Love Right

My last two dating relationships have involved caring for guys who were battling some form of addiction. I often found out much later, when they couldn’t hide it anymore. I did eventually set boundaries, and I’m grateful and proud of that, but yet still processing how to move forward. I’m much more aware of what I need, and what I can ultimately handle, but am still learning. And I know I’m not alone in that.

I fell under false pretenses

A mirage

And while I suppose we all see what we want to see

In those we love (or envision loving)

I took what was presented to me

Stable, gentle, strong, sensitive, yet not quite vulnerable

And while I didn’t hit the concrete

They didn’t catch me either

It was more like being dropped

One carried demons

Hurts and fears and anxieties 

That he couldn’t hold himself

Instead, drowning in drink

Reckless words and actions

Professions forgotten by the next day

And I held him too

With shaky hands

Walking a fine line

Of supporting without succumbing

A lover

Not a mother or a therapist

The next walked in on a cold city’s night

His touch, secure

A job, not tied to his past, and a life

A man’s man, I thought

He acted like a partner from night one

We got comfortable; perhaps too comfortable

My only qualm, his lack of depth

Nothing came up naturally

And the burden of broaching subjects fell on me

Here I was, terrified of bursting the bubble

It did anyway

Promises of stability, even commitment

Then silence

Anger, along with the linger of teenage cologne and cigarettes 

Fading as a year passed

Time and spoken truth were enough to push me forward

Until he tried to grab me again

Claiming he had been wronged

When he was truly running from wrong he’d done

One that resulted in serious consequences

Days I wasn’t in his arms,

 He was trying to avoid concrete walls and metal bars 

I never knew until then

He still asked for a second chance

I couldn’t go there again

When it was out of pity, and not the possibility of love

“I’m a magnet for the addicted”

I lamented

Compassionate to a fault

I understand that brokenness is real

But I don’t want to lose myself

It’s not about your past, or black and white

But love is loving well, and loving right

I believe in transparency, sensitivity, and imperfection

Grace upon grace, as they say

Yet what is grace, without personal responsibility?

Face your darkness, and own it

Before saying that you want me

You need me

Or I’m your everything 

I’m my own being

Not a half to a whole

Nearly drowning in other’s messes is getting kind of old

I need to be supported too

Let me get a word in edgewise

And me cared for too please

The Weight of Heartbreak

“Hey Alyx, do you have a few minutes?”

“Sure, is everything OK…?”

We entered the conference room normally reserved for meetings. I saw a box of tissues and a water bottle, which brought on heart palpitations, an immediate sign that everything was not okay. 

“We’re so sorry to have to do this…” “We didn’t plan this, but after [previous manager] left…” “This has nothing to do with who you are as a person or an employee…”

All the curse words. I was being let go. 

The HR manager, bless her, was doing everything she possibly could to comfort me during the circumstances, but it couldn’t stop the questions and confusion. I had been on a trial period and no one had said anything about my employment status or work habits once it ended. A number of people had told me to not be the one to broach the subject, and to assume that I was safe. 

But a lot of things had happened that were out of my control, and there was nothing I could do but to accept the decision gracefully. I actually worked through the end of the week, trying to finish up the tasks that I’d started, but more so taking time to thank my coworkers for making that particular experience what it was. The culture was a big part of the reason why I appreciated both the role and the firm, and if there was one thing that I could find peace in, it was that I never took a day there for granted. 

Yet I hated the fact that it was over, and I dreaded the possibility of having yet again disappointed my family. I spent a few days processing the news before sharing it with my parents, choosing to focus on taking care of myself both physically and emotionally. Any sudden/unexpected change is a huge trigger for me to sink into a depression, nearly to the point where I don’t care what happens or how it affects my health. Eat. Shower. Wear something besides sweats. 

It was still a lot to wrap my head around, and a polar vortex gave me an excuse to hunker down and grieve. It was pointed out to me that maybe I was getting too comfortable, and that I might have been creatively stunted had I stayed there by choice. There’s a lot I could say about having the privilege to do what you love, but that’s for another time. It would ultimately be a while before I could go past the office building without getting salty all over again. The organization had been right for me, but I hadn’t been right for them. 

A couple of weeks later, shortly before Valentine’s Day, I met Ben.

 Not his real name, but the combination of the two celebrities he closely resembles. 

