WHEN LOVE BREAKS THROUGH, WE ARE SUDDENLY ABLE TO ACCEPT OUR WEAKNESSES AND FAULTS WITHOUT COMING UNGLUED.
“Hungers of the Heart” by Richard Watts.
Watt quotes David James Duncan, who tells about his search that finally brought him to hollowing out a place in his heart about the size of a thimble. Duncan continues, “When I was twenty, in India one day, I turned to God with embarrassed sincerity and said, ‘ Would you care to fill this little thimble with anything?’ and instantaneously, -almost absurdly really, – an undeniable, unimaginable, indescribable lake of peace and love landed on my head in reply.”
Watts continues: “This experience that Christians call grace breaks into the anxiety, confusion and self-doubt that trouble us and frees us to journey along a path toward becoming a real self. ….It need not be as sudden or dramatic as Duncan’s. We need not be “born again;” we live in God’s grace simply by virtue of having been born. Whether for us a breakthrough comes as we look up to the stars, ponder the mysteries of DNA, find someone who loves us, help heal another’s hurt, take a risk for justice, (recognize our limits and helplessness, hit bottom, are forgiven by someone we have harmed* my additions) the experience of being accepted restores us to our real selves.
The paradox is this: that when love breaks through, we are suddenly able to accept our weakness and faults without coming unglued.
We come to accept that even our best impulses are tainted by self-interest, that we pretend to know more than we really know, and to “have it all together” when we really don’t. We begin to see that our strengths are really also our pitfalls: ambition that enables us to achieve can result in a stunted personal life with little time for love and friendship, the pride that allows us to walk in dignity may also keep us from acknowledging our mistakes; the charm that opens doors for us may lapse into shallowness on which we depend without seeking deepening, growth and newness; the intellect in which we trust may mask a denial of the emotions, which one day erupt in us in discomfiting force. (Our tendency to respond to life emotionally may help us understand and reach out to those who are suffering, but since emotions are short term, we may make our choices based on them with consequences that are destructive in the long run.* my addition )
The wonder of grace is that we are increasingly able to see ourselves as we really are without despair.”
And that is the first step to becoming free to grow and change in ways that give us more balanced, appropriate and grace-filled responses to life.
It’s long been my theory that women outlive men, because in our culture we have traditionally been allowed the release of tears.
When men are overwhelmed, they use anger to keep from being vulnerable by showing their fears or hurt. But anger has to be controlled or it will turn into violence, so it isn’t an effective
way of expressing and releasing strong emotions. Instead it just creates more tension and stress.
Though long ago crying made me feel weak, once when doing a project using a friend’s original art, I thought I had permanently damaged all her paintings. Weeping copiously, I struggled successfully to find a way to save them. Once the crisis was over, I realized that weeping didn’t show weakness. The whole time I was weeping, I was coping by problem solving. And having an outlet for my emotions, probably freed me from panic enough to think of a creative solution.
When I was carpooling with an army staff sergeant to my civil service job on an army post, he explained why he had volunteered for a year’s duty without family in Korea. He said that he had a great posting near his wife’s family in Boston. But the first morning he reported to his new position as staff sergeant, he discovered that all his officers were women and in the process of his first staff meeting, they all, at times, cried. He had been through two wars, but he couldn’t handle that. It struck me as understandable, but I couldn’t help but wonder if the officers in all the armies cried instead of being angry and macho, would it cut down on wars?
Another time I was working in a Christian book store and right after my mother died, I had to spend a morning arranging all the Mother’s Day cards. About every fifteen minutes I had to go in the back to cry, not wanting a customer to come in and see me weeping. But a few days later, a young man still in his teens came in to buy a bible. We got to talking and he told me he had just gotten out of the army after serving in our invasion of Panama. He said that his unit was sent to surround a building that reportedly had enemy soldiers hiding there. As they approached the building with machine guns ready, some people started running out and he and the other American soldiers started firing. But it was a school and it was children and teachers running out. I was horrified, but fought back my tears. I did say, “I’m so sorry” and he nodded and left. I wish now I had cried and held him and freed him to weep. Because that is what he needed, someone to free him to weep by weeping with him.
Jesus wept when he stood on a hill overlooking Jerusalem, realizing that he had failed in what he thought was his life’s mission, saving his people, the Jews. He wept because he loved them, yet was unable to reach them.
Tears simply express strong emotion. They are healing, freeing, saving. If we understand that when feeling overwhelmed, we can cry it out and then deal with our situation. If Jesus wept, so can we. Tears are not weakness. They are a healing gift.
