Cheers: A Post by Mary Beth Willis

This is where I am at the end of 2016. If I could use one word to describe 2016, it might be “overwhelming”. I know- wah wah… not exactly a battle cry. I feel like most of what life threw at me this year were things I just managed to survive. Some years are like that, but in the middle of the chaos, I did something I know I have to change- I let life get its grip on me.

I fell victim to feeling that everything was out of my control- I bought a house that decided to fall apart after all the papers were signed, and it was a domino effect for months… and everything felt like a crisis because everything was something I’d never faced. But I bought a house. And I didn’t file bankruptcy. (Adult victories can feel very lame at times, but not filing bankruptcy should be a party-worthy accomplishment for people my age these days.) I also spent about 9 weeks at the end of 2016 fighting infection after infection. I took more antibiotics in 9 weeks than I had in the last 9 years. I could not get well. I finally got better when the semester ended. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the timing. Perpetual stress was stronger than any antibiotic.

It reached the point where I now think about things in terms of what might make me sick. I even thought a few days ago, “Maybe I need to give up leading the Haiti trip in March. The stress might make me sick again.” And that was it. That was the moment I finally got tired of my own bullshit. Because life had such a grip on me that I was willing to give up what I love most in this world out of fear of getting sick.

But it’s not Haiti that makes me sick. It is trying to do all the other things on top of it- be the perfect teacher, have perfect standards, please all the people, have the perfect busy schedule filled with things to make me interesting and frankly feel worth something as a 32 year-old single Southern woman. And I’m sick of it. Perfection is a sickness.

Quote from Elizabeth Gilbert and Mary Beth

I stood in front of this mirror today and I tried to angle my body so that it looked thinner, smaller… I’ve gained weight over the holidays (because I am human). I looked in frustration in the mirror and I finally just fell into a wide stance, hands on hips, and I noticed something interesting. I looked stronger. When I stopped trying to be perfect, I became something I liked more- someone who had been through some things- someone strong and someone real. I told a friend this morning that I didn’t think I could have survived this year if I didn’t have people in my life who showed their realness to me and made me unafraid to be vulnerable and real in return. Those people are my heroes. Not the ones who seem perfect and “together”.

A friend asked on Facebook today what our “word” for 2017 will be. I think mine will be authenticity. I’ve wasted a lot of time in my life trying to please others and fill my schedule with “interesting” things. I’m perfect at exactly zero things in my life. And there is a certain freedom that comes with letting go of expectations- of others and our own- and being comfortable with exactly who we are, not who we think we should be.

I have a leak under my kitchen sink right now. Again. I have wide hips (because cake). I have debt. I have a job that is full of uncertainty. I am constantly striving to be a better leader, and I fall short of my own expectations every time. I’ve let the things that are most important to me- my relationships- slip, not because I haven’t had time (we always have a choice with our time), but because I have been paralyzed by my own bullshit… my own pressure on myself to be a hundred different things when life is meant to be so much simpler.

I love my family and friends. I love teaching. And I love the work we are doing in Haiti. These are the things that are real. If I cleared my schedule and made time for only these things, my life would have no less meaning. In fact, I dare say it would have more.

So here’s to 2017. And here’s to living more authentically and embracing the imperfect mess that we are. Cheers.

-Mary Beth Willis
Mary Beth Willis is an ESL instructor at the University of North Alabama. She grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi but now calls Florence home. She travels to Desab, Haiti twice a year with UNA Alternative Breaks as a faculty leader for an ongoing sustainability and community development project. She loves working with international students, an interest she developed while traveling and teaching abroad after college. However, working in Haiti and helping to develop sustainable solutions to extreme poverty is what she considers her life’s work and passion. She has worked in Honduras as a missionary and in China and South Africa as an English teacher. She has also traveled through Ecuador and Thailand. She has an M.A. in Modern Languages from University of Mississippi and a B.A. In Communication from College of Charleston.

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