Love

Love, And How Little I've Known

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This past weekend, I visited my sister Susie in Phoenix. She has pancreatic cancer, and it's wreaking havoc on her body.

Out of everything I could write or say about it, for right now, I only want and am only able to talk about this:

Love, and how little I've known of it.

I spent most of my time in Phoenix with Susie's husband, Mike. If you had asked me a week ago if I loved people well, I would have given some humble version of a "yes," but in my mind would have thought, "Of course I do." Mike has me reconsidering that.

While my sister is in the hospital, he handles everything else--the kids, the bills, the taxes, his work. He goes to visit her in the hospital and holds her hand and no matter how tired he is, he asks in the most gentle voice, "What do you need, baby doll? What can I do?" He gets on the hospital staff when something's not going right--not because he's a jerk, but because it's one of the only things he can control when it comes to this cancer business. He'll do anything, even if it's a tiny thing, to make this better for Susie.

This weekend, I realized that for most of my life, I've only played and splashed around in the shallow end of the pool of love.

Mike has dived into the deep end of love. Submersed himself. He holds his breath there and lets it burn his lungs.

I'm thankful for a guy who loves deeply like he does.

I have so much yet to learn.

 

Feature photo ©2013 Oscar Cortez

Monday Confessional: Overcorrecting The Heart

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mc A while ago, I wrote these "Monday Confessional" posts. Then I stopped. This kind of follows a pattern in my life where I come up with an idea and try it out, and then I hate it for a while, and then I realize it might not have been that bad. So after over a year of hiatus, here's the return of my Monday Confessionals:

***

I vowed to myself a while ago that I wouldn't let any one person determine my happiness or worth.

I may have overcorrected.

This is what happens when you overcorrect: you make a mistake or have some negative experience, and in trying to fix said mistake and prevent said situation from happening again, you go too far. Overcorrection is frequently linked with driving.

It happens like this--you're driving down the road, and suddenly your car hits a slippery section of road and begins to slide, out of your control, to the right or the left. This can be a heart-stopping, terrifying experience--you might be going fifty to sixty miles per hour or more (to be fair, it's scary at any speed) and headed right for another car, a telephone pole, a concrete median, or a menacing ditch. In these moments, your gut, your instinct, your body will tell you to slam on your brakes, grab that steering wheel, and jerk it in the direction you want your car to go.

That's overcorrection. And that simple reaction to a bad thing happening and trying to get out of it causes thousands of accidents and deaths every year.

I think that's where I am.

Wanting to avoid slamming into the tree that's threatening to snap your car in half isn't bad. Wanting to avoid placing anyone on a pedestal and pinning my happiness on them isn't bad, either. It's good, actually.

It's a lesson everyone has to learn if they're serious about having healthy relationships. If we think a person--a boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife, friend, boss, coworker, fan--is responsible for our happiness, we'll find ourselves wanting. We'll find ourselves, at some point, the opposite of happy--we'll be miserable and disappointed because no one can be our happiness. No one can live up to that responsibility.

After I hit enough telephone poles, relationally speaking, because I placed my hopes and dreams in a person, I decided to hit the brakes and turn that steering wheel away from disaster. It was my gut reaction, my instinct. At first, it seemed to work.

I told myself there is no person out there who can fix me and my issues. I worked on living my life in a way that allows me to pursue my passions and what breaks my heart. I committed myself to decrease my focus on my problems and increase my focus on helping and encouraging the people around me without the expectation of being treated the same way in return.

I became independent. Which is great. Mostly great. I go where I want to go, when I want to go. I don't need someone else's permission, nor do I have to wait for someone to join me to feel validated in going. If I want to go camping in the Adirondacks, I go. If I want to visit Niagara Falls, I go. If I want to drive to the beach at 11 p.m., I do it. If I want to see a movie, I don't need to call anyone and figure out which nights and times we all have free. I can just see it by myself. Some of you might read that and think of other words to describe me other than "independent" (loser), but if you have the freedom, both of schedule and self-confidence, to see a movie by yourself, then you've made it in life as far as I'm concerned.

All of which can be good. But sometimes, we can take independence too far.

When your car starts to slide out of control, experts say to fight your instincts--fight the urge to turn the steering wheel hard and fast or slam your brakes. They say to let off the gas and the brake pedal, to slowly and carefully turn the steering wheel in the direction you'd like to go until your car settles back on track and into the proper lane.

Which is easy to do when you read about it, and much harder when you're making split-second decisions at seventy miles per hour with your heart in your throat.

As I've corrected myself toward independence, I may have had the steering wheel to the side a little too long. Perhaps I've pumped the brakes a bit too hard. I haven't stopped at simply being independent and content.

