A Tale of Two Loves (Part 4): The Ghost in the Gap

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts about two kinds of love. (If you go back to read the other posts, start from the bottom. They are in reverse order.) This is a process blog. In this case, that means I’m writing about constrained love in an effort to write my own way out of it. Because once I’ve seen it, I couldn’t live in it even if I wanted to. This post straddles the gap between the two kinds of love, Constrained and… the other kind. I’m not sure what to call it yet. Last week I wrote about my difficulty in speaking hope.

There was another divide I believe prevented my ex from hearing my hope. Sure, I didn’t speak hope often enough. But even when I did, there was often something in between us that filtered what I said and did before it got to his heart. That thing was the story he was telling himself about our interactions.

My ex was in grad school for most of our marriage. I remember once when I was frustrated by how long it was taking him to finish, he told me, “But I’m doing this because YOU WANTED ME TO.”

Now, I never once dreamed up a scheme for him to go to grad school. I have no recollection of wanting him to get a PhD. Or, rather, I wanted it because it was his dream. But it was never something I would have dreamed of asking for myself or for us.

They are strangely strong, the stories we tell ourselves about what people think. As a deeply spiritual person, it makes sense to me that these stories originate from an entity the Bible calls the Father of Lies and the Accuser. If there is someone out to destroy our souls, what better way to do it than by whispering lies into our minds about ourselves and each other:

“You are not enough and this person knows it.”

“You’ll never be enough until you can [fill in the blank: Lose more weight. Keep your house clean.]”

We are really adept at repeating those lies to ourselves ad nauseum until they become part of our identity. I never really recognized my own negative self-talk until my life hit the skids during my divorce. I mean, as a good, supposedly self-aware citizen of the 21st century, I was aware of the concept. But I didn’t recognize it in myself. One day I began to notice that I told myself stories about things people would think of me that almost never became reality. “Better sweep up the dust bunnies or your dinner guests will notice and have a bad time because they won’t be able to think about anything else.” Or, “Everyone is noticing that stupid thing you do at work and thinking about it all day.”

I kept track once and I had a thought like that every seven minutes on average. That’s nearly ten times an hour, every waking hour of the day. And of course 99% of these thoughts never amounted to anything. But that 1% is a bitch. It’s enough to make me feel like the other 99% is right. “I was SO RIGHT when I suspected Joann would hate my hair. And that’s just the one time she happened to SAY something. I bet she’s thinking it all the friggin time. And I bet Jim-Bob and Matilda are too.” Suddenly, being right 1% of the time makes this self- talk essential to my survival. I learn to lean on it to anticipate bad things people might say and protect myself from them.

If I see my negative self-talk as a worthwhile protective instinct, I’m bound to use it to protect myself in the relationships closest to me. And it’s in my closest relationships where I are more likely to have it reinforced by the occasional snippy comment or “constructive criticism”. If I’ve already talked myself into believing people think I’m worthless, any negative comment can send me reeling.

I’ve heard that it takes seven positive interactions to make up for one negative one. And it’s no wonder. Most of us are working overtime to convince ourselves that we’re not enough. We’re operating at a deficit before our loved ones even open their mouths.

I never asked my ex to go to grad school. But the facts of what I actually wanted don’t matter that much. He told himself a story that I wanted him to go to grad school, and he heard everything I said on the subject through that filter. Every complaint, every criticism, anything I did that touched on this sore spot for him was augmented by this idea that he was only trying to do what I wanted him to do. There’s a gap, and then there’s the inadequacy-whispering ghost who lives there, telling us lies about ourselves, lies about our loved ones, amping up our insecurities until they’re the only thing we hear.

It’s amazing how quickly this inadequacy-whispering ghost travels from person to person. Nothing trips feelings of inadequacy like feelings of inadequacy being directed at you (or even blamed on you). If I see a loved one hurting, I immediately blame myself: Was it something I did? Something I said? And if they’re up in my face telling me it was, that seals the deal. The only thing that will get me spun up faster than suspecting I’m not enough is someone TELLING me I’m not. I don’t know about you, but this is the source of the majority of the arguments I’ve had with friends and loved ones. It’s not about the toilet paper roll facing the wrong way, it’s not about whether you called when I wanted you to, it’s about what it MEANS about how you feel about me. I start voicing that, the person I care about says those things don’t really MEAN what I think they do…And around we go.

