Seven years ago I walked through one of the most difficult seasons of my life.
It is unnecessary to elaborate on the details, but the season was marked by a profound loss of relationships (in multiple facets of my life), as well as the security I had found in relationships prior to that time. During that period, I felt something shift. My friendships began to feel different – a sort of strain or distance – but I could not quite put a finger on what had changed. I lived this way for over five years and it slowly became the new “normal” in my life.
Looking back (hindsight is always 20/20 as they say), I recognize that the subtle shift I noticed was a movement towards self-protection. I was blessed to spend the first 19 years of my life with fairly stable relationships and was spared the relational loss that many people experience at a much earlier age. However, when the instability struck, it struck unexpectedly and it struck hard. Without being aware of it, the pain caused me to withdraw from relationships. Subconsciously, I decided that if relationships held this much potential pain, it was not worth the risk. I slid into my natural ‘caretaker’ tendencies and decided that I would make relationships about giving. It was much safer to focus on giving in relationships, because the loss is minimized if the relationship changes. There is always another person willing to receive something from you. As I mentioned before, this pattern became the new normal in my life.
Sadly, most of our lives have been marked by painful loss of relationship.
Perhaps you can relate to this? Loved ones move, conflict creates tension or separation, long-time friends pass away – and our hearts often respond by withdrawing. While God has given us defenses as a gift (think of how overwhelming it would be to experience the full weight of loss or emotional trauma without the ability to escape), we often allow our defenses to remain active long after the initial pain wears off. In my case, the fruit of this defensive state was profound loneliness. My fear of losing relationship actually led me to run away from the very connection I needed and craved.
In his classic piece of children’s literature The Little Prince (though to call it children’s literature does not do it justice) Antoine de Saint-Exupery tells the whimsical story of a young boy who embarks on a journey and encounters an aviator in the desert. On their journey, they begin to see the beauty of the world through the eyes of a child and learn profound lessons of friendship and love. While I do not have the space to capture the entirety of the story, there is one section that particularly stood out to me in light of my own journey. I also highly recommend you pick up a copy (it is an easy read, yet deeply profound).
On his journey, the Little Prince happens upon a fox. Both he and the fox are lonely and looking for a friend, but the fox insists that he is “not tamed”. The Little Prince enquires about what it means to be tamed and the fox replies, “It’s something that’s been too often neglected. It means, ‘to create ties’…” Over time they “tame” one another, only to experience deep sorrow when it comes time for the Little Prince to leave. The fox begins weeping and the Little Prince apologizes – feeling that he has done a disservice in taming the fox. However, the fox affirms the value in their connection despite the sorrow he is experiencing.
Like the Little Prince, it seemed to me that creating ties was not worth the risk of potential pain. But over the last two or three years, God has brought me into a season that has changed my perspective. Through my time in “The Journey” with TLI, as well as my time as a student in the Spiritual Formation program at Talbot, I have been surrounded by incredible community. Despite the safety, acceptance, and love these amazing people offered, I was hesitant to allow myself to fully open up. But their persistence in loving me slowly broke through my walls. It began with small parts of myself that felt unsafe to bring to relationships, but as I continued to find acceptance in these places I was encouraged to share myself more fully and allow others to truly be part of my life. While there are certainly still parts of those original walls around my heart that remain intact, I feel that God’s grace (primarily administered through the people in my life) has invited me into a new space of both loving and being loved much more fully and much more deeply.
I would much rather spend my days experiencing this fullness of life than living behind my shallow attempts to avoid pain.
Two weeks ago I had to say goodbye to one of my dearest friends from Talbot who has been an integral part of this process for me. In saying goodbye, I found my heart grieving the loss in a way that I have not been used to since those walls were constructed seven years ago. And to be honest, I did not enjoy the painful loss I experienced. It reminded me why I allowed the walls to be built in the first place. And yet, in the midst of the pain, I found myself noticing the fruit that had come through my friendship with this dear sister. And I also found myself surrounded by a community that continued to pour into me and help me process the grief. While this whole experience was much more messy than what I would prefer, I got a glimpse into the fullness of life. A life that, while deeply painful at times, is also profoundly beautiful. A life full of loss and gain, fullness and emptiness, darkness and depth.
My hope and prayer (for myself, as well as for you), is that above all else, you would find love.
I pray that in the midst of the walls you might have constructed you would find individuals who are willing to take the time to “tame” you. That you would find love and acceptance in the fullness of who you are and that the love you receive from the community in your life would ultimately point you to your Heavenly Father who offers perfect love to you. And finally, that you would allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to learn to love others and be loved yourself.
As the Little Prince reflected, “one runs the risk of weeping a little, if one lets himself be tamed.” What a worthwhile risk it is to create ties with the community God has placed in our lives.