“Hi, may I sit here?”
A gal in her early forties looked up at me and smiled, “Of course you may!”
It was graduation day at ASU West. The graduates had been ushered into La Sala Ballroom to wait around until it was time to walk. The ballroom was abuzz with excited talk of summer plans and of finally being done with school. Flourishes of gold and maroon filled every quadrant of the room. I could not find one familiar face. I spotted an open chair against the wall. After standing around stupidly for a moment, berating myself for not buddying up to some random person, I went over to claim it. I settled into the chair and resumed my inner monologue of self-criticism. As I came to the I-thought-we-had-gotten-over-this-timidity-thing part of my speech, a voice interrupted me.
It was early-forties-girl. “So, what did you study?”
I told her my name and that I had studied Spanish and English composition. She, we’ll call her Tina, had studied religion. As we talked surface things, I began to sense something Divine. She told me her journey toward her degree and about her family. We talked a lot about church. We began to share our souls. I told Tina everything there was to tell about me. Tears welled in her eyes as I told her about my family and God’s restoration. When I was finished, she said, “I have wondered how people who have had your experience turn out… judging from you, they can turn out beautifully.”
Then, the conversation changed direction. I shared a deep struggle—one with which I was struggling at that very moment…
At one point in my life, I enjoyed being an enigma. There was something exciting and adventurous about being so complex that I was constantly surprising people. I wanted to be known, but I was not willing to risk being entirely known only to become a bore. Being an enigma was safe, but terribly lonely because I rarely gave anyone a chance to accept more than just pieces of me. I hid behind a question mark to avoid rejection. It’s not that I didn’t know who I was. I wasn’t afraid to introspect or challenge my known self-conceptions. Rather, I intentionally omitted things, sharing only what would be accepted. Tolerated. Liked. I never lied. That is, I did not tell un-truths, but I kept the fullness of truth elusive and my vulnerability to a minimum. To me now, it seems like the same as telling a lie.
My refusal to move toward openness and vulnerability began to feel like working against God. But, instead of raining punishment down upon me, God rained opportunity. I found myself brushing lives with vulnerable, authentic, people and I saw what freedom looked like: lives unburdened by the need to be someone, or prove something, because they already were someone and Jesus had proved it. I am still trying to abandon myself to this truth.
Had I not been living in the skin of my old self at the time, I wouldn’t believe my level of resistance. Every thought was severely analyzed before it came out of my mouth. Every action, or word, that was not what I wanted it to be was used to bludgeon my ego when I couldn’t sleep. If God had rained retribution, I don’t think it would’ve helped. When we work against Him, He does not retaliate like an affronted child, passive aggressively creating harm in our lives. His posture toward us is ever-loving… ever-pursuing. The fortified edifices we construct within ourselves will not be demolished in a wrathful breath. That is not how God works. God lovingly deconstructs the strongholds of our un-health brick by brick and fills the openings with His grace.
Occasionally, I find myself reverting to my old pattern of being. When my insecurities are triggered, I feel my new self retreating and my old self surfacing to take over. I hate that. A gnawing sort of self-irritation sets in. Not unlike the kind experienced after the consumption of two pieces of chocolate cake when you told yourself you would eat only one. But, I have found, God meets me in my relapse too. This time, God sent me Tina.
I brought it up in a loosely related way, sharing with Tina how envious I was of my sister. My sister is spunky and fun. To me, she seems to pull people in with such ease—always places to go and an endless string of people hurling themselves at her. Tina listened and shared similar feelings regarding her own sister. Then, a serious and assuring look came over her face, and she said,
“You are more like your description of your sister than you realize, you know. If you hadn’t just told me, I wouldn’t have guessed you felt that way—at all.”
“Really?” I was in my not-being-gracious-with-Brittani mode.
“Oh, yes,” she said, “you… are effervescent.”
Effervescent. I love that.
My insides went mushy and the self-irritation evaporated. I have clung to my encounter with Tina. It was a gift—a gift I wear proudly when I’m feeling good. A gift I cherish when I’m feeling low. I think it may have been the same for Tina. God used us to wrap each other in His love.
The comic above, while humorous to me, ripples with truth. It reminds me of Tina—of how critical our stories are. There is healing in communicating our stories and in the receipt of another’s story. It is interesting how singular and private we believe our wounds to be yet it is not until we uncover our wounds that we find our friends, parents, neighbors and enemies bearing similar gashes. What we see as being painfully unique is part of the human condition—a condition intimately familiar to every person on this planet. As Henri Nouwen observes,
“…when we are not afraid to journey into our own center, and to concentrate on the stirrings of our own souls, we come to know that being alive means being loved. This experience tells us that we can only love because we were born out of love, that we can only give because our life is a gift, and that we can only make others free because we are set free by the One whose heart is greater than our own.” When this happens, Nouwen says our very presence becomes “inviting and liberating” for others instead of “demanding” or “threatening.”
Our stories become sparks of recognition. Similar wounds reside in all of us. Sharing how God has worked through our wounds infuses hope into an otherwise hopeless state of being. Maya Angelou says, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” Having harbored a number of untold stories within myself, I am inclined to think she is right. Sharing stories is the difference between healing and being stuck. It is the difference between being love and un-love. Love’s compulsion is pursuit. One way Love pursues is in the telling and hearing of story.