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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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Silence Is A Cancer

The thing about pain is that it is universal. It lives inside of us – grief cohabiting with joy, unrest nestling with peace. We can’t escape it but we spend all of our energy trying to surpress it. Sometimes it lets up and joy wins for a time; and sometimes it spreads like a wildfire, consuming everything good.

The thing about me is that I’m a silent sufferer. The more intense the pain, the quieter I become, until I forget how to use my words to ask for help.

I’ve always been crazy about justice, wanting to make sure everyone gets what they deserve. It made me a little unforgiving as a child, and emotionally stunted as an adult living in a broken world. But thank the Lord that mercy triumphs over judgment. I don’t know when it started, but somehow – not by my own might – I began choosing mercy rather than judgment. And now, I’m the girl who can’t bring herself to hate a mass murderer; the girl who can’t bring herself to write a Facebook status about how she doesn’t understand how messed up and evil a person would have to be to kill dozens of people; the girl who feels overwhelming sympathy for the people we label as devils.

You know why? Cause I understand that we’re all in pain. We don’t admit it – I don’t admit it – until it eats away at all our healthy flesh and consumes us from the inside out. Everyone starts off thinking that they’re strong enough to be better than the next person. I’ll never cheat on my husband. I’ll never get to the point where picking up a gun and pointing it at someone is my release. I could never engage in non-consensual sex with a woman. We all start there, but we’re all in pain. And if we don’t choose to find our words and ask for help, if we don’t stop perpetuating this myth that suffering in silence is being strong, if we don’t let each other feel and grieve and mourn and break – we will all end up killing the good things around us too.

I can’t hate a mass murderer because his pain is not foreign to me. I can only imagine that they are silent sufferers too – ones who were told that to be strong is to wear a perma-smile and act like everything’s fine, until it’s not. Sure, I’ve never fired a gun. I don’t even know how. But I’ve at times gotten so deeply lost in my own pain that I begin to lash out at the people around me, even the people who love me. In an effort to find a reprieve, I’ve killed good friendships, hurt good men, used my tongue to lacerate my loved ones, and walked away from people who needed me. Sure, it doesn’t get the position of honor on the 9 o’clock news, but I have left my own trail of wounded, hurting people in my frantic attempt to stop my heart from hurting so much.

I’ve had my own share of trauma and abuse and heartache. And I spent years hating the inflicters of my pain until I realized that they are just as broken as I am. No, that doesn’t excuse what they did or give them any right to repeat it again. But it helps me not to demonize them, because only broken people hurt other people. And we’re all broken in various places.

So I can’t hate them. I will never condone the acts of evil they carry out in their own quest for peace, and I will never underestimate the agony the hearts of those directly affected have to endure. What I will do is remember my own brokenness, and that I am only one step away from their hell. That step is graceful surrender. The only thing that will keep me from being a cheating wife or an abusive mother or a mass murderer is the choice to not rely on my own ability to be good and do what’s right, but instead to make an honest confession that I’m broken and I’m in pain and Jesus’ grace is the only reason why I don’t go out and try to break other people. And that surrender, that choice, needs to happen moment by moment, not one time long ago in the back pew of your parents’ church.

Let’s celebrate together the joy and beauty we discover amidst the filth in this world. But let us also embrace the pain and stop telling each other to be “strong” and suck it up and pretend like we’re fine. Strength is found in raw honesty, in beautiful vulnerability. Don’t entrust your heart to people who tell you that breaking is a sign of weakness, or that feelings are for little girls. Even Jesus wept. If we don’t start breaking on a regular basis, we’re all going to be walking around with emotional tumors that can rupture at any moment.

I’m no better than that guy on the news, and neither are you. We’re all in pain. There’s a time to laugh and dance and sing, and there’s a time to break. If we don’t let ourselves break, we end up breaking others. It’s okay to break. It’s okay to break. It’s okay to break.

***The best gift I’ve ever given myself is going to counseling. No, it’s not for the “crazies” – it’s for everyone who breathes. Yes, it can be expensive and intimidating. But I’d rather starve for a few days every couple of weeks than remain emotionally stunted. Recommend is not a strong enough word for the situation, but if you need a safe place to break and it is in your power to do it, I wholeheartedly recommend seeing a counselor. Your heart will thank you a million times.***

Half-Cakes & Entitlement

“I feel like I’ve worked through my relationship with God pretty well. I don’t doubt the things I used to, and I’m now 100% confident in his affection for me. My problem is humans. They’re fickle and unreliable and unsafe.”

He just laughed at me, probably for a whole minute. It wasn’t the reaction I was expecting – I was being completely serious. But he chuckled and said, “Well, that’s a funny thing to say.” And then he said something else that I’ve been carrying around in my heart for the last few weeks; something that keeps coming up when my [unreasonable] expectations of other people aren’t met.