I’ll admit that we moved quickly, bonding over similar family backgrounds, personalities, and hockey. Within a month we were acting like a couple, albeit we never talked about dating exclusively or establishing a formal relationship. It was the first time where I felt like I didn’t have to be a guy’s mother or a therapist; he was physically attractive (while respecting the physical boundaries I set), had a good head on his shoulders, and insisted on paying for everything where money was involved. As we continued to spend time together, I could picture us meeting each other’s families, and allowed myself to explore the possibility of being together long-term. 

March turned into April, the first week marking his birthday. We hadn’t talked in a few days, which made me uneasy, but I tried to act like it wasn’t a big deal when anyone asked why. 

Happy Birthday! I’m grateful for you. He never responded to that text, or answered his phone when I tried to call him. It was silence from that point on.

And that’s never a good sign.

I knew from previous conversations that his uncle had been struggling with health-related issues and was in and out of the hospital. I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, but part of me knew what took me a week to acknowledge: he didn’t want to be with me, and would rather disappear out of nowhere than tell me himself. 

Aside from the fact that it happened, the toughest part about being ghosted (in any situation) is fighting the urge to take full responsibility.  Figuratively speaking, I had to sit on my hands in order to keep myself from overanalyzing our final conversations or searching his social profiles for answers. The initial shock turned to anger, then the desire to close myself off emotionally from men of a certain age. I wrote Ben a  letter (the kind that’s better off burned), opting to read it out loud to my therapist as opposed to hitting “send.” It was as comforting as comforting could be without explanation, and the process of moving on turned out to be far better than I could imagine. 

Though I didn’t want to admit it in the moment, there were things about him that gave me pause. Things, I figured, that would eventually sort themselves out or come up naturally in conversation. It definitely didn’t help that we stopped getting to know each other after the third or fourth date; we talked, but neither one of us asked questions or tried to learn about the other person. It’s hard to do when you spend the majority of an evening cuddling and/or watching TV, and you don’t want to ruin the moment because by bringing up a tough subject. There’s nothing wrong with low key date nights in, and it takes time to learn how to be vulnerable with each other. But when you’re doing that all the time to the point where it stalls any progression, what then?

I’m not sure if there’s anything I could have done differently, or that deeper conversations would have led to a different outcome. After being removed from the relationship for some time, I realized that I liked the stability of our relationship more than I liked him, and I probably would have clung to that, far longer than necessary. 

But I still cared, and  it still hurt, and as I write this I still have fears and potential what-if’s that I’m trying to address. 

I need a man who has a good head on his shoulders, where we can grow both independently and together. 

A man who can empathize and show compassion, and at least recognize that family dynamics are often complicated, and that I’m doing the best I can to navigate it.

A man who prioritizes working on himself, and doesn’t depend on me to fix or make him whole.

It has me thinking a lot about expectations. I’ve been told quite a bit that I can’t expect people to cater to my feelings, but when ending a relationship (and how one goes about it), I get the sense that there’s a slight difference.

Breaking up well (i.e. communicating honestly and gently that either you don’t see things going anywhere or you’re not ready/on the same page) has to do with being a decent human being. It’s respecting the other person, despite your feelings and/or reality not being the same as theirs. And it’s about taking responsibility, rather than putting the entire weight of the relationship on the other.

It would be wrong for me to expect a guy to promise not to leave me (especially when rings and vows are not involved). But expecting honest communication seems pretty basic.

And if the guy disappears, I should not expect an apology. I should not expect that which hurts me is going to heal me. I should not expect my future partner to do all of the healing work for me, or to make him feel responsible for a situation that he had nothing to do with. I should not expect “closure” in the form of chasing after an explanation that I realistically don’t need, because if a guy doesn’t want me that’s all I need to know.

As heavy as it has been, I don’t carry any bitterness what happened or how it played out. I know that God gives and takes away, and despite my lack of understanding, I know that He is still good. I’ve had a lot of opportunities in this particular season of my life, and I’ve learned how to genuinely enjoy being single while still being open to a romantic relationship. I still have moments [of wishing the circumstances were different] but at the end of the day, all I can do is keep going and trust that what’s meant for me will be just that.

And I refuse to let my hurt define my worth.