The lying ghost in the gap is adept at pitting us against each other when our fight is not against one another but against the lies he is telling us. (Ephesians 6:12)

Was it fair to me that my ex thought I was the reason he was in grad school? Not at all. And I put most of my energy into arguing with him about how unfair it was. But his belief in it was a fact I needed to face when I related to him. And it’s that belief that I butt up against over and over in my relationships with other people. I can focus on the unfairness of the story they are telling themselves, or I can help re-narrate the story. Constrained love insists on my right to be understood (which is a real thing. And valid.) I believe unconstrained love can set that aside and fight the ghost in the gap alongside the person I care about. Which do you think is easier in the moment? Which do you think is more powerful? And ultimately, which do you think most effectively paves the way for me to be truly and deeply heard, anyway?

It is NOT WRONG to insist on what you know to be true, to defend yourself. In some cases people’s self-deceit is so strong that you cannot come alongside and help them re-narrate the story. There is a time for digging in your heels. But that is a final battle time, when you’ve realized that the person is so lost to the ghost in the gap that you cannot pull them back. It is not the the starting point, and it cannot be the day-to-day operation of relationships. Day in and day out we are built to fight the ghost together, side by side.

A Tale of Two Loves (Part 3): Hope May the Hardest Thing I Know

This is the third in a series of blog posts about two kinds of love, A Tale of Two Loves. (If you go back to read the other posts, start from the bottom. They are in reverse order.) This is a process blog. In this case, that means I’m writing about constrained love in an effort to write my own way out of it. Because once I’ve seen it, I couldn’t live in it even if I wanted to. This post straddles the gap between the two kinds of love, Constrained and… the other kind. I’m not sure what to call it yet. 🙂

The day we decided to divorce, my ex-husband said something that has stuck in my head despite my best efforts to forget it. He told me that he knew when I asked him to move out that I’d already given up on him.

I didn’t respond when he said it. But if I had, I might have said something like this (and yes, I’m definitely this eloquent in real life):

“I didn’t give up on you when I asked you to move out. I did it with the hope and expectation that you could do better. That you would fight for our marriage, fight for me. And you didn’t. In spite of your friends and family encouraging you to. You gave up on us long before I did, and I couldn’t pull you back. We’re here because I could only believe in you more than you believed in yourself for so long.”

Looking back, I don’t remember saying any of those things. Not then, not ever.

I’m not rethinking my divorce. I still think it was the inevitable choice. I’d tried everything I was capable of at the time. But I would be a fool if I didn’t think about what I could have done differently. What I should have done differently because it was the right thing to do, even if it might not have been enough to save my marriage. What he said has stuck with me because his heart was in it. And because, in spite of what I tell myself, I’ve had a sneaking suspicion that he wasn’t wrong.

Of course, let me be very quick to point out that I wasn’t wrong either. I did have hope, in spite of what he thought. I still do. I have hope for who I know he can be. I still believe in what we could have been together.

So where was the disconnect?

What I’m learning has everything to do with the flavor of hope, and what I did with it.

Last post I wrote about fear being like a rock in your shoe. It hobbles hope. It hobbles love.

Hope with fear in it isn’t shared. I keep it to myself.

Hope with fear in it doesn’t trust people.

Hope with fear in it doesn’t stick its neck out.

Hope with fear in it doesn’t talk about the hope itself. It sees the gap between what is and what could be and describes that.

Hope with fear in it looks for people and things to blame for not being fulfilled.

Hope with fear in it is so fragile that I don’t trust anyone else to help me hold it.

Hope with fear in it looks for anything BUT people to trust. Believe in the institution of marriage. Believe in conventional relationship roles. (Or believe in NOT marriage. Believe in eliminating gender roles. Anything but relying on the person.)

Hope with fear in it tries to control behavior.

