I was born a peacemaker. It doesn't sound bad; in fact, when Jesus preached his Sermon on the Mount, he said, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God" Mat 5:9. But like any good gift, it can be twisted.
Peacemakers have a tendency to be sacrificial in nature. My life is a story of endless occasions where I let myself become the door mat in order to keep the peace. Peacemakers also believe in the value of others, but can forget their own value. In my case, I have defined myself by how others view me for as long as I can remember. The result? Little to no self-esteem, broken-down or destroyed personal boundaries, and an identity that is so small and so lost within that it can barely be heard.
My greatest struggle with authenticity is also my most recent one. It was ten years long, but for a good reason. Now that Jesus has thrown me a line and dragged me from that quicksand, I can stand beside it, breathe and know without a doubt that authenticity is a gift I will cling to and cherish for the rest of my life.
The date was September 9th, 2011. Two days before the terrorist attacks on our nation. My husband, three-year-old daughter and I crested the final hill that began our first descent into the Valley of the Sun. After sixteen hours of travel, we had arrived with our U-Haul truck and little sedan. It was the twilight hour, and the view was breathtaking. All around us, like silent, still sentinels, saguaro cacti stood watch as we passed, backlit by a glowing horizon. I immediately fell in love with the unique beauty of this dry yet thriving land.
I was unaware, however, that the people I was about to encounter were formed from the same mold: harsh yet attractive, covered in thorns yet lovely to behold.
We had come from humble beginnings, as most young married couples do. After scrimping and saving, we had purchased our starter home in Colorado Springs, Colorado only a few years prior. It was an old, tri-level house flanked by a busy street and overlooked by a squadron of electrical towers. But its backyard was an oasis with a big wooden deck, and inside it had hardwood floors and enough space for us to rent out a few of the basement rooms. When we were in the backyard, I'd pretend that the constant noise of the traffic was merely the waves of the ocean. I tried to ignore the car fumes and my anxiety about living so close to such a thick collection of electric wires.
But Colorado is cold, and my husband had grown up on the Eastern beaches of sunny Florida. He is known to say, "Snow is God's way of saying, 'Don't live here.'" So, when the Tech bubble burst and my husband's employer shut the doors on the Colorado Springs branch, we decided to move to warmer climes. Since we had family in Phoenix, it seemed the natural choice.
Once the decision had been made, and we made temporary living arrangements in the small suburb of Anthem, I began to do internet research. Anthem was a new development at the time, at the northern-most tip of the Phoenix metropolitan area, and it boasted that it had the makings of a perfect American home town. It was chalk-full of amenities: a community center with classes, a gym, pools, parks, hiking and running trails, a lake, beautiful homes and just enough distance from the city to feel safe. It even had a more up-scale gated community with a country club.
When I visited the Anthem internet site, I was sucked in. I looked at the model homes, pictures of the parks and the smiling people looking so put-together. I wanted to be one of them. Soon, I had picked out the home floor plan I wanted. They had pictures of every room on the site, so I'd go through the different rooms again and again. My humble home grew very unpleasant to live in. I couldn't wait to move to paradise.
But paradise did not bid us a warm welcome. Two days after we arrived, September 11th hit, and it left me and the rest of the country in utter shock. And then, as if to mourn the loss of so many people, the sky rained and rained and wouldn't quit. It didn't care that it was raining over a desert. For days, it poured.
Even though I knew that all of those events had nothing to do with me, I was left with the feeling that a curse had descended. It was like I was in a surreal nightmare. One minute, I was living a normal life in Colorado, the next, I was in a very unfamiliar place and horrendous things were happening. September 11th had placed a strange hue on my life, and I wasn't sure if the world was safe anymore.
That discoloration remained as I tried to plug myself into the community. I made "friends", but if there is anything a people-pleaser is good at, it's reading vibes. I felt tolerated, but not "one of the group." Secretly, I was being looked down upon. I grappled with what the cause of this might be. Finally, I decided I wasn't put-together enough. So I studied my friends, and emulated them.
