Go someplace where you can feel small.
That’s the urge I whisper to myself when the guilt starts to settle over me.
Sometimes, I put a thermos filled with coffee and a bag of Cheez-its in my car and I just drive until the vastness of Oklahoma wheat fields overcome me and I feel small again. Only then do I go back home. After I feel safe.
What is this obsession with being small? you might ask.
Here lately, I’ve realized that I never walk alone. Every step I take is made hesitantly, tepidly and it is accompanied by a heavy dose of self-loathing.
I carry the guilt of all the people I can’t help. I carry the guilt of my future failures since I know I’m bound to let somebody down somewhere down the road. I know I won’t mean to, but I know I will, and so I feel guilty.
I know I am a capable writer, but for the past 12 months, I’ve settled on mediocre writing pursuits. I’m afraid to succeed. As every storyteller knows, there is a climax and then the falling action. I’m terrified that one day I will climax and then I will fall, and then I’ll let someone I care about down in the process.
My natural response to these pressures is always to escape. Back in 2015, I went out west on a family vacation to Wyoming and I witnessed the grandeur of the Grand Tetons for the first time. I loved it because I felt small, and I have treasured that feeling of insignificance every since then. When I feel so much smaller than everything around me, then I don’t have to worry about failing anyone because then it doesn’t matter. I’m not that important so I cannot irreversibly hurt anyone.
I joke that I was born with a guilty conscience. Guilt, guilt, guilt. All my fault. I carry those thoughts with me like some sack burden I have thrown over my shoulder and it bangs against the back of my legs as I walk through the day.
There is not a major or tragic event in my childhood that can psychologically explain away this deep-seated terror. Growing up, I was allowed to be deeply compassionate but with every strength, there is a corresponding weakness, and this is mine.
So, when the guilt starts to cave in around me, I search the recesses of my mind for that feeling of smallness. Convince myself that I’m insignificant, that it doesn’t matter.
It alleviates my shame for a while, a few weeks if I’m lucky, but it always comes back.
Sometimes I’m afraid to send an email because I don’t want to disappoint anyone, or I’m afraid to apply for a job that is challenging because I don’t want to let anyone down.
The solution is not to lose myself in a crowd or to sit at the foot of a mountain. It is not to forget what I am, it is to remember whose I am.
“I’m sorry,” I told my professor over the phone. I was having technical issues with submitting an assignment and, of course, assumed it was my fault.
“Do not apologize, Payden,” She snapped at me. “Do not assume everything is your fault.”
I was taken aback. The guilt was right there, taunting me. I wanted to believe her, but it told me not to. I could feel its presence in my dry mouth, feel it behind my eyes as the tears welled up, and the familiar tightness in my chest settled over me.
“I mean that,” She continued forcefully, “You are fearfully and wonderfully made and anything else is a lie from Satan.”
A lie. The idea that my reality needs to consist of carrying the disappointment of any person I had ever interacted with (my fault or not) is a lie.
The past few weeks have been a time of healing, of overcoming. I have good days and I’ve had bad days. The brokenness is still there, but I try not to let it consume me anymore. When the guilt starts flooding over me, I don’t grasp for a sense of smallness by going to the mountains in my mind. I look higher than that.