When You Get Nervous

It was a Sunday summer evening
Been a few since I wore the dress
I could hear a loud noise beating as I rested my head
I asked if all was okay
As he kissed my hair so softly
Told me I was a sight of beauty
And that’s what made his heart go so fast

Flattered, but lost for words
Knowing my thoughts were similar
But wanting to feel protected, rather than a carry a savior complex

The road from seed to flower can be complicated
Zigging, zagging, and maybe riding off the rails
And God only knows what the other side entails.

But here, in this moment, I know it’s not easy

Your past, and present fears speaking loudly

When you’re nervous, think of strength
Your arms that will hold
Another body, and that same heart

When you’re scared, think of risk
Risk lies in our deepest dreams and desires
Given to us by One that is Higher
Success, security, and the fiercest of love.

Love’s worthiness is not determined by reciprocation or rejection
But the willingness to live a noteworthy life.

When you look at me, all nerves and racing hearts and fears
I hope you’ll remember the love that is already in you
The love that carried you here
And may that guide you to seek me and pursue me
Knowing that what is given, can also be taken away
To be present, pursue, and serve with purpose
Bold, brave, and beautiful
This moment
And every day

The Summer Of…

The sun was shining, the air was warming up again, and I was eager to get out. Not to say that I wasn’t doing that already, but I wanted to experience what many in the city called hashtag Summertime Chi (or at least the parts of it that were for pure joy and not only for the sake of looking good on Instagram). Boats, rooftop parties, and white claws aren’t bad in and of themselves, but I didn’t want to be in a bubble. 

And out of the bubble I got. 

Networking Events. Open Mics (one which I performed at). Comedy Shows. Outdoor Movies. Concerts. And I had no shame in just going to a bar or restaurant completely by myself, so if I wasn’t meeting friends, I had no problem making them. My favorite occasion was when I was waiting for a seat to open up at a well-known football spot, and got to talking with both a Green Bay Packers fan, as well as another who was rooting for the Minnesota Vikings. It turns out that not only did they attend the same University and were part of the same fraternity (albeit different generations), but the older one knew the younger one’s Dad from when they had attended college together. 

You’re a ray of sunshine in a dark basement! One of the oddest compliments I’ve ever received, yet incredibly sweet and genuine. I was grateful that I went against my initial urge to leave and go home, as what usually happens when the anxious part of me starts wondering if the people around me think I’m weird. 

But it got me thinking about the beauty of organic, face-to-face human interaction. That was a repeating theme of the conversation taking place that day. People are incredibly afraid to approach and get to know one another, due to feeling like anyone who does must have an agenda. We hem and haw over how to merely say hello or introduce ourselves without coming across as awkward, or heaven forbid, creepy, thinking that we have some control over the outcome by doing/saying the right things at the right time.

Having been in unsafe situations (particularly with men), I wouldn’t say that I’m naive to what can and does happen when engaging with strangers. Not everyone has the best of intentions, and I cannot overemphasize how important it is to pay attention and trust your instincts. I’m fortunate to have cultivated a strong intuition, and that additionally allows me to read social cues and respond accordingly. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying your own company in public, and it’s perfectly okay to do things simply because you want to. 

After regaling one of my earlier adventures involving a meet-cute at the train station,  I was asked if I was “out of my mind.” I get defensive when anyone questions my extroversion and romanticism with the guise of not wanting me to be disappointed or hurt, especially if they’re aware of just how stuck in my shell I was during high school and college. One of my biggest regrets is over analyzing most situations, to the point where I felt like I couldn’t fully connect or be seen for who I was. Thankfully there was grace and understanding in terms of those relationships, but I wish I hadn’t carried all that weight around. It wasn’t my responsibility then, and it certainly isn’t now. 

So yes, I’m out of my head, and that’s a good thing. I have to live my life on a different level than most people, and the reality is that sometimes even’t my closest friends and family can’t understand it.

I’m still learning, but here’s what I know right now:

Rejection and disappointment hurt, but they are not the end of the world. 

Love your present more than you hate your past. 

Focus on the experience, not the outcome.

