This is a long one, so bear with me. As Stasi Eldredge stated in Chapter 1 of Becoming Myself (discussed HERE), we are all of us, in some part of our lives, a “glorious mess.” Some of us are complete wrecks. A far cry from who we are meant to be. At least it may feel that way much of the time.
Chapter 2 is entitled “Looking Back With Mercy.” We are encouraged to remember the painful parts of our pasts, honestly, prayerfully, seeking healing and God’s perspective on our histories. And we who know him know that he often sees things quite differently than we do.
How did we get from there to here? Is “here” a good place to be? Which memories still hurt me? Am I here because of sins and bad choices I’ve committed? Am I here because of bad things others have done to me? It’s usually an intertwined mess of both, scarring us deeply on the inside and causing us, often unconsciously, to behave in ways that we wouldn’t if we hadn’t been hurt. Too often we act, speak, and believe, out of our brokenness.
I will share one life circumstance and two encounters that helped shape my personality and my reactions to others.
1. OIL FIELD CHILD
My dad works in the oil field. This meant moving every couple of years. When I was of pre-school age, we moved to East Texas, where I met Tara. She was my next door neighbor and the best friend I could ever imagine having. She was, in Anne Shirley’s language, my bosom friend. After a couple years, it was time for us to move again. My first—and, I think, deepest—heartbreak during childhood was being torn from Tara. No matter which schools I went to afterward, no matter which little girls lived next door to us, I didn’t make lasting friendships. I don’t remember the names of the kids I played with, and more often than not, I played with my sister’s friends, though I don’t remember their names either. They meant nothing to me. I was determined that they wouldn’t. I just wanted Tara. We visited her only once after we moved away, but it wasn’t the same. Something had been irreplaceably lost. Time and distance ruined everything.
The result? I still have issues trusting friendships. Either they will move or I will move. Friendships don’t last. Why should I put my heart and soul into nurturing a friendship if parting is inevitable? There’s less pain in being a loner.
2. THE FIRST GRADE TEACHER
I was always naturally and devastatingly shy. Easily embarrassed to the point of humiliation. Up until Ms. Maxey, I had enjoyed wonderful, fun, affection women as teachers. I had no reason to believe that my first grade teacher would be any different. Now, I can’t remember all the circumstances, only that Ms. Maxey gave us a new assignment, and we were to drag out some workbook or other. I remember looking at her, smiling, and rolling my eyes. Like “here we go again,” which means the assignment was probably math-related. I meant this exchange to be a sort of secret communication between just her and I, like camaraderie, something cute and endearing, because I thought she liked me.
She pounced. She yelled, sharing my great sin with everyone in class, who of course, turned to stare at the transgressor. Then, oh, yes, she sent me to the principal’s office. For rolling my eyes. At first, I thought she couldn’t be serious. I didn’t get sent the office. I was a good girl. I never broke rules or spoke out of turn. I must’ve pled for her to not mean it because she was insistent. I don’t remember walking the hall. I don’t remember what the principal said to me. I don’t remember waiting for my mother to arrive. I just remember sitting in the oversized chair, sobbing hysterically.
The result? The encounter, I believe, was supposed to teach me respect. It only taught me to fear. It destroyed a confident part in me that was willing to reach out to others. I still can’t look people in the eye for fear of detecting disapproval. It’s safer to keep my head down, be invisible, never attract attention.
3. THE SUNDAY SCHOOL TEACHER
Until recently, this memory would still recur at the oddest times to sting me. But I’ll express that more deeply. The “stings” were debilitating, resulting in paralyzing self-doubt and fear of risk. The encounter occurred during the same move, same town, same impressionable years as Ms. Maxey, and to spell it out might make it sound petty, but it obviously had a huge toll on my psyche.
Our assignment, while the adults were in “big church,” was to color a sheet of cute little animals. There were six, more-or-less realistic depictions of different types of animals lined up on this page. I rejoiced! I loved coloring. I was rarely without a crayon in my hand. I still have the callous on my middle left finger that resulted from the hours I spent with crayons, and later, colored pencils. I was confident in my skills. I could stay inside the lines; I pressed hard, so that the colors were rich and deep, whereas most kids ended up with faded pastel colors smeared haphazardly all over the page. So I dived into the assignment.
It’s very likely that the man in charge of this assignment was giving us specific instructions about what colors to use where (a red flag in itself), but in my enthusiasm I blotted out the drone of his voice, if in fact this was the case. In the bottom left-hand corner of the page was a squirrel sitting on his haunches and nibbling on what was probably an acorn. I colored the squirrel brown, because all children know that that squirrels are brown and only brown. Then I distinctly remember thinking, “If I paint the acorn brown too, you won’t be able to see it. It will be all brown and that’s boring.” I reached for the turquoise crayon. My mom liked turquoise jewelry, so I had learned to appreciate the beauty in a turquoise gemstone. I colored this acorn turquoise.
