed to sleep during the day to recover my strength. I also grew worried that I wasn’t doing my usual workouts, which tend towards daily and vigorous. My prayer life became quite anemic and that disturbed me too. I blush to admit that at least once I actually swore at myself when I woke from a nap and saw that the time was much later than I had planned. Swore. In my mind, illness was no excuse for any of these lapses in my normal routine. And it was especially hard to watch my husband shoulder more of the burden of caring for our autistic son because I couldn’t get out of bed or off the couch.

What bewilders me is that I would never hold others to this brutal standard. My instinct would be—has been—to come alongside someone who is faltering (for whatever reason) and offer compassion, whether through words or acts that might make their journey a little easier. Raising a special needs son gives me frequent opportunities to throw away the measuring stick in favor of loving, accepting, and advocating for individuals right where they are. I’m not suggesting I’m an expert (or a saint), but I am certainly not the monster towards those around me that I am towards myself. As I have pondered the disconnect, an incisive question keeps surfacing: When is it okay to be cruel to a human being? My heart leaps to answer: Never. My mind assents, reminding me that our criminal justice system tries to avoid “cruel and unusual punishment” when dealing with our society’s worst offenders.

But then some creepy little voice inside my head that speaks like Tolkien’s Gollum dares to add: Unless it’s you, precious.

As extreme as my responses have been during this long bout of weakness, I bet I am not alone. I bet many of you are just as unreasonable with yourselves—just as hard-hearted—when what you really need is an internal life coach who cheers rather than judges, who takes into account all of the factors fighting against you. One who applauds you for remaining on your feet at all and helps break down the mountain-sized problems in your life into manageable-sized pieces. One who reminds you to give yourself a break and let others help you, the way you jump in to aid and support when needed. And, when necessary, warns you not to be abusive toward yourself in any way because it dishonors the God in whose image you have been made.

Is there a way, I wonder, to grab a marker and write in some other settings between “Super” and “Off ” on my control panel? How about a setting like: “Doing Her Best,” or, “Pushing through a Marathon” or even “Barely Functional but Not Giving Up”? Talk to some trusted people and see what they say about your own settings. You will definitely need them to counter the gibbering creature in your head that criticizes you nonstop.

My other suggestion is this: if there has been an actual person in your life who has verbally abused you, please consider getting professional help. The damage done to you is real and complex, and it runs like an emotional engine inside you, driving you this way and that. You may be able to make it through each day without assistance, but you will navigate your way through life with more meaning, success, and joy with someone to help you see the good and important things about yourself that your Maker wants you to know. Things currently obscured by darkness.

In my own experience, starting small was the way to go. A campus minister put me in touch with a counseling center in college, and I also talked to the pastors of what would become my church. That was just the beginning of my healing journey, which God designed for me but would not force on me. Maybe there is a gifted listener and/or advisor in your circle whom you can approach. If you pick up that one tiny breadcrumb, you’ll see that there’s actually a trail of them before you, waiting to be followed, step by step.

Change is possible. Before all this sickness happened and winter set in, I went for a short run. Even though the route was familiar, I felt intimidated by the miles before me, as I often do at the front end of a workout. I’m never 100% sure I’ll be able to pull it off this time. (People with volatile pasts often think this way, I imagine.) But guess what? I did manage to complete my run, and as I covered the last bit of ground, I found myself whispering, “Really good, Rebecca. Really good.”


Remembering that whisper encourages me in the face of all the inner shouting I’ve been doing the last month. Yeah, I have a ways to go when it comes to dealing kindly and fairly with myself. But I’m not a lost cause. Something good persists in me, just as it does in you. We just need to give that voice a chance to speak like it wants to—needs to—if we are to fulfill our life’s purpose.

I’m going to leave you with verses from the book of Isaiah that I find especially moving in this struggle against treating myself cruelly. You may recognize them from Handel’s Messiah:

Comfort, comfort My people, says your God.

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,

And cry to her

That her warfare is ended

That her iniquity is pardoned

That she has received from the Lord’s hand

Double for all her sins.

In the original Hebrew, “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem” is more literately rendered as: Speak to the heart of Jerusalem.

May you and I hear the voice of comfort speaking directly into our hearts in the days to come. May we learn to imitate its message, especially the part that promises we actually belong (MY people) to One who loves us deeply and without wavering, no matter how well—or poorly—we’re performing.

Maybe that’s all we really need. One setting: LOVED. Now that would be amazing.