Love Alive

Raised on boybands and princesses
Nothing was messy
The 90’s was where it was at
A writer and a wordsmith
Telling stories on end
Hell, I made volleyball sound romantic
A first kiss in a bar
Relationships became a rollercoaster
Now what do you say about that?
//
The life raft
The mirror
The runaway
The free spirit
The Rock
They all gave me something so beautiful
And it hurt just the same
How do I risk enduring it again and again
//
Role models are few
Formulas are cheap
But walls aren’t worth it
And love runs deep
//
Looking to the horizon
Having faith that all works together
But how does one allow whole hearted togetherness
When pain and memories prickle
Like needles to the skin
//
Art has a purpose
Imagination is limitless
The possibilities full of wonder and romance
A balance of realism and whimsy
The music we sing and dance to
The stories we hear
The way we root for others
And the way we hold each other
//
But it’s choosing and trying
Again and again
It’s declaration followed by action
Not despite imperfection, but because of
Scars and beauty marks
Here for it all, baby
Every moment
Gratitude
//
There is wisdom, and there is noise
Pain does not have to become cynicism
It’s hard to grow from bitter thoughts
That are not without value, but not worth blood
//
Believe in meetcutes and meeting halfway
Passion and compromises
Slow dances and running together
Flowers and basic needs
Arguments and fighting for what’s right and real
Over and over
Now until kingdom come

What Happened to ‘Hello’?

Did anyone ever teach you how to properly talk to a woman?

It seemed witty enough when getting hit on in a bar or catcalled in the street, but most of the time I’d forget or was more focused on getting out of the situation as fast as possible. I didn’t feel safe enough to engage, nor was in right headspace to want to educate anyone. In my early twenties, it was a comeback meant to shut the guy up and nothing more. Yet I’m now a working woman who relies on walking and public transit, and it’s still a genuine question that echoes in the back of my mind.

Why do men tell women to “smile” when they have no idea what kind of day they’ve had, or the circumstances they might be experiencing?

Why do men call a woman beautiful or sexy, when they don’t even truly know what makes her so? And what about at first sight makes this so-called flattery appropriate?

And while rejection stings, why get so angry to the point of causing emotional and even physical harm?

I’ve had enough conversations to realize that it comes down to entitlement and ego; I want this, and therefore I deserve to get it. If you don’t like or appreciate my attention, then you deserve to be punished.

It’s disgusting and degrading; perhaps men who act this way already know this and don’t care, but I’m going to take the human to human approach anyway:

Life is not fair, and the world does not owe you anything. You can have back luck and a bad lot, but that does not give you the right to put that pain onto others, particularly those you don’t know. Being a good person does not always lead to the rewards that we believe we should receive, and there comes a point when you have to face your bullshit and admit that you just might be part of the problem. If you want to experience genuine human interaction, learn how to pay attention and pick up on social cues. But more importantly, learn how to listen and respect boundaries, even if you don’t agree with them.

And if you’re genuinely looking for a date, stop assuming that sidewalks, public transit, and various places of busyness are the only places you can go. I’m not opposed to meet-cutes, but there’s a huge difference between organic introduction and the feeling of being trapped to the point of questioning your physical safety. A couple of years ago, I went to a Starbucks on my lunch break for a phone interview. A man approached me saying that he had a question, and I politely tried to explain that it wasn’t a good time. He kept coming up to me throughout the phone call trying to ask me things, and then kept me in full view as he walked away again. I could tell that he was going to try to follow me out the door, so I instinctively went toward the front counter to explain the situation to a barista. I’m grateful that a couple sitting nearby saw what was happening, and offered to walk me back the office where I was interning at.

Being stuck between trusting my instincts and sparing a stranger’s feelings is exhausting; you should be ashamed if you ever put someone there.

There’s a popular quote that if you see something beautiful in someone, speak it. Most of the time I agree with it, though it’s definitely not applicable or appropriate when you don’t even know their name. If the first words out of a guy’s mouth are “Hey beautiful” (or something to that effect, whether online or in person), I cringe and the alarm bells automatically start going off. I absolutely hate it, but it’s my way of being able to tell when it’s meaningful or when that person is trying to butter me up. There’s a time and a place for commenting on a woman’s physical appearance, and a first meeting is not one of them.

In most situations, a simple hello or making eye contact will suffice; no pick-up lines or clever come-on’s necessary.

If she doesn’t respond or engage, you leave her alone, full stop. She might not want to talk or meet anyone. She might not be available. Whatever it is, she’s not interested and that’s all you need to know.

Being powerful does not make you better than anyone.

And wielding that power to dehumanize and harm others does not make you a man.

///

I’m aware that men experience harassment as well, but I’m only qualified to speak for myself and as a woman. Debating on who has it worse does not negate the gravity of harassment, and there should be no competition over who deserves more compassion. Reaction to rejection by intimidation and/or violence is never okay, and the only way to get that message across is by standing together.