The first thing I noticed is that their homes didn't look lived-in. They were replicas of the model homes in the community. They were clean and orderly, and ready at any moment for a camera crew to arrive and feature them in a home decor magazine. These people had children, but you couldn't tell. And the last thing they'd ever want is surprise guests.
Back in Colorado, my friends and neighbors didn't mind you stopping by unannounced for a visit. In fact, if the garage was open, you could waltz right on up to the garage door and knock as you entered. In Anthem, the garage doors were never left open, and no one arrived without plenty of warning. Otherwise, how could you keep up appearances?
So, I got hold of some basic decorations and cleaned up a little more. But I still didn't fit.
Then I observed that the way I dressed still placed me as a college student. These women even had a designer look to them if they were out jogging. Their hair had the perfect, just-out-of-a-salon amount of highlights and lowlights. Their nails were fake, and their toes regularly pedicured. They wore big, clunky jewelry and carried Coach or Gucci bags. They were money from their heads down to their toy dogs.
So, I went shopping at Ross, and tried to find inexpensive clothes that looked like theirs. I felt uncomfortable and stuffy, but maybe it would make the bad vibes go away. Not a chance.
My exploration turned towards the way I raised my child. Perhaps they thought I was a bad mother. After all, they all did cute crafts with their children, enrolled them in a wide array of extracurricular activities, tried to teach them to read and do math while they still wore diapers, and stood in line overnight to get them into the choicest schools. None of them sat on the couch and watched the Little Mermaid for the fiftieth time that day like I did with my daughter. They had their children's days filled with educational or physical activities. None of them surfed the net while their kid ran around and played. Perhaps I wasn't involved enough.
Truly, I don't think I was. This was an area where I needed improvement. But the happy medium was more where I needed to be, a balance of her needs and mine, rather than the extreme to which they had taken motherhood. And even with increased involvement in my daughter's life, I did not gain acceptance.
I couldn't think of anything else to fix. I began to believe that the problem was me. Social awkwardness was something I had always struggled with. I thought I had gotten past it when I was in college. Perhaps I hadn't. Perhaps I couldn't. Perhaps they would never accept me, because deep down, I just wasn't good enough for them on a level that I couldn't change.
I felt like I was back in high school, being rejected by the popular kids. I had always wondered where those perfect-looking, snobby, successful jerks had gone after graduation. Apparently, my growing jadedness told me, they went to Anthem, Arizona.
Now, don't misunderstand me. I know that Anthem is a big community and I should not make sweeping generalizations. However, my feelings arose from the specific people I encountered there.
By this time, their tolerance of me was beginning to fray. You can only put up with a loser hanging around in your circles for so long. It was time to show me some rejection, and get me to leave.
Ugliness started to come out of their mouths instead of the usual waves from their body language. The worst example was when I was sat down by one who informed me that my husband (who they liked) was going to become an executive someday. And I was "just not executive-wife material". I was told that most likely, when my husband realized that, he would divorce me.
This outright negative treatment came at about the six-month mark, along with the worst Christmas of my life. After that, exhausted from my efforts to please people who couldn't be pleased, I took a vacation and went home to Colorado to visit my parents. The difference in the atmosphere between the two places was quite concrete. It was like a heavy weight had been lifted. Colorado, the place I had been so anxious to leave, suddenly felt like it was paradise.
I explained to my parents what had been going on. They said they'd be willing to help us out financially for a while if we wanted to find a new community to call home.
So we did. I made the arrangements over the phone with my husband, who had stayed in Anthem because of work. Within three days of returning to Anthem, we had packed up and made our escape into an apartment in North Phoenix.
Or at least, I thought we had. As it turned out, those women followed me in my head. And so did my new addiction to beautiful things. I could not be happy living in an apartment, and spent the next few years miserable as we tried to get out of debt and save up for a home.
