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In Anticipation of Death

Growth is a heady feeling. An intoxicating, soul-warming, heart-swelling wonder.

For a seed to grow, it first must die. I’ve been carrying around this seed within me, deformed from the effort it’s taken to keep it alive. Its name is self-preservation, and I’ve held on to it as tightly as I could since I was old enough to speak. I was taught that if I don’t fight for myself, no one else will. So to avoid the heartache of realizing that no one was fighting for me, I never gave anyone the chance to. I didn’t let myself need anyone. It’s just been me, behind my fortress, fully clothed in my impenetrable armor, shield raised, sword drawn.

In my early teenage years, my sword was my tongue. I was the bitch – the one with the death glare and the amazingly crafted insults that pierced through your chest and never left the corners of your heart. Then I stopped talking and started hiding – my sword of choice in the recent past has been to withdraw my affection. I figured that was better than saying the hurtful things I knew I was capable of speaking. None of it was malicious; I was merely doing as I was told. “If you don’t fight for yourself, no one else will.”

When I came out from behind my fortified walls, I thought I’d done it. I’d made the big leap – I was truly learning vulnerability now. That was back when I started writing this blog and learning how to take baby steps. I laugh now at my naivete, not because I wasn’t growing back then, but because I thought I had arrived at my [vulnerable] destination.

Two years later, I realize that I’ve still been carrying around that armor, still wielding my sword, still cowering behind my shield. Although I’ve stepped out from behind the walls, I’ve been so preoccupied with taking care of myself – with protecting my heart – that I might as well be back in that fortress I built forever ago.

And to discover that it was all from a warped view of God and His role in my life. The things you learn about yourself in therapy are eventually hilarious once it doesn’t hurt so much. As it turns out, I’ve been trying to play God my entire life, trying to take over His protective role. Instead of letting Him protect my heart like He promised to, I’ve been [ineffectively] doing all the work – wielding my sword unnecessarily and creating an incredible mess.

Oh, to have been taught that “guarding your heart” doesn’t mean building a fortress in which to cage your emotions, or living with a strict “three strikes and you’re out” mentality, but instead, radically entrusting your heart and emotions to God for safekeeping and taking your hands off the process. Freeing yourself to love and feel and be disappointed and break and be repaired, knowing that the hurts won’t kill you, and that the One protecting you is also able to repair you – what a wild, wild notion.

I’m not emotionally available to love or be loved because I’m much too concerned with being aloof and keeping my guard up. I’m always on the defensive, worried that if I’m too vulnerable, if I let you in too far, you’ll stick a knife in my gut and gloat as I bleed to death. I’m afraid of collecting more scars because I know just how long it takes for those wounds to heal. I ignore you and become stone cold when I’m romantically interested in you, because letting you know how I feel would be just as terrifying as running down College Avenue naked as the day I was born, screaming, “Look at me! Look at me!” I can’t cry around you because I’m afraid you’ll think I’m weak and overly emotional. Hell, I can’t even let myself be super fond of you because what if you aren’t just as fond of me?

What a shitshow. Pardon my French.

And then this week, I had a stunning realization. In the midst of practicing unconditional love (which I wrote about here), I discovered that it really is the nicest feeling to like a person for who they are without any expectation that they like who you are in return. And then it hit me: I’m growing. Sometimes I get so lost in my flaws and shortcomings that I fail to see that I’m not who I once was. I’m growing. My leaves are budding – and even though there’s a fall breeze outside, it feels like spring inside. It tastes like the beginnings of finally being free.

A few months ago, God promised that this new year would be one of rest; a Sabbath. I thought that meant that all the things I’d asked for for so long would finally be mine, and all the pain would magically disappear. But today, I think His rest looks a lot more like me surrendering my armor and my weapons and letting Him fight for me – letting down my guard in order to let Him be my guard. The pain is still there and maybe always will be, and the things I’ve asked for are still not mine, but in contemplating the surrender of my self-protective habits, I feel closer to rest than I’ve ever felt in my entire life.

I’m not free yet – unlearning decades worth of terrible habits is not something that happens in a month, or six. But now I can see what freedom might look like – that when I stop fighting for myself, I can finally be free to live. That there’s more freedom and rest in letting go than in trying so hard to protect myself. That I find my life only when I’m willing to lose it.

Maybe a year from now I’ll have learned what it looks like to let Him do the fighting – to be emotionally available, to wear my heart on my sleeve again, to cry in front of you when I’m awestruck by beauty or when my heart is breaking, to love and let myself be loved.

I’m not that girl yet, but I’m running towards that freedom with all that I have. Today, I’m celebrating a deeper understanding of unconditional love – and completely relishing my gooey affections that need not be reciprocated at all. And on the day I finally put self-preservation to death, I will throw a giant party. Because it would mean that I have finally chosen to let God be my shield, and my fortress, and my defense. And my soul will finally be at rest.

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No Agendas, Just Love

You all probably already knew this and were just waiting to see how long it would take me to figure it out. I’m a slow learner; don’t hold it against me. Here’s what took me forever to figure out: Life is so much easier with lower expectations and better boundaries.