It might take a generation or two to find a way forward. In theory, sticking up for oneself is ideal, but it’s an entirely different story when strength and size come into play. As I write, it’s easy to say that I would use self-defense techniques that I’ve learned over the years, but what about when anxiety kicks in or there’s nowhere for me to run? You can’t possibly know how you’ll exactly you’ll handle an aggressor unless you’re looking right at them.

One could argue that consequences infringe on the first amendment, but a freedom is a freedom until it is abused. All I want to do is to get from point A to point B safely and peacefully, and respecting that shouldn’t be so difficult.

I initially wanted to write more, but the different aspects of harassment, assault, and #MeToo became too much to unpack in one piece, so I’ve decided to split it up. I’ve been quiet as I’ve processed the daily headlines in conjunction with my own experiences, and want to respond rather than just react.

Deep Skin

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To some degree

My life has been about my body

Fixing pieces with needles and surgery

Braces for my legs

Had me walking like a robotic contraption

Than attempting to perfect with the ‘right’ hair

Painting my face with acceptable colors

Wearing clothes that enabled me to blend in

Or at least try

 

A college student, naïve should have been my middle name

Rape culture seemed foreign and distant

I did not consider myself a target

Because I did not see myself as sexy or beautiful

I was just trying to be human, to be me

But my twenties showed me the difficulties

Being groped in dimly lit bars

One bragged about “ripping” me “in half”

If he could bed me

I never let anyone past my apartment door

But I beat myself up

For not standing up

 

Post-grad was another picture

Dating without reservation

Where hormones and desire took precedence

It feel natural and right in the moment

Always followed by doubts and questions later

I never voiced what I truly wanted

It felt silly at the beginning

Like forcing each other into a pressure cooker

So I let it roll, and eventually rolled into the deep end

Where I no longer had to wonder

Yet such experiences were anything but

Heat of the moment, nothing more nothing less

Where they disappeared like ghosts

Flinging me into depression

And debating regret

 

But I’ve kept going

And out of many, there’s only been a few

Who don’t beg me for some kind of stimulation

We talk like adults

I feel seen and heard

The others don’t really know me

And I question my responsibility

Whenever the same scenario plays out

We meet, we kiss, and then he leaves

Me asking, “What could I have done differently?”

I resent being the one to always apply the brakes

Or to have that role

When they have a voice too

 

It’s a lot to take on

As I work toward loving my body

And keeping my insides from destroying it

I need to openly communicate that I’m not just skin and body parts

I have them

But I also have a mind

A soul

And a heart

Which is challenging

When living in a culture that values what is initially seen

Over what is seen in time, and with patience and grace

I won’t fully blame myself

Or the guys that buy into stereotypical bullshit

But if I am more than just what magazines, media, and even doctors say I am

I have to stand my ground

And live that out

When I make mistakes

Grace upon grace upon grace

When You Don’t Know What to Call It (Call it Good)

 

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It was like doing a cannonball into the deep end of a pool; last spring I attended a singles mixer for the first time in months, not really expecting to meet anyone special, but still curious nonetheless. One in particular did end up catching my attention, and after introducing ourselves, we were inseparable for the rest of the evening. We left the place early due to the crowd and the noise, opting for exploring the surrounding neighborhood while getting to know each other. At the time I was typically wary of being alone with a man who I’d only just met, yet his personality didn’t set off any alarms; he was a sweet nerd who hadn’t dated much and had a thing for cars, guitars, and skinny jeans. We swapped numbers and kissed several times before I let him drive me back to the train station, simultaneously asking myself what just happened and wanting to do a happy dance.

The following Thursday was one of arcade games, watching playoff hockey, and being incredibly vulnerable with one another. We came from different backgrounds, and I was grateful for his compassion and understanding, despite not always knowing how to respond. The physical connection was just as strong, and he was affectionate in a way that I absolutely adored. I appreciated not having to hold back, that we didn’t have to hide that we liked each other. It was fun to sneak around places while trying not to get caught, something that I hadn’t even dared to do while in high school or college. And by the time we parted ways after midnight, it was like we were officially a couple.