My heart has become stone.

In my attempt to fix my past mistakes, to free myself from the lie that some other person holds the key to my happiness, to keep my heart from spilling out all over people who don't want it, I've sealed it up.

I find myself thinking and saying, "I don't care what this person thinks. I don't care what this person does. I don't care."

To say that a person doesn't determine my worth or happiness is one thing. A good thing. To say that I simply do not care, to clamp the valves of my heart so tightly so that I don't feel anymore--that's different. That's an overcorrection.

Lately, I've refused to let anything that even smells like validation or rejection from anyone jump over the moat that has slowly surrounded me. I don't care who calls me or doesn't call me to hang out. I don't care who responds to my text messages or not. I don't care who remembers my birthday or not. I don't care if someone compliments me or not. I don't care when someone does compliment me. I don't care who checks in on me or not. I don't care if you care about me or not. I don't care if you respond to me. I'm going to do me, and I'm going to do it with or without you.

Because I

will

not

let

you

make

me

feel.

I will not let you make me feel anything I don't want to feel. This is not, "I'm independent." This is, "Forget you--I won't give you the chance to put so much as a scratch or dent anywhere on me."

The difference is hard to detect. I'm not quite sure of the exact moment I crossed the line from healthy to shut off. It was probably a slow process, the way that bread shifts from soft and fresh to stiff and stale a little bit at a time.

I feel lucky that I'm catching it now, before I make any stupid decisions or hurt someone significantly in the process. Maybe I have already, and if so, feel free to call me on my nonsense. If I've learned anything from my past, it's that people who don't allow themselves to be hurt will inevitably hurt the people around them. The defenses you set up, the barbed wire with which you line the doors to your heart, will cut and damage the people who try to breach them.

I don't want this to be me.

I know better. I really do. To love, to experience life in its fullest capacity, I have to let people hurt me. It's part of the deal. One of my favorite bands, Sleeping At Last, has a song that says, "We can't...fall in love with a heart that's too strong to break."

I think that applies to all forms of love, not just the romantic sort. We can't love and be loved without being in a position to have our hearts broken from time to time.

We have to fight our defensive instincts sometimes.

We have to resist the urge to jerk the steering wheel away from danger.

We have to restrain our feet from pushing the brake pedal into the floor.

We have to finesse this. Keep our eyes fixed on where we want to go. Ease ourselves back in that direction.

And sometimes, we'll still hit something.

It's okay.

It's how life and love work.

***

Feature photo ©2010 Niels Linneberg | Flickr

On Marriage: Enemies and Allies

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I'm excited to have another post for the #LiveTogether series which is about the ups and downs and bumps and tears and laughter of doing life with other people.

Today, my friend Nate brings some real, raw, and honest writing about marriage and the fights and grace involved. We hope you find it helpful.

***

“God, I really hate this bitch right now.”

That was an actual thought that passed through my head during one of the more heated moments of a fight with my wife a couple months ago. And I meant it.

You probably think I'm an asshole at this point.

Before getting married, I expected we would have disagreements. I knew we would not always get along perfectly. But I never expected I could feel this. Not hate. Not towards her. Somehow I figured I would always make the choice to love, no matter what. No matter how badly she pissed me off, no matter how unfairly I felt she was treating me, I would stoically maintain a loving attitude and see the argument through to its resolution.

What an idiot I was.

Marriage changes something. I'll be damned if I completely understand why that is, but something changes between two people when they get married. A lot of it is good. You get a partner, a best friend, a confidant – someone who you know (in theory) will always have your back through the rest of your lives together. It's good. Marriage is good.

But marriage sucks sometimes, too. No, it's not just hard--it sucks. Because when you're married, you also become comfortable with your partner. Guards are dropped, and in a healthy marriage the guards need to be dropped. But when your guard is dropped, you become vulnerable. Your partner becomes vulnerable. And then, without even thinking about it, you say something that is beyond unkind – it's devastating.

That's when stubbornness kicks in. See, I often know within seconds that I've said or done something hurtful. But instead of doing the right thing, humbling myself and apologizing, I start to make excuses. I justify. I am the king of justifications. I've actually won fights this way, verbally manipulating my wife until she is so worn down and tired of fighting that she just gives up. I win. Except that's not really winning. She's not supposed to be my enemy. We're supposed to be on the same team. When I win those fights, I've only deepened the chasm between us.

