I have an arch-nemesis.
I feel kind of bad, because it’s likely that this poor girl has no idea that she’s my nemesis. She might even think we’re friends. And we are…except I can’t stand her.
The reason is simple: she’s Me, Version 2.0. She’s a newer model, a little sleeker, a little shinier. She has a bright open face, a small waist, and a perky personality. She calls everyone “hon” with complete sincerity, which drives me bonkers because it represents how she easily relates to people around her. Not so, I.
She studied literature in college, same as me, and we both worked in a writing center. Except she double majored with an intense minor, and she also took her job in the writing center to another level, presenting papers at conferences about tutoring.
She is a writer with a successful blog. We’ve just recently become friends on Facebook after being acquaintances in reality, and I see that she’s being linked to by some impressive people and sites. She even has a recurring blog post on a hip young Christian writing site. She’ll probably publish a book soon, and then it’ll be all over. I’ll fall over the cliff into consuming jealousy and never recover.
There’s my dirty little secret: I’m the jealous type.
My jealousy always comes out with women, and it’s always because I start comparing something they have to what I have, and what I have always pales in comparison. Generally, it’s not things per se, but rather talents, skills, abilities, tendencies, even quirks.
Honestly, the scarcity principle often rules my rationality. I believe if you have something, that means I can’t have it. It’s like we’re fighting over the last Cabbage Patch doll on Christmas Eve in 1988. There’re only so many Cabbage Patch dolls to go around, if in this scenario Cabbage Patch dolls equal good art. The good writing dolls are even more limited. We can’t all be great writers, so that means if you are a great writer, then I’ll probably never be a great writer.
Do you see why I say we (or more specifically I) have mental illnesses?
This jealousy is not an attractive quality. It keeps me from truly engaging with those around me, especially new people in my life who could challenge me. It keeps me from growing my own craft in ways that please me and my God. And it keeps me from celebrating the women around me and the amazing things that they do.
This was made clear to me while reading Rachel Held Evans’s book A Year of Biblical Womanhood. Evans expressed so many things in my heart that I didn’t know how to say. I believe the book has changed my life in subtle ways, making me stronger and more bold in who I am and what I believe I should be.
A section that will stay with me is about the familiar Proverbs 31 woman. The line “A wife of noble character, who can find?” is famous among women of faith. Normally, it makes me want to answer bitterly, “No one,” because ain’t no woman live up to that proverb.
But guess what what Evans taught me? Proverbs 31 is not supposed to be a to-do list. It’s a poetic affirmation sung by men to women at the Sabbath meal. It’s not written for women; it’s written for men. Instead of it outlining the perfect woman, it’s celebrating qualities that women already possess and different ways those qualities are expressed. Further, I see the poem as celebrating all types of women: the mother, the wife, the businesswoman, the chef, the crafter, the coupon-clipper.
The Hebrew term for “women of noble character” is eshet chayil. It translates most fully as “a woman of valor.” This reframes the poem into more of a mythical ballad, celebrating a woman who is brave and strong. She’s victorious. She has valor.
Eshet chayil. Woman of valor.
On Wednesday, I sat around a dining table with Rachel Held Evans and twelve other women. We had a spirited discussion with Evans about being female and evangelical, about the responses of people in the church to strong women, about how to be brave and how to be us and how to be Christians.
Even if Evans hadn’t been there, though, I would have been amazed by the incredible women around that table. They were pastors, mothers, runners, bloggers, connectors, photographers, speakers, teachers. All women of various ages, all women striving for transparency and integrity, all women of valor.
I realized then that I don’t want to wait for a husband to sing to me of my valor. Instead, I want to start singing eshet chayil to others, to sing it loudly from the rooftops. I want to recognize the women of valor in my life and praise them for what they’ve done: for me, for their families, for communities, for their God.
So don’t be surprised if I call you out, if I proclaim “woman of valor!” to you when you send me the spreadsheet I was looking for, or you share of a hard conversation you had with your mother, or you run a 5K, or you tell me you and your husband are going to try to have a baby. These are all things to be celebrated, big and small. These are all things which deserve a hearty eshet chayil.
Instead of seeing fellow women as my rivals, as those who are good in ways that I cannot be and who will steal the limited amounts of joy this world contains, I want to see them as fellow women of valor, women who inspire me and boost my own strength. I want to see them as women who make me more brave by their own brave deeds.
Because there is no limit to the amount of good art and joy in this world. Good art begets good art, and joy only compounds joy—if we let it. If we believe that God is a good God who gives gifts to his children, then all we’ll be able to see around us are men and women of valor.
So to you, my nemesis, I say eshet chayil. You are a strong woman who God has blessed. You challenge me to be better at what I do, because your work proves that putting good art out into this world can change peoples’ hearts. And that’s what matters.
If you get a book deal, I’ll probably still throw myself off of the jealousy cliff, but hopefully before too long, I’ll sheepishly peek up over the edge and whisper, Eshet chayil.
I’ll probably even mean it.