Our relationship moved quickly, but I felt safe and natural being with him. I didn’t see any reason to wait for the “right” moment to enjoy what was between us, having over-calculated previous dating situations in the past and ultimately ending up frustrated and stressed out. Certain topics came up sooner rather than later, but it was good to be honest about where we were both coming from and what we wanted in that respect. There was no pressure or force, nor was there a need to rush anything. He definitely brought out a side in me that I knew I had, but had tried (and failed) to conceal for years; it was almost like he flipped a switch, but I was relieved instead of freaked out.

The ending was just as unexpected as the beginning; I went out of town to see my brother graduate from The Air Force Academy in Colorado, and hadn’t heard from the guy in several days. I knew something was off because we normally kept in contact regularly, though I tried to hold it together in front of my family. I woke up one morning and got a text from him saying that it was over, for reasons that I believe we could have discussed and worked through. I responded as if I accepted his decision, but on the other side of the screen I was devastated. I cried just about every day of that whole week, confused and wanting an explanation. I worked up the nerve to call him when I got home, and sadly he hung up on me when he recognized my voice. He didn’t want to be with me and that’s all the closure I would get for some time.

It took a while for the sadness to truly dissipate, because not only was I upset over what no longer was, but what would also never be. We had all talked about the things that we wanted to do together, and I’d hoped to introduce him to my best friends and family at some point. I should have been angry at him, but I took the usual route of blaming myself; it’s what I’ve done when I have no idea what’s going on, and am trying to fill the question marks for the sake of not driving myself crazy.

It’s as much speculation now as it was back then (as far as what exactly happened and why). I’m aware of the possibilities; that he could have been using me, met someone else, or freaked out and ran the other direction. Ultimately I choose to trust my instincts and believe that his interest was genuine, and that he meant what he said about me. I have compassion for him, knowing what he has struggled with and how it shaped him. Men have pain and fears and complexities just as women do, and those deserve to be acknowledged and honored. It does not excuse disrespect or taking the easy way out, but we’re all human here and each person should be viewed as such.

I don’t regret investing in him or spending time with him, nor do I regret the way we were with each other. If anything, I wish I hadn’t confided in so many people about what was going on, both before and afterward. I over think relationships enough as it is, and a multitude of opinions and theories became paralyzing. It was wishful thinking to be vulnerable and not expect a reaction, especially since most of my close circle didn’t know him. By now I should be able to let cynicism and unnecessary advice go in one ear and out the other, but that’s challenging, given that I second guess myself a lot. I’ve learned to be much more protective about what I share, and selective with whom I share it with. Everyone means well, but not all end up being helpful.

So what do you say when something might or might not have been love, but it was no less real and meaningful? It was more than just an experience, not “right” but not necessarily wrong either. It was beautiful and amazing and I’m grateful that I met him. Initially I was scared that I wouldn’t have something like that again, but as time has passed I’ve seen how each individual relationship is unique, and it’s unfair to make comparisons or box yourself in. It really comes down to whether or not you feel like you can be yourself with someone, and whether or not he/she motivates you to be a better person. That takes time, patience, and grace. Don’t panic if you don’t figure all that out within the first two dates.

It was brutal at first, but I let it be and kept going. Eventually I met new people and put my energy into those who were present, as opposed to those who were not. I occasionally wonder where he’s at now, and various places and songs will momentarily bring back memories. Writing (and reliving) this was somewhat painful, bringing deep-seeded fears to the surface again. I’m still trying to come up with a confident way to explain to a man, please don’t leave without telling me. Please, whatever you do, don’t just disappear.

I hate the way that he left, but I don’t hate him. And despite not knowing, I’m glad for all of it. He woke me up, and in turn, I stayed away from my shell and trusted what was to come. Heartbreak is an excruciating bitch, but it’s also the price for love. When you’re willing to love someone despite the risk of heartbreak, it’s not a sign of naiveté or bad decisions; it’s a sign of a life well-lived.

That in itself is worth celebrating.

Photo Credit

On Guiding My Heart

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I’ve never liked the idea of guarding my heart, and only recently had the courage to write about it in depth. It’s a potent idea within many churches and Christian culture, one that at face value seems to mean well, but in the end does the opposite of what it intended. It’s a misguided way of trying to have control over relationships; that by following a legalistic book or step by step process, we can trapeze around heartache all together, and that doing so is the only way to honor God. Not only has that proven to be false in my life, but I don’t think that’s what Jesus meant when He said that we would have trouble in this life.