When this happens enough times, something dark begins to set in. Tempers flare more quickly as we both become quicker to recognize when a fight is brewing. Remembering to love becomes harder and harder to do. Eventually we give up, and hate begins to set up shop. I get so good at justification and manipulation that I start to believe my own bullshit, and she becomes my enemy, in the literal sense of the word. It's her fault. If she would just learn to deal, not be so sensitive when I'm a jerk to her, we wouldn't have to fight about this crap anymore. After all, what I said to her wasn't that much different than what I say to the guys at work when we're horsing around. Damn--this is such a pain in my ass.

Well. Now we have established that I am indeed, an asshole. You're probably wondering if she's drawn up divorce papers yet.

She hasn't.

Fighting is normal. Sometimes, in the heat of the moment, feeling hate is normal too. But here's the thing – even though those feelings are normal, I think it's foolish to try and work through that alone. For a long time, my wife tried to convince me that we should get counseling from someone. I hated that idea. It felt like failure. Counseling was only for marriages that are really on the rocks. We weren't there. I didn't need someone else to tell me I was being an immature asshole. I already knew that, and had enough self-loathing that I figured I'd eventually get it right.

That is total, utter foolishness.

It is ok to ask for help. It doesn't mean your world is coming to an end and that the next step is divorce; it just means that you've been banging your heads up against a wall over and over and over and over again, and something needs to change. When I finally did agree to meet with a couple from our church, it was amazing. They were an older couple, with tons and tons of marriage experience and counseling under their belt, and in a very short hour and a half I learned so much about my wife and about myself. The biggest thing: this is normal. It's ok. Don't be so hard on yourselves. You have a lifetime to figure each other out; give each other some grace.

I'm not going to be able to wrap this up in a neat little bow, if that's what you're hoping for. Marriage is a process. Sometimes it sucks, but then sometimes it's great. We've had these fights, but they don't last. Eventually, we remember that we're on the same team, and actual reconciliation starts to happen. We're learning to give each other grace. The key, for me, is letting go of the need to be right, the need to win. It is absolutely one of the hardest things for me to do. That's not the same as being passive and simply rolling over whenever she gets mad. It just means learning how to empathize--how to speak kindly, gently, and to affirm each other, while at the same time being willing to take however much time we need to work out our shit. Even if it's two in the morning.

I love my wife. She is amazing, and she treats me with honor that I truly don't deserve most of the time. I know that she loves me, and I can say that with total confidence. I try to love her well. Most of the time. But we both screw it up sometimes. Badly. It's ok. It's human nature. Humans are naturally selfish, sinful, jerks. God is doing a work in our hearts, though--changing us, perfecting us. I can think of no one else I would rather go through life with, fights and all. She is my best friend, my greatest ally, and the love of my life.

Also, makeup sex is amazing.

***

Nate Roach is a plumber working in Lancaster, PA, but is currently beginning to transition to full-time ministry working with CrossRoads Missions in New Orleans. He's been blogging for years, and recently started a new blog with his wife called Unfettered Grace, where they will share stories and thoughts on ministry, life, and their new adventure in New Orleans. They also occasionally blog at The Sometimes Ugly Truth, sharing about some of life's difficulties and challenges. He's a drummer and music lover, and generally still a boy in a man's body - he still loves video games. More importantly, He is a husband and a daddy to two little people he adores.

You can follow him on Twitter, too.

Featured photo ©2013 Ivana Vasijl | Flickr

The One Deal Breaker That Matters

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A Broken Deal Breaker

A few years ago, a friend of mine told me that she would not, could not date a guy shorter than her.

I laughed.

"You'd really risk missing out on a great guy just because he's shorter than you?" I asked. She emphatically insisted she would. It was a deal breaker. As most "deal breakers" people develop, this one was serious. Had something to do with wanting to be able to wear the right shoes. I shook my head.

"Just watch. You're going to end up with a shorter guy." We all laughed, and the conversation about deal breakers and height compatibility was over.

Then, the story becomes almost too good to be true. In a perfect plot twist, the next guy she ended up with was, indeed, shorter than her. Somehow, despite his shortcoming (see what I did there?), it turned out that he was a great guy. They fell in love and got married. And I couldn't help myself but tell her, "I told you so."

Deal breakers make me laugh.

They're funny because most of the ones people have are so silly. They have something to do with hair or body type or something superficial, or they're impossibly specific. Burger King does not have enough customizable options to match the expectations that are on many people's relationship checklists.

And yet, I see couples who have been married for 20, 30, 40 years, who may be complete opposites in what I once thought were crucial areas, and they have not only survived but they've thrived. Some people are lucky enough to find someone who may have met a majority of their criteria, but most people? Yeah right.

