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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.***

Men Are Like Aliens

At least once a year I rant about boys on my blog and get chewed out for it. Here’s the 2012 rant. Proceed with caution, a sense of humor, and hopefully a little less stubborn pride than you possessed last year.

Here’s the thing: men are like aliens. Seriously. I have no desire to figure them out, dissect their souls, and put them in a box. But even if I did, I’d have no clue where to begin. They are different, interesting, wildly confusing creatures and I’ll tell you why I feel this way.

I’ll start with my compatriots in the land of estrogen. We can be downright crazy sometimes. I mean, one day I can’t stop shivering with an amorous fever over some guy, and the very next day – I kid you not – I’m nonchalantly telling my roommate that I’m “kinda over him”. Crazy? Absolutely. And maybe when you were a kid you heard those awful rumors that the Christian girls next door were sitting around writing up lists about the kind of prince they were waiting on to come sweep them off their feet. Yeah, that wasn’t a rumor. It unfortunately happened – I wrote a few of those lists, too. And maybe you were even told by (well-meaning?) older guys that we ladies start planning our weddings and picking out baby names as soon as we go on a fairly decent date with you, so you shouldn’t ask us out until you’re sure we could be the one. For your sake and ours, naturally. Can I just call a major bullshit on that one? Bullshit.

You know, if we were all still thirteen, this would work out just fine. We’d be waiting for princes and you’d be cowering behind your video games fully aware that you’d never be Prince Charming and disinclined to try. Fair enough. But here are a few rumors you can start spreading around. We are not the people we were and we don’t want the things we wanted a decade ago. Stop using excuses that are almost as old as you.

I love weddings – the dresses, the colors, the intricate details, the symbolism, the almost tangible presence of love – heck, I wanted to be a wedding planner for years! But just because I know that I want to get married someday in the Fall surrounded by mountains and the color persimmon doesn’t mean that I’m ready to be married, and certainly not to you after a single date or three. Get over yourself. I certainly won’t stop professing my love for weddings just so I don’t scare a man off. Can I just say it one more time? Just because a girl likes weddings doesn’t mean she wants to marry you.

Oh, and the rumor about us thinking we’re princesses? It’s actually not a rumor – I am a princess, only because my Father is the King over all creation. Naturally, that makes me a princess. Not because I’m pampered, or have an easy life, or want to wear ballroom gowns all day long. Not because I have expectations of a man catering to my every need. I’m a princess because it’s my God-given identity, period. I’m not looking to find a man who will make me royalty – that’s already been taken care of. I’m not Cinderella. So the pressure’s off, gentlemen. We don’t need you to save the day, or save us from our own feminine frailty and incapabilities. Someone greater already did that and to ask you to would show a lack of understanding of what’s already been done for us.

Here’s what I’m trying to say: You confuse us. We think of you as strong and brave in every way, and then it comes down to choosing us and you cower. There’s the “You’re beautiful, and wise, and I would be a fool not to date you, but I just need to seek the Lord” excuse. And then there’s the “I just don’t want to screw up what we have as friends” excuse. And my all-time favorite, “You’re gonna make someone really happy someday.” Oh really? Because that someone could’ve been you.

We’re taught to make excuses for men, to hope upon hope, to ignore blatant signs that he’s not actually interested under the guise of “He just needs time and encouragement.” Maybe he hasn’t responded to your text for three days because his phone caught on fire and then he accidentally dropped it in the toilet. Maybe he didn’t call because he is just so intimidated by your beauty and wisdom. Maybe he’s being a jerk to you because he’s trying to protect your heart.

Or maybe he is a jerk who doesn’t know what he wants and refuses to take any risks to discover it? Ah, but I sound like a whiny spinster if I use such words. So in the interest of being kind, I will say only a few more things.

I don’t want a prince; I want a man who is sure of me. Not sure he wants to spend the rest of his life with me, but sure that he wants to get to know me. Sure enough to pick up the phone and call and make plans to sit and have intentional conversations that aren’t ambiguous. If it’s a date, say it’s a date. If it’s not, don’t act like it is. I cannot explain succinctly how annoying it is to not know what you want from us and for us. Suffice it to say that we’ve had enough of the ambiguity. It’s a date or it’s not. You want to hold my hand or you don’t. Stop straddling lines.

And for the love, if you don’t remember anything from this rant, please remember this: going on dates is not that big of a deal. We’re twenty-somethings – surely we can have a great conversation and drink some beer without either one of us freaking out and vomiting hormones and future baby names everywhere. I assure you, it can be done.

And here’s the thing about rumors – you either blindly accept them, or you seek to disprove them. When was the last time you got presented with a 50 Things I’m Looking For in a Godly Man list over a romantic dinner? Can’t remember? Yeah, that’s probably because you also can’t remember the last time you were on a real date. Make those generalizations about women when it has actually happened to you, because there are a lot of us considering lesbianism thanks to the rumors you refuse to disprove. Half kidding.

You’re a better man than you know. Stop worrying that we will make it a big deal. Stop making it a big deal for yourself. Stop telling us we are beautiful and wonderful and then spending Friday night with your Xbox. We may not be compatible in the long run, but how will you know if you never ask a girl out?

My therapist says, “There’s a shortage of strong men out there, but you can’t sell yourself short and settle for a wuss who had to be talked into liking you. You need a man who knows what he wants, and goes for it confidently against all odds. Don’t settle.”

I’m just obeying doctor’s orders 😉

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.

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.

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