As I’ve navigated relationships, I’ve been exploring ways in which I can guide my heart, which I’d define as an act of faith and risk-taking without putting up walls. I don’t have all the answers, let alone an idea of what makes the perfect relationship, and I don’t want to give anyone the impression that there’s a surefire way to do it. But it should allow you to have an experience, to get to know others (and yourself), and to grow.

 

Embrace instead of avoid

In the beginning it’s easy to get caught up in the what-if’s: What if there’s little to no chemistry? What if we don’t have enough in common or our personalities don’t mesh? While these are valid questions, it only breeds anxiety when you’re trying to get it all figured out after one date, or even before that. It’s unfortunate how we’ve come to expect relationships (and people) to show up all wrapped in a gift box, as if they’re the key to happiness. The reality is that every person is different, and you won’t experience the same things on the same level. Let time be your friend and do so without a timeline. It’s important to be aware of red flags, but too often we allow our fears to dictate the path we take and become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Whenever I try to prepare myself for what might or might not happen, I end up missing out on something wonderful. There’s no shame in savoring the excitement and joy of being with someone, and letting yourself be happy as opposed to waiting for the other shoe to drop. Tomorrow is meant for tomorrow, and it really does ultimately take care of itself.

 Not all advice is sound advice

As a young girl, I was warned against reading certain books that were often considered “female porn,” and how the media in general leads us to setting unrealistic expectations regarding romance. I’ve read a lot of Christian fiction over the years, and while the books weren’t terrible, I look back on the writing of the characters and storylines and wonder if those aspects are overlooked because of the subgenre (although that’s another post for another time). There’s a lot of material out there in regards to how to date and be Christian, one of which was extremely popular in the 90’s and early 2000’s, and was recommended to me by a youth group leader. The message left a bad taste in my mouth, and unfortunately became repetitive to the point where I blindly began to follow it, more so out of guilt than conviction.

But it’s not just about books or movies; sometimes what initially appears to be well-intentioned wisdom (i.e. don’t be vulnerable until you know you’ve met your spouse) can become harmful and confusing later on. It’s important to surround yourself with friends and mentors that can guide you in the various stages, but there’s a difference between speaking truth in hope and speaking truth in bitterness and generalizations. If someone leaves you with the latter, they’re probably not a good source to absorb.

Communicate (and commune)

Talk to your partner. Talk to your people. But most of all, talk to God. When I pray now a days, I forgo the nervous voice of, “If this man isn’t right for me, let me know” before any date, and instead ask for help in being present while we get to know each other. Whether it be on the morning before I start the day or walking around somewhere, I talk about the little things and the embarrassing things. And I write about them, because ultimately honesty really does go a long way. The more honest I am, the less perfect and put together I have to be.

You’re responsible for your actions and emotions, and no one else’s

I used to have this gargantuan fear of being left/abandoned, and still struggle with it after multiple relationships ended over things that could have easily been openly discussed and worked through. In high school I believed that I was at fault if a guy unexpectedly stopped talking to me or decided he didn’t want to be in my life. I was somehow responsible for keeping them around, for making sure that they understood and cared about me. It turned me into an insecure wreck and I couldn’t begin to work through it until my final semester of college.

Intention does not always affect perception; it takes two humble, grace-filled human beings in order to have a relationship, and if one is going to pull a road-runner because of something awkward or uncomfortable, then that’s not somebody I want to be with. Part of learning how to love is learning how to wade through the messy stuff, and make the best of what we don’t necessarily like about each other.

Be Grateful

Gratitude has been paramount for me, a way to stay focused on what’s happening right now and not get ahead of myself. I give thanks for the opportunity to meet people and to hear their stories. I give thanks for the time we spend together. And if for whatever reason it comes to an end, I give thanks for what that relationship taught me and how I grew because of it. I never want to look back and think of anything as a failure or something I should regret, and naming my blessings moment by moment puts it in perspective.

Have Faith

And lean not on your own understanding, which feels like one of the most under-emphasized verses in Scripture. We’re not supposed to be constantly making sense of what we should do or why something turns out the way it does. I’ve been through enough where I’m aware that regardless of how painful something is, I’m going to make it out the other side. I’m going to heal. And I will love again, though it might be different as opposed to being “better.”