Falling in love is an interesting phenomon. A lot of people talk about the foolishness of it. Don’t lose your head over someone who doesn’t check the right boxes, or you’re asking for trouble. Don’t lose yourself in your emotions. You’ll regret it.

I’m not advocating throwing good judgment out the window, but I’m starting to think that what happens when you first fall in love is a gift to the rest of the relationship, not a weird lapse in judgment. In those early days, our eyes aren’t clouded—they’re clearly seeing what we hope for the person, what we know they can be. Early love is when we catch the vision for what could be. Our heart sees without hurt. When things get harder later on, it’s not necessarily because we lacked good judgment to begin with but because we’re encountering the inevitable gap between what we are and what we could be. Our gaps are where we hurt each other.

Hope with fear in it thinks the gap is the trajectory.

Fearless hope thinks the gap is an obstacle we overcome together.

Hope with fear in it talks about the pain points.

Fearless hope talks about the goal.

Hope with fear says, “You’re not the same person I fell in love with.”

Fearless hope says, “I see your potential even when you’ve lost sight of it.”

Hope with fear in it builds walls and convoluted workarounds to avoid the same pain twice.

Fearless hope knows to expect the same pain several times in the healing process, and counts it as worthwhile.

Brene Brown writes that she and her husband have an old subway sign hanging in their home: “Mind the Gap.” Fear with love in it screams about the gap. Fearless love knows that it is a pain point for everyone involved and treats the gap gingerly, focuses on where we are going.

My ex wasn’t wrong. I had hope for him, but I didn’t speak to him about it. When I thought I was, I wasn’t talking about the goal but the gap. I held hope but blamed him for not fulfilling it. What good is hope when you keep it to yourself? Or worse, isolate yourself in it to protect yourself from the pain when it goes unfulfilled? Or worst, fight against someone over your hope for them?

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (I Corinthians 13:7) 

A Tale of Two Loves (Part 2): Love in the Age of Fear

This is the second in a series of blog posts about two kinds of love. I’m currently writing about the first kind, constrained love. (If you go back to read the other posts, start from the bottom. They are in reverse order.) This is a process blog. In this case, that means I’m writing about constrained love in an effort to write my own way out of it. Because once I’ve seen it, I couldn’t live in it even if I wanted to.

A few weeks ago, a friend recommended a New York Times Op Ed called “Motherhood in the Age of Fear.” She describes the constant fear that mothers are expected to live under, fear that any little thing could lead to catastrophe for their kids. Or fear that they’ll be judged for their lack of fear. The layers of fear over motherhood are thick and complex.

Two things stood out to me. The first is the label, “Age of Fear”. It is such an apt description of our era that I went looking to see other people using it—they must be. But apparently they’re not, or at least not yet. So let me be the first to echo it. I think that phrase “Age of Fear” will resonate far beyond the scope and moment of that OpEd.

The second is that fear is seen as a facet of love. And not just a biproduct or a sadly necessary part, but something so critical that if it’s not therein sufficient quantities, people call child protective services. ‘I don’t know if I’m afraid for my kids, or if I’m afraid other people will be afraid and will judge me for my lack of fear.’

I think the Age of Fear and what I’m calling Constrained Love go hand in hand. When I first read the phrase the Age of Fear, it resonated because I recognize that I’m a citizen of the Age of Fear. I’m a born and bred citizen, not naturalized. It’s not something I adopted deliberately, and it’s not something with its roots in the last few years. When I first read about the Age of Fear, I thought, “well of course—9/11. This is the result of the constant threat of terrorism.” But I don’t think that’s it. I remember the roots of the Age of Fear being there when I began having thoughts of my own, back around the time the Berlin Wall fell, when the Internet was being born. If anything, it should have been the beginning of a more optomistic, hopeful time. But hope with a grain of fear in it is a different animal.

I remember my dad (who spent a year in Germany in the 70s) reminding me every so often that if the Third Reich could happen in Germany, it could happen anywhere. I remember arguing with Vicky (my childhood best friend) about whether people are inherently good or evil. Vicky loved the optimism of Anne Frank, “I keep my ideals, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” How could she think that, after what people had done to Anne Frank? Anne and my friend both seemed naive. Whatever peace we found seemed tenuous, fragile, in need of protection from evil empires, maybe even from ourselves.

