Eshet Chayil, or Getting Over My Arch-Nemesis

Courtesy of
Proverbs 31 in Hebrew, courtesy of

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.


17 thoughts on “Eshet Chayil, or Getting Over My Arch-Nemesis

  1. This post. So hella good!

    I get so jealous of the women I know and their beauty and victory and great art. I just want to quit because I believe the scarcity lie every other day. So thank you, Sara, for the call to whisper Woman of Valor when I want to shut down.

  2. Sara, I read one of your blogs for the first time very recently (a friend posted “We’re All Mad Here” on her FB page). I live in St. Louis but know that we would be friends/kindred spirits if we lived in the same community! Thank you for this post. You have no idea how much I needed to hear it. Your thoughts and wisdom are a gift to the world. Keep writing, hon! 😉 (BTW, I never call anyone “hon” in real life, but it was just too easy here.)

  3. Sara – your writing is always thought provoking, interesting and inspiring – and this is not exception. Thank your for the challenge and thoughts to ponder. Most women in their heart of hearts have places where their arch nemisis lives…it just doesn’t show or they don’t talk about it. When our focus becomes one of celebrating “women of valor” our lives are so rich. It then becomes valuing the other person – in turn, our lives become even richer. You are eshet chayil…and I’m celebrating you!!!

  4. Thanks Sara… great message applicable to all of us ladies. I passed it on to my small group- we are studying Proverbs right now 🙂

  5. Your thoughts are so common for all of us. Luckily, I attended a church growth seminar some years ago with a similar thread. This was my take-away from that–When someone else is gifted in an area that we are not, we can become better at the practice of that gift by watching and learning from the gifted one. We will never be like the gifted one, but we can be better at that task as a Christian (think hospitality and giving and serving and so on and so on). Your thought take that idea up a notch, celebrating their giftedness.
    Bless all of us as we develope ourselves to be better at the things we need to do,whether gifted or not in that area.

  6. SARA!!! This is a great post. Thank you for being so honest about your (our) mental illnesses. We are all sinfully crazy but in the midst of redemption. I am currently trying to put together a lengthy “series” of posts about the women who raised me…over 30. Each woman would get her own post. Your post has inspired me to do so. I think when we focus on how we have been helped, we see how we can help. And when we do that, we focus less on what we don’t have because we are basking in the blessing of…blessings! 🙂

  7. I believed everything you said, until you said, “I was sitting around talking to Rachel Held.” Now YOUR’E the one to be jealous of! Just kidding. Loved your post. First time I’ve see you. Thanks, Jacci

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