I started to watch HGTV and shows like "What Not to Wear" so that I could learn the ins-and-outs of acting and appearing to be someone I wasn't. I learned how to pronounce "Versace." I kept my house picked up and began to stress if it looked at all lived-in.
My children were well-groomed and I enrolled them in activities. I even stood in line to get my daughter into a charter school, and drilled her on her alphabet and numbers so she could qualify for the kindergarten.
I felt judged everywhere I went. When I saw put-together, beautiful women, I imagined they took one look at me and all my flaws were before them. I tried desperately to fit in, even going so far as to study their social interactions. They loved to greet each other with high-pitched voices, they never openly admitted that anything in their lives was less than perfect, and they always carried themselves with confidence and grace.
But I got better at it. We moved from one apartment to another, and then finally into our second home. It was small, but beautiful. It had tile throughout and a swimming pool. The previous owners had done good work with the premises. And the neighborhood was nice. Everyone took pride in their homes and kept them up. I could pretend to be a snob here.
We plugged ourselves into our new community. We found a church, and I joined the mom's group. The people at the church were beautiful, and they reminded me of the people in Anthem. Some of them gave me that same vibe, but surprisingly most of them did not. Perhaps these pretty people would like me. Perhaps they couldn't see my flaws. I began to try and please them.
This erasing of myself lasted a full decade after my initial move to Arizona. God had been whispering to me that my worth was not found in such shallow appearances, but in the blood of his Son. And I thought I believed that. But deeper down, my life was controlled by a lie, and my dignity was dying. I desperately looked for any sign of approval from other women in my circles. Anything that showed they thought I was like them, that I was one of them.
In January of 2011, Satan, the enemy of my soul, made a huge miscalculation. I went under what I believe was a spiritual attack. I felt like I had once as a painfully shy child. My home was the only place that felt safe. For two months, I retreated from the world and lived in fear of rejection. I didn't go to any social events. My thoughts were constantly anxious and I created mountains out of every molehill. This was not long after God had called me to teach Christian yoga. And so I was warned by the teaching team that something like this may happen. If you decide to give your life to the work of God, the enemy doesn't like it. Once I figured out what it was, it dissipated.
But it had taught me what the origins of my fears are. It taught me that I was far from living in the freedom of Christ. I explained to my husband how I wasn't sure who I was. I had spent so long trying to be someone else that I didn't know who Amy Arias was anymore. I knew that my years in Phoenix had changed me. I wasn't the same young mother with one child. I now had four. But what did I like? What did I want to wear? What was important to me? What did I dream of? Who was really my friend? I had to spend the following months answering those questions. I still am answering them today.
In October that same year, I went to the yoga retreat that finished up my training with the Holy Yoga Foundation. During that retreat, Jesus did amazing work in my life. One of the core team members asked us if we believed we had dignity and the word hit me like a slap in the face. As the word reverberated off my ear, it broke the curse that had been placed on my life since entering Phoenix. For so long, I had lived in a harsh desert of enchanting beauty that had been very unkind to me. Now, Jesus had shown me how to love myself, how to be myself, and how to be loved by him. He had torn the veil that was discoloring my life. The desert was no longer unsafe. It was a place to spread his hope; a place to love his people.
And the irony is, I feel more accepted by people now that I have started believing in my dignity. People actually like the real me. Who knew?
Even if they didn't, does it matter?
24"You can't worship two gods at once. Loving one god, you'll end up hating the other. Adoration of one feeds contempt for the other. You can't worship God and Money both.
25-26"If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don't fuss about what's on the table at mealtimes or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds.
27-29"Has anyone by fussing in front of the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? All this time and money wasted on fashion—do you think it makes that much difference? Instead of looking at the fashions, walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them.
30-33"If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don't you think he'll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I'm trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God's giving. People who don't know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don't worry about missing out. You'll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.
34"Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don't get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes. (Matthew 6:24-34 (MSG))