Wellness Wednesday: The Tale of the Raggedy Paintbrush

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I want to share a story about a girl and a paintbrush. But, before I get to that I need to give some background.

Once upon a time there was a girl who believed that to be a Good Person, you had to be completely selfless–always putting other’s needs first and ahead of her own. So, when she read “The Joy Luck Club,” the following passage stood out to her. It was her evidence that she was Good and had been doing it Right all along:

Suyuan cooked a crab dinner for ten people to celebrate the Chinese New Year. As she and her daughter, Jing-mei, shopped together in Chinatown for the ingredients, Suyuan explained that the feistiest crabs are of the best quality; even beggars would reject a crab that has died before being cooked. While the two women were choosing crabs, the leg of one of the crabs became detached, and the grocer demanded that Suyuan pay for the creature. Suyuan thus bought eleven crabs instead of ten.

An extra guest was present for the meal. During the dinner, each guest carefully picked the best of the remaining crabs until there were two left, one of which was the crab missing a leg. Jing-mei tried to take the defective crab, but Suyuan insisted she take the better one. Suyuan then sniffed her crab, and took it into the kitchen to throw away, veiling the trip by returning with more seasonings for the table.

After the guests left, Suyuan explained that she did not eat the legless crab because it had died before she cooked it. She teased Jing-mei for choosing the worse of the two remaining crabs, because anyone else would have taken the better one—the “best quality” available. She remarked that Jing-mei’s way of thinking differed from that of most people: while everyone else at the table chose his or her crab in a spirit of selfishness and competition, Jing-mei chose the worst of the two remaining crabs out of selflessness and generosity because she wanted her mother to enjoy the better crab.

Selflessness and Generosity. Those were her virtues. And she carried it with her into adulthood.

So, it came to pass that she found herself in therapy–art therapy to be exact. It was one of the first sessions, and she was about to work on a watercolor painting. The therapist presented her with a large mason jar filled with brushes of various lengths and fullness. Without thinking about it, the girl chose the most raggedy paintbrush in the jar. It looked like a small animal had chewed the bristles off, leaving only about a centimeter of actual brush to work with. The therapist looked at her, incredulous.

After patiently watching her struggle to actually paint with the horrid thing, the therapist asked, “Why did you choose that brush of all the brushes in the jar?” The girl had no response. All she could think about was the story of Jing-mei trying to eat the rotten crab. She thought she was being virtuous. She asked, defensively, “If you didn’t want anyone to use it, why was it in the jar in the first place?”

So, full disclosure: that girl was me.

At what point do the virtues of selflessness and generosity become unhealthy? It has everything to do with your self-worth. When you set aside your own wants and needs for the needs of others by default, are you doing it out of true kindness and generosity, or because you don’t feel worthy enough as a human being to have your wants and needs met?

My choosing that paintbrush did not allow someone else the opportunity to use the better brush. I was the only one using the brushes. I could have used them all! There was no reason for me to choose that brush–other than the fact, that in that moment, at that point in time, I did not feel like I was worthy enough to have the best quality.

Low self-worth is like rot for your soul. If left untreated, it can spread and infects every thought and action until you crumble. You believe you are not _____ enough. Fill in the blanks: thin, smart, creative, patient, good, etc. Instead of visualizing your best possible, Best Quality life, you hold on to the worst case scenario because you don’t think the best case scenario can happen for you.

What would it feel like to choose The Best for just one day? What would it feel like to surround yourself with only the best? I’m not suggesting you go on a shopping spree. This isn’t about stuff. Look at your friendships, your relationships, your home. What is broken or in disrepair? Are you avoiding that difficult conversation with your loved one because you don’t think you’re worth a change for the better? Are you ignoring that leaky faucet? Have you grown used to things slowly falling apart because you don’t think you’re worth better? Are you settling?

How would you feel if you didn’t settle for less? Take note of that feeling. That Feeling is your goal. Go for the things that give you That Feeling.

You are worthy. Write it down; say it as you drive around town; put a post-it on the mirror: “I am worthy.”

Because you are.