“You’re thinking of this the wrong way. If this is a cake, you’ve cut it in half making one side ‘God’s side’ and the other side ‘everyone else’s side’. You say, ‘I’ve got the God side figured out, now I just need the other side to complete my cake.’ God’s love and acceptance isn’t half of the cake – it’s the whole cake. If you’re expecting to find the right group of friends or the right guy to complete the other side of the cake, you’ll never find it. Everything else other than who He is is icing on the cake – a blessing to be thankful for, not something you’re entitled to.”

I still heave a loud sigh every time I go back and read that portion of my rapidly scribbled journal entry after our session. I didn’t think that one of the first things my therapist would tell me was that I needed to lower my expectations. But here I am, two weeks later, still processing that one thought. Still unsure how to adapt to that method of thinking.

In relationships, I expect authenticity, grace, genuine concern, maturity, consistency. In reality, I’m bathed daily in His authenticity, grace, genuine concern, maturity, consistency. Any other expressions of these qualities should be considered a surplus, not a source of sustenance. I get frustrated with people quickly because the expectations I have of them are less about healthy relationships and more about looking for sustenance where it can’t be found.

Somehow, I believe this way of thinking makes you a more grateful person. If I don’t think I’m entitled to certain things, and if I live with the awareness that I already possess the things I so desperately crave, then everything else becomes a gift and the absence of certain things doesn’t leave me with an emotional deficit.

At least that sounds nice in theory. I’m still struggling to see the whole cake instead of the unsatisfactory half-cake mirage I’ve been looking at for years.

Celebrating Unanswered Prayers

Sometimes we complain about never hearing any yeses from God, and only hearing nos instead. It seems like He’s silent when we want His nod of approval, but emphatically against the things we really desire. My reality, however, has been vastly different recently.

Over the last six months I’ve heard more yeses than I bargained for. There were a few things I would’ve been fine hearing a no about. But God was not only speaking clearly, He was affirming the things I was asking him for. I thought, of course, that His yes meant that things would turn out like I wanted. I thought that if He wasn’t stopping me from going ahead with these plans and these people, it meant that my vision of the future was accurate.

What I didn’t take into consideration was the fact that I had specifically asked Him to give me a sense of unease if these decisions would be harmful to my heart in the long run. He did exactly what I asked – just not in the way I expected.

None of the situations where I heard a definite “Yes” panned out the way I thought they would. But if He never said yes, I would have promptly extracted myself from the process. And all along, his plan was the process. He knew we wouldn’t end up together, but He said yes so that I would learn things about myself that I needed to face – learning what I actually need as well as how willing I am to compromise my needs for what’s readily available. He knew that I wouldn’t actually get the internship of my dreams, but He gave a firm yes so that I could finally figure out who I am and what I want. The process of trying to convince an organization to choose me showed me that I, contrary to my old beliefs, have a lot to offer. It showed me that I’m being useful and fruitful right where I’m at.

My process has been one of self-discovery and truth-telling. I’m learning to be honest with myself about who I really am, and honest with the people around me as well. As I learned from this incredible TED talk, the original definition of courage is simply to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart. I’m learning courage. My process has led me away from unhealthy, immature relationships that I would never have had the audacity to walk away from otherwise. It’s opened up new doors for new relationships that are being built on healthy foundations. My process has shown me the depths of my own self-loathing, my insecurities, my lack of boundaries, my propensity for blaming others, my unhealthy desire to emotionally control people.

There’s just no way to describe in words the newness I have found in the small steps I’ve taken to be free of my old ways. My roommate suggested that we recreate our photoshoot from last August just so we could document the stark differences in the people we used to be and the ones we are today. It’s that obvious. Everyone I catch up with these days begins by saying, “You seem so happy.” And I am. I’m exuding bliss from my very pores.

All because of the process. A year ago, I would’ve been shattered by the recent series of events in my life. I would’ve questioned God’s character – how could He say yes when He knew it wouldn’t happen? How could He lie to me? But today, I can finally see that sometimes, his Yes is given because He knows the process will change me more than the end result I’m asking for. Sometimes we simply need to be transformed so that we realize that what we asked for isn’t really what we needed or truly desired after all.

Don’t get me wrong, this process has been difficult, painful, and emotionally draining at times. But the beauty of being such an introspective person is that right now I can see myself being unfurled, transformed, set free. This is the kind of pain I welcome with open arms – the pain that strips me of the decaying, unhealthy parts and forces me into the light, and into growth. And this will be the pattern for the rest of my life because, as I’ve previously written, I don’t believe in the destination points anymore. This process is what changes me. Here’s to not dating that guy, and not moving to California – the best unanswered prayers of my year.

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