Then it came my turn to have my sheet graded. Question: Who grades colorings in Sunday School? But for whatever reason, our colorings were graded at this particular church. The man came to my squirrel and with the tip of his pen pointed at the little spot of turquoise in my squirrel’s grasp. “What’s that?” he asked. “It’s a blue rock,” I replied, so proud of my creative genius and my color-coordinating skills. “No,” he said, and with that pen put a big red checkmark near my squirrel. Just “no”? If he said anything else, I was too devastated to hear him.
The result? Never think outside of the box. Color by number. Color inside the lines. Follow directions without an ounce of independent thinking. Creativity is okay, as long as it’s cliché. Clichés don’t rock the boat. Paint your tree trunks brown and your water blue, at all cost, even though, in reality, tree trunks are usually gray and water only reflects the colors around it, whether it’s blue or green or red or striped, but don’t realize this, just do what I expect you to do.
Oil Field Child — About four years ago, God called me out of my loner comfort zone. I knew I needed to grow in my people skills, my social interactions. It’s healthy to be with people. God wanted to heal me, and I had to take a huge step of faith. It hurt. I was terrified. Three years later: I have friends. Imagine that! Women I can call on when things go wrong. People who I ask to pray for me and my family. People I love to laugh with and serve with and share life’s pain and life’s victories. I take the risk of being open with them, of caring about them. They still move away. But guess what? I get to go visit them. I get free lodging out of state and adventures in faraway places because I keep in contact with people I love. And thank God for social media. While it has its drawbacks, friends 800 miles away still feel like they’re just down the street. I get to celebrate and cry with them almost in real time. I don’t have to give them up forever.
First Grade Teacher – The incident must’ve disturbed my mother as much as it did me. She didn’t deal out the promised, “If ever you’re sent to the office, you’ll get a spanking at home.” And sometime later she made sure to tell me, “Ms. Maxey’s mother had just died.” In my heart, I understood a reason for my teacher’s flying off the handle, but I also understood that this didn’t excuse her. I remained terrified of this woman. I avoided contact with her at all cost. Then God reminded me of a “chance” encounter I had with Ms. Maxey the following year. I had gone on to Mrs. Little’s 2nd Grade class, and Mrs. Little provided redemption in so many ways. But this is about Ms. Maxey. So, there we were, our entire class lined up in the hallway, waiting for recess or lunch or our turn in the bathroom. And I happen to glance up and see Ms. Maxey coming. She’s maneuvering through the lines of kids, and out of all of them, she looks down and smiles at me. Joy rose in my little heart like sunshine. I can remember the gray and red stripes in her polyester blouse, the way her curly hair had fallen flat, and that all her lipstick had worn off. And, now, I wonder if the unfair things she did when her mother died haunted her bit and she came to regret breaking my trust like she did. I think she made a point to smile at me in particular. In apology, in a show of approval. Only God knows. But it’s enough.
Sunday School Teacher – “Look at this man,” God prompted me when I invited him into this memory that held surprising power over me. “Examine him.” So I concentrated on details I could remember. He wore a short-sleeved plaid shirt, unfashionable in the mid-80s except among the farm boys. He had a perfectly bald head except for the strip of hair stretching around from ear to ear. His glasses were nearly bottle-bottom thick. He was as straight and unimaginative as they came. If he was a typical child, and I must assume he was, then he had been creative once, but this natural part of him had been stripped out, likely with a great deal of disappointment and heartbreak. God told me, “Feel sorry for this man, beloved. He’s wasn’t qualified to judge your creativity.” And then came the revelation: “But you are. Where are you dampening the creativity of others? Don’t repeat this cycle. You know how much it hurts.” I realized I had carried that horrible lesson into my interactions with my sister, my friends, my husband, my nieces and nephews. I had become the unimaginative Sunday School teacher. Because I thought he was right.
This post has run way longer than I intended, so I choose two short statements from chapter 2 that resonated with me:
“I do not believe God caused the pain of our lives, but I do know that he uses it to drive us to himself.”
(Becoming Myself, 38)
“God is rewriting my story. My story is his story, really, and one day he will tell it in all of its hidden splendor. I will get to hear his take on my days, his perception of what was going on underneath and behind the scenes. He will share with me the many ways he was working all things together for my good, and it will be marvelous to hear.”
(Becoming Myself, 42)
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
“All things,” really means “all things.” Even the painful parts of our past. I find immeasurable hope in that promise.