“and all, like diamond, is carbon first, then light.”— José Julian Marti Pérez
The ring is a rather large diamond on a thin platinum band. It’s an old-fashioned cut with many more facets than today’s clean, modern look. The facets sparkle and draw attention. It’s showy.
I was in my early twenties when I inherited the ring from my great aunt’s estate. It had come to her through her husband’s family and originally belonged to my great uncle’s great grandmother. I didn’t wear jewelry at that period in my life, at most a pair of earrings, but nothing flashy. Drawing attention to myself made me uncomfortable and jewelry demanded a persona that did not fit my view of myself. On the other hand, I was close to my great uncle and sentimental about family and history, so I valued the ring—just never wore it.
For more than ten years, I hid the ring. I could have placed it in a safety deposit box, but for reasons I never examined, I liked having it near me. A jeweler appraised the ring for ten thousand dollars and the liability of its safe keeping nagged at me every time I left my house. I felt the conscious and unconscious weight of owning something I couldn’t afford to lose.
Then one night, I gave it away. There were no strings attached. I was sober. The idea had come to me only an hour before, but with such clarity and certainty the choice was easy. I was flat broke, selling it would have made more sense if I didn’t mind parting with it—but I did; it was not something I could sell.
Beth was a new friend, a woman older than me by ten years. She interviewed me for a job I didn’t accept, but there was a simpatico of intelligence between the two of us, and we became friends. I thought I traveled a bumpy road, but her life story evoked an empathy in me that put my abundant blessings in perspective. Escaping poverty and abuse, she’d grown up fast and tough. Luminously beautiful, whip smart and oozing charm, her surface glittered and captivated, while with a reckless, self loathing she crashed through life and relationships like a wounded animal. I’d never known anyone like her.
I am not religious. My personal belief system comprises an ever-evolving mosaic of cross-cultural study, observation and the distilled wisdom of experience. By all accounts, my story of the ring is my story of transcendence—a tale of conscious-altering events through which life ceased to feel profane and everything became sacred; including myself.
We had just shared an emotionally unsettling event; we both felt disoriented and vulnerable, but Beth’s mother had died two weeks earlier, work pressure and her absence of a solid self made my instability threatening. Catalyzed by her need, I snapped out of my own distress and in response to a desperate, scared phone call, I invited her to drive to my house and offered to write her client proposal. We lived an hour apart, and in the interval between reassuring her and her arrival, I knew I would give her the ring. I wanted her to believe in herself. I gifted the ring as a symbol for the missing self love that made her life so volatile, and with it quoted Shakespeare: “This above all: to thine own self be true.”
Beth was not someone I felt certain I’d remain friends with. Our paths crossed for a reason, I sensed that, but our connection catalyzed an intensity that’s hard to sustain. Like fire, she compelled and challenged me. The ring became our shared adventure. I told only a handful of people what I’d done, while she told everyone. Together, we laughed at people’s responses. Two friends I confided in were horrified that she accepted and insisted I ask for it back, while her friends expressed their concern that I might. She didn’t care if I did, and I couldn’t imagine I would. Her accountant advised her to sell the ring to pay off her debts and I acknowledged within myself that no strings meant no strings. In giving away the ring, I’d gained an incomparable wealth—a lightness of being; a freedom from the illusion of possession paired with a rich experience of compassion. It felt like magic.
Over the next two years, I took intermittent breaks from our friendship. It became apparent that no matter how often or well I validated Beth’s worth to her, it was never enough. Her repetitive patterns of self denial and destruction drained me and I increasingly sensed an undercurrent of jealousy and manipulation that frustrated and confused me. Though her behavior repelled me, I did not regret my gift—giving her the ring had honored us both. As I withdrew my presence in her life, I trusted the ring to guide her.
Just before Christmas, a little past the two year anniversary of our exchange, I received a message from Beth letting me know that the ring had been stolen during a move along with a box of her jewelry. I didn’t respond. No longer mine to lament, I accepted her news with a mixture of disappointment and equanimity. I didn’t respond again when she informed me that she found the misplaced box—but that night I dreamt of the ring, and in my dream it asked to return to me.
While giving it away required a small leap of faith, asking for it back challenged me to my depths. In my mind, the act would countermand everything my generosity symbolized; my sense of self. It felt unthinkable—and inevitable. I procrastinated a few weeks while I negotiated my pride. Not until I understood that asking for the ring back was as important to my development as giving it away had been, did I find the courage. Beth readily agreed and confessed that she rarely wore it; that it had never felt right. I had moved to the East Coast, so I arranged for her to deliver the ring to a jeweler I knew in San Francisco and made further arrangements to have it resized. The ring wasn’t returning to me to go back into hiding; I knew I would wear it.
As candescent and conspicuous as I remembered it, I was willing this time to confront the implications behind my self consciousness; to examine my own denial of self worth. Dual themes of privilege and beauty conjured feelings of shame and inadequacy—the stigma of affluence and the humiliation of a flawed self image.
Three years have passed. I made a companion ring as guard and I wear the set most everyday—sometimes on my right hand, but more often than not, on my left. A traditional symbol of love and commitment, I am reminded each time I put it on: “to thine own self be true.” I couldn’t convince Beth to love and respect herself, and only now do I understand why. Self love is a choice. It can not be given to us or taken away; it is not something we need to earn. What we seek from our relationships, we long for from ourselves: to be loved and adored, trusted, forgiven and seen—as we are, for who we are.
A brilliant, clear diamond with a seeming infinity of facets; beautiful and feminine; strong—how I choose today to see myself; what I learned from a ring. Diamonds on the inside; diamonds on the soles of my walking shoes; diamonds at the meeting of my thighs. Like diamond, I was carbon and now am light.