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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.

Dear Old Friend,

I miss you. I miss the laughter and light-hearted banter. The car rides and sing-a-longs. The rolling of eyes and completing of sentences. I miss how easy it was with you.

It’s funny how the moment we said we’d be friends forever our friendship died. It saw the future before we ever could. My fingers tire of placing blame – on you, on me, on them. We both could have tried harder; but we didn’t and here we are.

Much as I miss you, I don’t miss the person I was when I was with you. The one who let you get away with being an ass for so long. The one who didn’t tell you that you’re supposed to fight for the people you care about, and not give up when you think they’re apathetic towards you. The one who let you into a place most sacred and never said how much it broke her.

If love was supposed to be convenient, it would end when friendships end. But real love never ends and I am resigned to loving you for as long as my chest rises and falls. We may never speak again, and still I’ll love you.

Yet amidst the loving and missing, I want you to hurt as much as you’ve hurt me. Somehow, I don’t believe you’ll change until you are truly miserable.  You’ve been let off the hook too quickly, too frequently. And I think that hook needs time to sink in, make its mark, leave a scar.

So thank God that I’m not Him. Because I miss you, and I love you, but I hope you are miserable wherever you may be.

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!***

What Might Have Been Lost

First, I should confess that I’m a blog junkie. I spend an [almost] embarrassing amount of time perusing the writings of other people on the web. That being said, I discovered a new favorite recently. This blog chronicles one woman’s quest to find a best friend in the city where she lives. With the exception of a few details, her description of the blog is the perfect portrayal of where I’m at right now:

I am a married white female searching for a best friend forever.

I have two lifelong BFFs, Sara and Callie, who I met when I was 10 and 14, at camp and high school respectively. I have seven super-close friends from college.  I have dear pals from high school whose weddings I’d never miss and babies (well, so far there’s only one baby) I’m dying to meet.  There is no shortage of shoulders to cry on. Here’s the catch: I live in Chicago.  Sara and Callie live in New York City. My Northwestern roommates live in Boston, San Francisco, New York, and St. Louis. The high schoolers are in D.C. and (you guessed it), Manhattan. My closest friends are everywhere but here.

I moved to Chicago with my now-husband after we both decided a long-distance relationship (he was at law school in Philly, I was working in New York) just wouldn’t do. We’ve been here for nearly three years and in that time have made a few friends. Primarily couples, with whom we catch up over dinner  every few months. But on a Sunday morning when I want to grab an omelette over girl talk, I’m at a loss. My Chicago friends are the let’s-get-dinner-on-the-books-a-month-in-advance type.  I’m looking for someone to invite over to watch The Biggest Loser or to text “pedicure in half an hour?” on a Saturday morning. To me, that’s what BFFs are. Not just people who know your innermost secrets, but the ones up for grabbing a bite on a whim because they love being with you just that much, and getting together feels easy and natural rather than a chore you need to pencil in.

So I’m on the hunt for Miss Right. A person who can fill the one void in the otherwise great life I’ve set up in the Windy City. I always thought friendships blossom naturally, like at summer camp and in school. In the grown-up world, apparently this isn’t the case. So I’m taking matters in my own hands.

This is my life right now. I’m thankful to have found my people – I’m well aware that not everyone can share that joy. Except that my people are everywhere but here. In therapy, (which you lucky folks will probably continue to hear about until I’m done), I’ve been asked to hold my people close, and learn to be content with acquiring multiple acquaintances; to lower my expectations of everyone else; to be okay with multiple shallow friendships. For someone who maintains that she has no desire for a multitude of best friends, I certainly don’t act like it. But I’m learning to expect less of everyone, as morbid as that sounds.

The problem, however, is nights like tonight. After one long phone call, my mind is reeling with news that just changed everything. There’s been a shift in my reality, and it’s an uncomfortable one. And all I want to do is sit with one (or all) of my closest friends and just cry. I don’t want to explain why it hurts, I don’t want to be heartbroken over Skype or a phone call. I just want someone here to cry with, someone with whom to eat a bowl of ice cream and watch When Harry Met Sally, someone who will gladly change their Saturday night plans just to sit with me, someone who understands the delicate balance between logical thought and empathy that my soul needs.

But you don’t call just anyone on nights like these. Melt-downs can’t be shared with just any acquaintance, or even a good friend. You need your people. And mine are in New York, Kenya, Germany, and Nigeria. Tonight, I loathe that fact. I ache to sit in comfortable silence with the ones who know me the best, to have them tell me over a shared bottle of wine that it will all work out, to have them know without explanation why it hurts simply because they know my heart.

My heart lives in three continents all at once. And while my long-distance relationship skills have grown exponentially over the last year, tonight my heart is weary and longing for the comfort of my favorite souls. Maybe I should begin my own quest for a new best friend. Except that with my luck, as soon as our friendship sets sail they’ll probably get some awesome job in South Korea.

For tonight, I will try to find contentment in listening to Bon Iver’s The Wolves (Act 1 and II) on repeat, and sipping on a glass of whisky.

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