Wild and exciting discovery, I know. Most of you good people already know how to do this, but I’ve been the girl with expectations higher than Mt. Everest and boundaries as nonexistent as my love life. And over the last few weeks, I’ve been letting go of bitterness, erecting healthy boundaries, and expecting everyone to act like a regular human and not a saint. You know, it’s been pretty darn phenomenal.

I’m learning to love unconditionally.

In a long overdue letter to someone I love dearly, I wrote, “I am certain that I will always love you. And you don’t have to love me back.” It wasn’t just a nice sentiment; for the first time in my life, I actually meant that. It doesn’t matter if it’s ever reciprocated this side of heaven, and it doesn’t matter if my love is trampled underfoot in unappreciative gestures. All that won’t change what I know to be true – real, Godly, selfless love never ends.

The beautiful thing about loving people without expecting to be loved in return is that it isn’t synonymous with being a doormat. I’m learning that I can love with my whole heart yet make it absolutely clear what I won’t accept. I love you but you can’t talk to me like that. I love you but until you learn to treat me better, I won’t be hanging out with you. Unconditional love isn’t synonymous with being a doormat. I always thought it was.

My expectations aren’t nonexistent now, they’re just more realistic. I’m not expecting everyone I meet to become a great friend in the near future. I’m not expecting everyone to desire quality time like I do, or initiate in the timeline I would prefer. And I’m not going to mete out my affection based on how they respond to me. I expect common courtesy and respect, but I no longer expect sainthood. I’ve loosened my grip; I can’t control who people are and how they behave. I, however, can control how I respond. I’m responsible for myself, my attitude, my heart. I’m focusing on that instead of them. I’m focusing on grace, honesty, and love instead of resentment, games, and selfishness. It feels like the sun rising inside my chest.

I’ll love you, hug you, bake you cookies, ask how your week has been, and speak highly of you. And you don’t have to love me back. I’ll forgive you when you’re a jerk, and then I’ll draw a new boundary line until you prove yourself trustworthy again. But I won’t withhold my love as a way to punish you or protect myself. I’ll love you while being honest about how you hurt me. And you don’t have to love me back.

I’m starting to sound more and more like my Father.

And my favorite part is, it gets increasingly difficult to resist unconditional love. So eventually, you’ll cave and love me back too. Win-win.

Get It Wrong, Get It Right

I do this thing quite regularly where I place the blame for almost everything on myself. Maybe I’m not the only one, or maybe I am. But it is second nature to me, and has been since my prepubescent days. Why didn’t we have a good time that night? I probably did something wrong. Why doesn’t she ever call me? I probably said something to offend her. Why am I a 23-year-old who’s awesome (as expressed by biased allies) and yet has never been on a real date? I’m most definitely doing something wrong.

Now, I’m just as skilled as you are in pointing fingers and making charges. But by the time I feel bold enough to blame someone else for an issue, I would have already stood trial before my highly accusatory heart and waited for my exoneration. There are lots of reasons for it – reasons that would probably end up being rants about growing up in a conservative, Nigerian household.

Nevertheless, like a well-worn shirt, I daily put on the belief that if only I were doing something better, I would have the results I want. That, somehow, if life doesn’t work out the way I want it to, it’s because there’s something I need to improve on. This doctrine is ever-present in Christian culture. If it doesn’t work out, then God wants to teach you something through it. Oh, you’re still in this situation because God is waiting for you to change your attitude, THEN He’ll give you what you’re asking for.

We start seeking change, improvement, betterment as a means to an end. We seek to develop, not for the beauty of growth itself, but for the things that will be afforded to us because of the growth. It’s a game – when you reach a new level, you get a thousand points. We take on burdens that aren’t ours to bear, forgetting that we live in an evil world filled with imperfect people and their imperfect responses. We chase after maturity not simply because it is what God desires of us, but because if we’re mature enough, we’ll finally be delivered from this situation/given our significant other/get into grad school/get that dream job/whatever it is. If I figure out what You want me to learn quickly enough, I can skip the rest of this pain and move on to what I really want. Because if I don’t have _____ yet, it’s because I’m doing something wrong.

For this to be true, I must be operating under the assumption that if I do everything right, things will inevitably fall into place. In reality, I could do everything right a thousand times, and things could still fall apart. Just because you speak the truth with grace doesn’t mean it will be received well. Just because you are fiscally responsible doesn’t mean that you won’t one day end up broke because of circumstances out of your control. And just because you’re finally content with being single doesn’t mean your husband is on the way. (And can we, for the love of all things good, stop spreading that little fable around?)

If I do the right thing, it should solely be for the sake of doing the right thing. And it should be done with the expectation that the world could still fall apart and she could still hate me and he might still not be interested and I might still end up broke. Doing the right thing doesn’t guarantee happiness.

So, Universe, this is my official declaration to you and your inhabitants: I refuse to carry your burden along with mine. I will choose to be responsible for myself and act accordingly when I’m wrong, but I will not continue to blame myself for the things you’re responsible for. Sometimes I let myself think that I’m inherently flawed – never enough. Lies. I am enough, it is not [always] my fault, and I refuse to be responsible for you. It’s not my problem, and I’m keeping it that way.

***The idea of being responsible to people and not for them has significantly changed my life. I highly recommend beg you to read Boundaries by Cloud/Townsend for further expansion on that topic, and for your general emotional well-being!***

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