I’ll tell you upfront: this is not my proudest moment.
No, far from it. It’s been over ten years, but as you’ll see, there’s a reason I haven’t told this story before, just as there’s a reason I’m telling it now.
Picture this: I am seated at an outdoor café table with my three closest friends. Our backpacking trip is coming to a close, and we’ve just finished a meal of savory crepes in a small village in France. I love this place because it reminds me of Belle’s village in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, and also because the crepes come with cucumbers that have little heart shapes cut out of their centers.
The bill comes. We do our best to divide it evenly, but there’s some difficulty – someone doesn’t have sufficient change, so someone else is asked to pay a little more. That ‘someone else’ is me. Now, I do have some change; I have the ability to pay extra. How much is needed? A very small amount, the equivalent of perhaps 50 cents.
I can cover for my friend, and in an ideal world, I do so without hesitation. I settle the bill with a smile, linking arms with her as we go.
In the real world, well … things get messy.
For some time, I’ve been swimming in a secret sea of fear. And that tiny amount – that inconsequential spare change – is a tipping point. All at once, I can’t carry on. I feel like I’m drowning.
Our whirlwind trip is drawing to an end, and we’re all tired, maybe a bit sensitive. But it’s more than that. I’m worried about my money running out. I’ve been as frugal as possible throughout our adventure, but still, things are tight.
When I’m asked to give more, my thought process sounds a blaring emergency: I can’t! I might not have enough! I’m being really careful with my money, trying so hard, and you’re messing it up by asking me to give more!
And besides (the harsh judge in my mind chimes in, ruthless as always) you’re not trying as hard as I am – you ordered dessert last night! It’s not fair to ask me to cover for you now!
My friends don’t know what I’m thinking, but they see distress on my face. I can’t hide it; I am always an open book. It’s infuriating. They don’t understand why I’m upset – it’s just spare change among close friends, after all. Just a handful of coins among four people who are like sisters, and have been for years.
(I’ve since read that small bribes are actually more effective than large ones. Experts have all kinds of theories about why this is true, but here’s what I think: small things have the power to bring out the fearful child, that which is small and scared within us. The vulnerability is terrifying.)
Something in me snaps, and in turn, I snap at them. I say something like: I might not have enough! I might not be able to eat! How can you ask me to give more?!
I tell this story now for a few reasons.
First, because I believe Anne Lamott when she writes that we are only as sick as our secrets. And every time I tell a story like this, I can feel something within me heal. I can feel the fearful, grasping part of me lose power.
Next, because I want to offer reassurance that all of us have stories like this, the ones we shudder to share. We have all been petty and judgmental and awful, even – especially! – to the people we love most.
And finally, because stories like this one – tales of the times in which we are our own antagonists – contain a seed of redemption.
Though emotions were running high, we were able to work it out that day in France. I did pay extra, and my friend paid me back quickly. By then I was deeply ashamed of my behavior, ashamed to take her money. It broke my heart that I hadn’t offered freely to someone who had always given freely to me.
No, it was not my proudest moment, but it has become one of my most valuable. That past mistake has become a touchstone for me in that it shows me everything that I do not want to be. It has helped me make countless decisions and avoid countless regrets. To this day, that memory helps me to open my hands.
And as I look back now, I can feel compassion where I once felt shame. I can see that scared young woman, holding so tightly to the coins in her hand. She thought she had to fend for herself, that she had to fight a solitary war against scarcity. But that simply wasn’t true.
I want to tell her, Honey, it’s okay. You will have enough, always. I mean, look around you. When the fog of fear dissipates, you’ll see it: you have friendship, adventure, forgiveness. You are already rich. You don’t have to be afraid.
As they say in Strictly Ballroom, “a life lived in fear is a life half-lived.” But a life lived in love? That’s a life lived in full …