The One Deal Breaker You Should Have On Your List

Despite poking fun at deal breakers, I do think there are some legitimate ones people should have. Depending on our values, what that list looks like for each person will vary. We have such unique personalities, lifestyles, and priorities that I wouldn't try to prescribe what a whole list of necessary deal breakers should include. I can say two things with confidence, though:

1. Your list of deal breakers should be short and sweet. I personally have a Top Three. Those are the ones that are non-negotiable. Everything after that is just gravy.

2. There's one deal breaker in my Top Three that should be in everyone's top three, no matter your background or religious views or priorities.

What is it?

A person who is committed to growth.

Don't waste your time wishing for someone who's perfect. You'll never have that wish granted. You may end up with someone who doesn't root for the same sports team as you, or someone who doesn't like sports period. You may end up with someone who can't cook at all (and since you can't cook either, you may be looking at each other every evening like, "What the heck do we do?"). You may end up with someone who has no desire to watch or discuss The Lord of the Rings. You may end up with someone who doesn't even know what a 5k is much less be able to run one. You may end up with someone who's shorter or blonder or fatter or skinnier or less educated or less wealthy or smellier than the ideal person you've dreamed up in your head.

But if you have someone who is committed to always growing, you'll be in pretty good shape to overcome those inevitable differences that arise in a relationship. (This isn't a new idea by any means; some very smart people have figured this out a long time ago.)

Being a person who grows isn't easy, though.

It means that you have to first be aware that you're not perfect. That you have room for improvement. That you have baggage and junk and attitudes and habits that could use some progress. If someone can't even admit that they could be doing better, it's hard to grow.

It doesn't feel right to say this, but people should be like technology. I'm not saying to replace your husband with a new one when you grow tired of him. I'm saying we should think of ourselves less as unchanging statues and more like software that continues to adapt to life.

The version of a person you get at the beginning of the relationship should upgrade as you go through the years. People who grow do that. They get better. They improve. When you're with someone who isn't about growth, the version you get at the start is the one you have years later, and suddenly you find out that more and more of your life is incompatible with that outdated version.

The great thing about a person who is committed to growth is that they don't have to be that perfect person you tried to create in your  fantasies. They're constantly improving.

When a person who grows hurts you, they own up to it. Then they commit themselves to prevent it from happening. They might not get it right all the time, but they're committed to the process. People who can do that not only are in a great position for growth themselves, but they know how to offer grace to a partner for his or her imperfections, too.

People who don't grow don't want to change. They don't want to adapt. They don't want to own their imperfection and do the hard work of improving. They prefer to stay stuck. When you find yourself with someone like that, you'll be facing an uphill road that's much rockier than you'd like.

Growth. I'm telling you. It's all about the growth.

A Final Thought for Both Single and Married People (and some advice from a real doctor!)

If you have the fortune of being single, you have the opportunity to figure out your priorities in relationships before you make some costly mistakes. As you look for people you might interested in partnering with in life, pay very close attention to whether or not they're "growth" people. If they are, many of those silly deal breakers you have on that checklist of yours will start to disappear. In turn, the best thing you can do until you find a growth person is to be a growth person. Bonus: growth people will figure out how to make the best of life with or without a relationship.

I asked Dr. Kelly Flanagan how you might recognize someone in a relationship who's "stuck" and doesn't like to grow. He responded:

I'd say the thing I'd look for in a partner is the ease with which they say, "I'm sorry." We talk a lot about the process of forgiveness, but for many people, forgiving is way easier than asking for forgiveness. When we say "I'm sorry," we drop our ego walls, acknowledge our fallibility, and express a desire to change.

If you're married, this may have been a tough read for you if you're with someone who may not be a "growth person." That's a hard place to find yourself. The first and best thing you can do in that situation is to be a growth person first. You can't expect or ask someone else to do it and not do it yourself. And that will be tough--it's going to require sacrificing your pride, it's going to require an avalanche of selflessness, and some days it's going to feel like nothing's changing.

I asked Dr. Flanagan what one might do in that situation, too. He says that if you feel like you're with someone who's "stuck," a helpful step is for you to seek individual therapy. Not because there's something wrong with you, necessarily--but because your relationship is so deep and complex that it needs the time and attention for someone to help you work with your situation.

***

Look for growth people. Be growth people. And it won't matter if he's shorter than you.

 

 

Featured image ©2013 Mufidah Kassalias | Flickr

#LiveTogether: Go On and Tear Me Apart

3416851988_068a760bd7_z This is the second post in a series on relationships called #LiveTogether. You can read the first one here. The series will cover the challenges, the humor, the heartbreak, the hope that comes with choosing to do life with people.

***

For me, the song of the year so far is Coldplay's "A Sky Full of Stars."