Like so many people in my age, I looked to ideology to protect me. To protect me from myself and from other people. So much of my faith and the way I interacted with life was shaped by the compulsion to acknowledge the evil at our core and to fear it.

Fear does strange things to hope, turns it into something different. It makes hope conditional. I hope that if I do things just right, I can avoid or eliminate the things I fear. I can shelter myself and my family from crisis by avoiding the mistakes of the past. We can put up a fence so high that the creeps won’t get to us. When Faith, Hope, and Love change to Fear, Hope, and Love, they all end up warped. Fear is the little bit of sand in the shoe that can drive us to take the wrong path. The leaven in the dough that I’ve seen wreak destruction in my own life.

When fear is the root, we protect ourselves from our selves and from each other. Last week I read a book by Rebecca Manley Pippert, who in some ways was before her time when it came to acknowledging vulnerability. She was all about recognizing our faults. It was published in 1989, when I was 10. But looking back at the book through the lens of the last 30 years, I can see the grain of fear. It’s worth quoting Pippert at length because she captures the spirit of the time in a way that I can’t do retrospectively:

“There is something truly wonderful and remarkable about us all. We have a capacity for love, an appreciation of beauty, and moments of genuine courage. But unfortunately, that’s not the whole story. We want to believe that the essential ‘us’ is who we are in our best moments, when everything is going our way, when nothing is thwarting or threatening us. We want to believe that we are what we project to the world: nice, respectable, competent people who have it all together. Fortunately or unfortunately, life doesn’t let us get away with our charade. Sooner or later, whether through a difficult relationship with a berating boss, a demanding spouse, a difficult child, or simply through overwhelming or infuriating circumstances, we are confronted with our darker side.

“Has it ever struck you as odd that, for all our sophistication, we modern people have a remarkably naive understanding of human nature? Living at the end of history’s most murderous century, we flatter ourselves that we are basically good people who occasionally do bad deeds. The founders of our nation were not so naive. The very political institutions they contructed for us, founded on concepts like ‘checks and balances,’ are testimony to their assumption that human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions. People with power cannot be trusted too far. History hardly indicates that our problem has changed—rather, that it is we who have developed short memories. We are struggling the the symptoms of an age-old disease, which we have lost the capacity to diagnose.”

Do you see what I see? The idea that to get to the good, we have to contain the evil? The idea that our bad selves dominate and that our main line of defense is fierce PROTECTION? I hardly mean to pick on Pippert. Honestly, I may be reading fear into it because it had such a strong mark in my own life. It was a view so pervasive that 10-year-old Amy unquestioningly and enthusiastically repeated it. It’s really subtle. So much so that it may just be me displacing my own thoughts onto what Pippert is saying. But I see the idea that the answer to this darker side of ourselves is in our institutions and our traditions. And while they certainly need to protect us, I think we (I?) leaned on them entirely too much. And I suspect this: that there is a bright and direct line between what I remember (and the subtle thing I see in Pippert) and the Age of Fear we find ourselves in 30 years later.

Think about the Late 80s. We were decades past the world wars and Vietnam. We were inches away from winning the Cold War. The Berlin Wall fell the same year Pippert published that book. We had used the power of our military and our culture to dominate evil in the world. The world never seemed brighter than in the late 80s and early 90s. But I think in our victories, we were scared. Scared of one another and of ourselves. Frightened of the creeping immorality in our neighborhoods, in our homes, in ourselves. We had seen the end result of letting the evil in human hearts run rampant, and it was terrifying.

We kept looking for the seeds of evil so we could protect ourselves before the problem got dangerously big. We became proactive. Preemptive.

The news outlets built for war turned the same camera onto car accidents, kidnappings, plane crashes.

The government institutions that had helped us battle evil on an international scale were repurposed for pre-emptive war. And for war on evil within our borders—The War on Drugs. The War on Crime. The War on Poverty.

“Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.”

I am definitely not the first person to point out this repurposing of militaristic approaches to international problem-solving. But I see another layer of it. This didn’t just happen on international and national levels. It happened in our schools, in our churches, in our homes. We looked inward, we looked deeper, we saw the darkness within and decided to make sure we were battling it preemptively. Leave no room for evil at home. Or else… or else we might become the next Nazi Germany? Or else… [insert bad thing here] might happen again.

“Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.”

On a macro level, laws are used to govern conscience. We outlaw things like straws and suicide. We address tragedy with more laws. (How many laws are named after people who have been kidnapped or murdered?) We look for the kernel of evil and fence it in, building bigger and stronger fences every time the barrier is breached. The children are our future, we need to show them our love by making the world a safer place. World war: Never again!

“Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.”

We’ve amped up our medical technology. We’ve found vaccines for any conceivable virus. We’ve honed our cancer treatments. We’ve mapped the genome. We’ve started talking realistically about eliminating death. We show our love for our ailing family members by throwing every dime we have (or don’t have) into their care. Long hospital stays and prolonged deathbed agony: Never again!

Without big wars, death on a much smaller scale terrorized us. 17 years after 9-11, we are still plugging gaps in our borders where terrorists could trickle in. Almost every large building in the country has cement barriers to prevent someone from driving an explosive-loaded car into the bottom floor. We love our country and our businesses and institutions. Terrorism: Never again!

“Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.”

On a family level, protection becomes a weapon of love. We put up internet filters. We learn to watch for signs of child molesters in our schools, churches, and families. We hover over our kids as they wander the neighborhood, as they walk to and from school. We acknowledge (not incorrectly) that evil can go undetected, can even flourish within the confines of our homes, so we watch for it diligently. We love our children, so we must do ANYTHING we can to prevent these bad things from happening to them. Kidnappings and sexual abuse: Never again!

“Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.”

And on an individual level, we protect ourselves. This I the most obvious to me in my own life. I’m constantly on the lookout for patterns of behavior that led to my divorce. I remember this paranoia hitting a fevered pitch when I spent some time speculating whether the cute guy I’d met on the trail was a homeless drug dealer. When fear reigns, every possible risk has to be accounted for or eliminated. I show my love to myself by vigilantly watching for any sign of repeating the same mistake twice. Divorce: Never again!

“Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.”

Because we love, and because we have learned to express love as fear, we protect our loved ones from the evil outside and the evil within themselves. The effectiveness of my belief system (in my case, evangelical Christianity, but that is certainly not the only example) is evaluated based on its effectiveness at stopping evil, at protecting me from others and from myself.

Pippert asks, “Does God make a difference?” If I can’t answer yes to that question, there’s not much point in engaging with God. But WHY I think God makes a difference matters so much. Is it because I think it makes me safe from the evil in me and those around me? My city on a hill is a place where children are safe, where the environment is pristine and the dolphins thrive, where terrorists can’t get in because we’ve eliminated all of their entry points with giant fences. Otherwise, what good is it? It is not only my right, it is my primary, God-given responsibility as a loving person to see the sprouts of evil in myself and those around me and root it out.

“Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.” It’s everywhere, in all of us. The statement is not untrue, but oh, what have we done with it?

Fear is like a ghost whispering in our ears at every opportunity: “‘Human nature has a root of evil that unchecked can grow to terrifying proportions.’ Never again! Protect what you love! Evil will not pass the same way twice! If you’ve learned enough from your last encounter with it, you can and must move heaven and earth to prevent its like in other places!”

Fear is sensitive, it detects the evil around me better than anything I know. It protects me and the people I love. Fear is my friend.

Or is it? What if fear cannot live alongside what may be the two most powerful weapons we have? What if fear does not leave room for hope (or it’s close cousin, resilience)? What if fear isn’t a symptom of love, but runs love out of any space it occupies?

If you’re not on board with those questions, ask yourself this: what have we gained from letting fear rule? I know my answer to that question: Not safety, not happiness, not community, not love. When we plant fear, the only yield we get is more fear.