Trusting God and having agency are not mutually exclusive; we can still exercise free will and include Him in the journey/process of discovering and building love with another person. Again, I don’t know much beyond what I’m currently still untangling and unlearning, but I’m getting there. I still wrestle with the conservative stance, and wondering if I’ll ever learn how to fully approach dating in a way that feels healthy and genuine. But then this hit me:

Jesus should be about freedom. If something makes you feel like you’re being held back instead of experiencing freedom, then it is not of Jesus.

The heart is meant to be carried, not held captive.

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What If I Don’t Want to Guard My Heart Anymore?

Whether you grew up in the church or spent the majority of your teen years in a youth group, you were probably told that your heart was “deceitful” (Jer. 17:9), but that you should “guard” it, because “everything you do flows from it” (Proverbs 4:23). I mostly heard it in relation to how to navigate the already confusing landscape of dating, particularly when I fell in love for the first time when I was only thirteen.

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Yet that responsibility was also being imparted to me (in a non-religious way) before I walked through the sanctuary doors. I learned to subconsciously believe that being liked and accepted meant that I had to present myself in a certain way. That I shouldn’t allow anyone to see my complex or emotional side until we had known each other for a while. And if I wanted to be loved, I needed to put on a happy face.

I tried to act in a way that was safe and comfortable, but was put off by the concept of friendship (and perhaps more) becoming a revolving door that people would walk in and out of. It was a cycle of hoping, overanalyzing, and then closing myself off. Deep down, all I really want was to get to know others and be known, but I couldn’t tell the difference between what was healthy and unhealthy. I carried it with me from junior high through college, and even today I’m still shaking it off.

But it’s not just about what we learn from our upbringing; unfortunately, we live in a culture that constantly warns us against the dangers of taking risks and getting too close. From relationships to careers to fulfilling our lifelong dreams, it’s all about doing whatever we have to do in order to avoid pain.

Nearly everything these days is saturated in fear. In some respects it’s completely understandable, but when it comes to personal interaction, it’s getting kind of ridiculous. There’s no formula that guarantees love and acceptance after opening up to someone. And because we’re all flawed human beings here, we’re all going to get hurt at some point. But there’s a difference between pain that results from our own impulsive or bad decisions, and pain because we knew what we were getting into and the other person did not show up.

As my own convictions and beliefs have been reshaped through the years, I’m beginning to see that taking “guard your heart” so literally is actually more harmful than it is helpful. It gave me the false idea that I had more control in relationships, and that if I went about it so carefully, I could in turn make people care about me without taking too big of a chance. It led me to believe that I was responsible for others’ emotional reactions and making sure that they didn’t disappear as I peeled back the layers. I glorified self-protection, and eventually became self-reliant. What I thought would bring me closer to God actually took me away from Him, and I regret what I missed out on as a result.

On the contrary, I don’t propose blindly following feelings and emotions either: you can want something so desperately that you can’t stop thinking about it, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Treating your heart like a runaway train is just as dangerous as treating it like a caged animal that has to be under lock and key. If God created us with this thing that is essentially the center of our bodies and physically keeps us alive, then it can’t be all that terrible; it just needs a little guidance.

I’m entering into a new season, and one that involves a lot of vulnerability and taking leaps of faith. I don’t want to guard my heart anymore as much as I want to guide it. The process itself is for another post, but it really comes down to getting real with God about everything, and being grateful for new opportunities, regardless if they’re just for today or for a lifetime. It’s a matter of trusting Him completely, rather than relying on my own limited understanding of what’s happening at the moment (Proverbs 3:5-6). And it’s experiencing the peace that comes from gratitude and surrender, allowing that to act as a protector rather than trying to do it all myself (Phil. 4:6-8).

Discernment is important, but I refuse to resort to legalistic measures, hoping that God will somehow bless me if I follow some silly formula or outdated process. It’s entirely possible to proceed with caution and listen to your instincts while still enjoying the journey of exploring something new and putting yourself out there. When I don’t do that, I miss out on the joys of learning, growing, and perhaps even healing. Yes, that is the real tragedy in putting up walls; it’s a refusal to have faith that He is in the business of healing and miracles, even those that come from pain, suffering, and re-piecing a broken heart back together.

I’m not going to tell you to not get hurt, because a painless existence is not of God. The truth should set you free, but it shouldn’t hold you back and keep you hidden either. Pay attention, but remember that experiences are meant to be treasured, not dictated.

And remember this: You’re going to be OK.

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