Life travels in circles. I keep finding myself walking down paths that bear the mark of familiar footprints. Like Pooh and Piglet, I frequently find the heffalumps and woozles I’ve been hunting are, in fact, traces of an earlier experience of my own life.
For years I have journaled my thoughts and feelings, writing (as I’ve heard it said) not what I know, but until I know. Processing my emotions on the page lets me see what I’m thinking, often in a way I hadn’t before. Themes repeat themselves as I approach them from a new angle and, sometimes, I gain new understanding. Occasionally, I even find wisdom.
Like many of my posts, this one began as a journal entry some months ago. I reread it this morning and found it so encouraging, I knew I needed to share. I am also terrified to tap the “Publish” button, because I don’t actually want to put these things out there in public. Important as I believe it is to be vulnerable, to be shamelessly honest, I miss the pretty mask I spent so many years crafting. I still want to look like I’ve got it all together and I don’t need nothin’ from nobody.
Which would be fine, except it’s a big, fat lie.
We are all needy. Every single one of us. Even me. So, here I go again, sharing parts of my story I grew up believing were never meant to be put on display. Because, when it all comes down, I am learning my honesty is more valuable than whatever fleeting esteem I may gain by hiding.
I spent a lot of time as a child trying to avoid my father’s anger. There was a bit of unpredictability to it. I never quite knew what would set him off. Sometimes he would be a barrel of laughs and everything would be just fine. Other times, though, the least little thing went wrong and he’d start yelling. As an adult, I learned that he was raised in a family affected by alcohol abuse. My dad didn’t drink, but my experience, I came to realize, had much in common with stories I heard and read from children of alcoholics who similarly never knew when interactions with parents might turn from fun to frightening.
Throughout my marriage, I sometimes found myself battling that same sense of insecurity. I would find Adam angry, seemingly out of the blue, and I couldn’t figure out what I had done wrong. Which, it only occurred to me after many years, probably meant I hadn’t done anything wrong, but some little thing touched off the brushfire of anger that had been smoldering underneath the surface for a long time. Maybe it was something I’d actually done, maybe it was something he’d imagined I’d done. Maybe he hadn’t been expressing how something I’d been doing bothered him and doing it just one more time was like the straw that broke the camel’s back and all this pent-up rage came out. Or, maybe it had a whole lot more to do with how he felt about himself than anything at all about me.
But I’d thought it was about me. I thought I’d said or done something that made him mad. Adam didn’t encourage this misconception, but neither did he didn’t particularly discourage it. Not until the past few years did either of us have a good enough understanding of boundaries to realize I wasn’t actually responsible for his feelings, nor he for mine. But long before that, in response to my fears of disrupting other people’s feelings, I found myself lying. I lied about who I really was and how I really felt by hiding behind this mask of someone I thought everyone wanted me to be. Only, that person never really existed.
In the last two years before Adam died, he and I had finally begun to deal with a number of relationship problems that had been present, but we’d mostly dismissed throughout our marriage. I found myself wondering why it took us so long to really start to focus on these ongoing issues. I recognized, eventually, while Adam preferred to avoid conflict altogether, I’d been too afraid to confront him because I didn’t want him to be angry at me. I got scared when he was angry, as I so often had been with my dad. In his anger, Adam did things that were so out of character. He yelled. He called me names and cursed at me. He threw things. He stomped his feet. He threw a temper tantrum. Just like our kids would. Just like I would. Just like I did.
While I was afraid of my husband’s anger, of the kids’ anger, I was even more afraid of mine. I welcomed it, at times, because it made me feel stronger. Although I was out of control, there was a power in anger that made me feel like I could change things. I could make things happen. I could make a difference to the way things were, the way I didn’t like, the way that left me feeling helpless and inadequate.
I felt unworthy not just with Adam, but even moreso with the kids. Because it was bad enough feeling like I was a lousy wife, but I knew if I let him down, Adam was a big boy and could manage himself. If I screwed up with the kids, though, I’d just ruined their childhood. They’d grow up scarred and feeling less than and never be able to become successfully functioning adults because their mother was such a mess and couldn’t possibly provide them with the emotional security they needed to mature effectively. And, in the deepest, darkest, most neglected corners of my fretful heart, I believed none of those were really statements that should be preceded by IF but WHEN.
I felt I had a love-hate relationship with the kids. I love them to pieces because they are my kids and they are these amazing little people. And I thought I hated them because they have this way of magnifying every flaw, every shortcoming, every insecurity I have ever had. And then I’d feel like a terrible mother, because what kind of mom hates their own kids?
Then again, maybe it wasn’t so much hate as fear. They’d horrify me in their ability to magnify every one of my flaws, my shortcomings, my insecurities for the whole world to see. Through the kids, I was sure, everyone everywhere could see and know and understand just what an imperfect person I am, just how much I fail every single day, just how bad I am at all the things that really good moms seem to do so effortlessly.
What really scared me so much was this: I have long feared if I was not good enough, if I didn’t live up to all their unspoken expectations, no one would love me.
I believed if I wasn’t a good enough wife, or at least obviously trying very hard to become one, Adam wouldn’t love me. If I wasn’t a good enough mom, my kids (once they had grown enough to know better), all my friends, all the other moms, and society at large wouldn’t want anything to do with me. If I wasn’t a good enough person, God would soon tire of me. Maybe I’d still be let into heaven, but my mansion wouldn’t be in the best neighborhood, I’d have trouble keeping the golden street in front of my house shiny, and my crown definitely wouldn’t have very many jewels.
For most of my life, I’ve been trying to prove I’m better than I think I am. I’ve been standing guard, frightened that someone might see my own little man-behind-the-curtain and be disappointed, disgusted, angry at what they found, who I truly am. They’d know they really were better than me, so they could go ahead and justifiably act all superior now. I didn’t deserve their friendship and maybe not even their pity. After all, I’ve been hiding all this time, pretending to be a good person like they are, when actually, I’m just a mess.
Yet, maybe, could it be, that’s how it is with all of us? We’re all just the little men-behind-the-curtains trying to be these great wizards?
Because we’re all so scared to let one another in, to get close, we don’t realize that we’re comparing our messy basements with everybody else’s dusted and polished front parlors?
And maybe that’s why true, deep community is so important. Not so much because it will make us better people as we’ll all be accountable with one another (though, that’s good too), but because we’ll see that we all have messy basements. We all have struggles and failures and fears and needs and stupid ideas about how we’re supposed to be, but unless we start getting honest with one another, we’re never going to believe it. We’ll always feel less than, because we see everybody else dressed to the nines for an evening out, but we compare their formal wear to our own closets full of all the outfits we hide: the sweatpants we wear to bed, the stained t-shirts we lounge around the house in because they are so comfortable, the summer wardrobe that’s two sizes too small because we’re going to lose that extra weight this spring . . . .
God, I’ve spewed a whole lot of words out here. Thank You for meeting me in this place. Thank You that my fears are not the truth. Thank You that, no matter how far I fall short of my imagined goal, You love me just as much. You want me just as much. You care about me, just as much as when I finish at the top of the class.
My treasured child, My love for you is so much greater than you realize. You are worth so much more than you fear. The strength of your heart is so much greater than any of the ways you may ever fail or fall short. And the strength of My heart is greater still. Rest in Me, Precious One. Let Me show you the great beauty in the brokenness you see, for it is there, even when you cannot believe. You, Beloved, are beautiful. The messiness you see now is only temporary. When you can see in the Light of eternity, you will be astounded.