I know not everyone is as on board with Coldplay as I am, and that's fine. Regardless, I think it's a great song, and I'm pretty sure I've listened to it at least 150 times. (iTunes, in fact, says that I've listened to it 56 times. But that doesn't count Spotify, or my shower, or all of the places I've walked and breathed in the last few months.)

The song begins with Chris Martin's syncopated piano chords sweeping from a loud hammering to a muted plunking, as if he was shooting back and forth in space, and he sings:

'Cause you're a sky, 'cause you're a sky full of stars / I'm gonna give you my heart.

I'm hooked, right away. Then he follows it up with:

Cause you're a sky, 'cause you're a sky full of stars / 'Cause you light up the path.

And as the piano drives harder back into our atmosphere, there's a thump, and his vocals soar as he hits me with a line that I can't move past:

I don't care / Go on and tear me apart / I don't care if you do.

There's a part of me, the hopeless romantic, who wants to join in with Chris Martin, launch myself past the pull of gravity, hurtle myself into the kind of reckless love of which he sings.

There's another part of me, the grizzled traveler who has walked what feels like thousands of miles on the road of life, who has learned and re-learned this hard lesson:

The human heart can only be torn to pieces so many times.

There's a limit to how many times one can dive into a relationship with wing-like arms spread wide and chest exposed and slam into the ground because the water is too shallow. Or rush out into the cold of night singing, "Come what may," and be left alone to accumulate snow like an abandoned car.

There's a limit to how many times your heart can expand and regain its shape after being flattened under an onslaught of stampeding hooves.

I wish I could sing the line and mean it. I wish I could be like Augustus Waters and say, "Oh, I wouldn't mind, Hazel Grace. It would be a privilege to have my heart broken by you."

A younger version of me would. And could. And did. I got a thrill out of the challenge. I thought I was made for the throw-caution-to-wind, leap-into-burning-building kind of love that movies glorify. I wanted to champion a story that would gallop into danger on chariots of courage, race into the foul and gaping mouth of the dragon, and emerge from the smoke and ash with my lungs full of fury and my eyes steeled with strength.

I certainly got the fight I asked for.

The first time my heart was broken, it dropped me to the ground. Literally. I gathered myself, got back up, and threw myself back into the fray until I was spit back out. Again and again. Over and over. Like a shirt that's run through the cycle week after week, I lost material and threading until the holes started to show and the seams fell apart.

There's a part of me that refuses to put myself in that situation, to give someone that power ever again. I refuse to say to someone, "Go on and tear me apart; I don't care if you do." Because I've experienced the disorientation of being shredded and discarded like junk mail that no one wanted to read. I know what it is to lose yourself and your worth in the darkness of someone's disregard.

Screw that.

Seriously. No way. Not again. Not ever. That Paul is dead.

***

In my coldest moments, in my deepest retreats into the basement of the fortress I've built around me, amid the echoes of dripping water bouncing off the bare walls, I hear a voice.

It's not an audible voice. I don't hear it with my ears.

It's more like the tiniest, thinnest beam of sunlight that snakes through the dark and dust and finds the back of my neck. I feel its warmth, and the hair on my neck rises. As I keep my back to it, it sways in circular motions on my skin and begins to spell out letters that string into words, and even with my eyes closed and my ears shut, I can't ignore it.

It says, "You were not made for dungeons and darkness."

I know it's right. I feel it pulling at me, tugging at me, urging me back outside my walls. I don't want to be destroyed again, but this--this hiding, this barricading--isn't the way. I stay at a distance because of fear, but fear isn't the rudder I want steering my ship. I want to listen to better voices.

The voice I hear in those moments reminds me of this:

I'm at my best when I'm open and vulnerable. I'm not at my best when I've shut myself in.

There are too many people in my life who need me at my best.

As we move toward anyone, any friend, we place more of ourselves in their hands, more of ourselves at their mercy, more of ourselves at risk to be torn up a little. That's the cost of doing life with other people, doing life together. It's quite different than continuing to knowingly place ourselves in dangerous, harmful, or abusive situations--into the hands of people who have proven they can't be trusted to be kept within arm's length.

All relationships requires risk. All relationships that are worth it demand us to bare ourselves at some point.

I'm re-learning the curves and contours of the route of risk. I'm measuring the depth of the water before I jump. I'm wearing extra layers so I don't freeze in the cold. I'm not quite sure that I'd sing, "Go on and tear me apart," but I'm out of the dungeon. I'm squinting in the daylight. I'm feeling the ground beneath me one step at a time.

This is the way. This is what we were made to do.

***

Feature photo ©2009 Robb North | Flickr