But it is hard in different ways for each of us, because we are different from one another. Ask any mother of more than
one child. They will tell you we are all born different. Some babies are quiet and placid, but solemn. Some are quiet
and calm, but smile and laugh easily. Some are hyper-active even as infants lying on their backs in a bassinet. Some
are hyper-sensitive to sounds, startle easily, and react to change. Some are tuned in to their inner world,
reacting very little to their environment. Some are quite independent, while others need more cuddling, attention
and support. Some are excitable, with an inborn tendency to over react to both positive and negative experiences.
Many children as early as two or three have vivid imaginations. Some both empathize and identify with story book
characters, often later believing themselves stalked by the story book monsters. Others are thrilled by the vicarious
terror, but don’t identify with it.
When my father read me stories about children being lost or animals being hurt, it would upset me so much that a
happy ending didn’t make it all right.
Watch how differently children and adults react to shows like America’s Funniest Videos. Some wince or even cry, as
if everything is happening to them; others are detached and amused, whether the event is real and painful for
someone else or not.
Each personality trait has an upside and a downside, each dominant trait we have gives us both
strengths and weaknesses. I’ve worked with tools for measuring and illustrating this, such as the Meyers-Briggs Type
Indicator and the Enneagram, but for this short article it is simpler to use more life experience descriptions.
A person who is very aware of and sensitive to their own feelings may empathize with others, championing the
underdog or the vulnerable, but will tend to over-react to slights or criticism, real or imagined.
As a child I was equally excitable and responsive to happy and sad things . When I
was three, I was so excited about Christmas that when I finally was taken in to see my toys under the
tree, I threw up on them before I could even play with them.
In my anxiety filled teen years, my stomach rebelled to even mild stress and I learned to not eat all day before just
going out on dates. Unfortunately for my dates, once I was out, I calmed down and got voraciously hungry. I was
not a cheap date.
As an adult I often experience sheer joy over even small things such as the beauty of nature, children’s laughter,
my grandchildren’s curiosity about the world, but I also experience extremely dark times over my own failures or
the people I love’s pain.
Even traits we consider wonderful have a down side. People with high IQ’s tend to assume they are right and often
are not open to other’s opinions, but the reality is that no one is right all the time.
Years ago, I attended a workshop where slogan and affirmations were posted on the walls. One that simply jumped
out at me was, “I am competent and loveable.”
My immediate reaction was, “No. You can’t be both.”
In my experience the really efficient people are task oriented. They are both competent and persevering. They
focus on the goal, prioritize the details, and plow ahead, often over people who unwittingly get in their way. Many
things would not get accomplished without this type of person, but they may alienate so many people along the way
that in the long run their effectiveness will be diminished.
Personally, my greatest value has been ideas that help people in general and my focus has been on relationships.
Physical details, particularly about machines, don’t show up on my radar most of the time.
I once had a secretarial job that involved a lot of detail and working with elaborate and expensive office machines.
I was a total disaster. Luckily, I realized this and left after three months. I am sure everyone there breathed a sigh of
But later I had a much higher paying job as a director that involved recruiting volunteers and bringing in training
programs for them, creating and organizing new programs, and doing publicity for these. I was successful at this in
spite of it involving a lot of detail, because I was good at recognizing, recruiting, and supporting people with the skills
that I don’t have.
I wasted a lot of angst in my early life expecting to be equally good at everything. I taught first grade and one sweet
little girl simply would not do her math homework. When I finally confronted her over this, she looked at me with her
big brown eyes and said sadly, “Oh Miz Norman, I’m good at reading. Do I have to be good at everything?” My gut
level response was, “Of course.” Luckily, I stopped and thought about it. Finally, I said, “No, you don’t have to be
equally good at everything. But you need to at least learn survival skills in math. If you don’t know basic math, how
will you be able to shop?” She thought about that for a minute and decided I was right.
I’m pretty sure she didn’t go on to become a mathematician, but hopefully she is out there somewhere shopping and
keeping her checkbook balanced.
She actually freed me of the belief that I was stupid, if I couldn’t easily excel in everything, and to accept that I had to
work harder at some things just to survive. I now try to do the things I want to avoid first, but in spurts, followed by
shorter breaks doing things I enjoy or find easy. This is a method of motivating myself with a reward and
encouraging myself by doing something I can do easily.
I tend to envy people who live in the present moment. They seem so carefree, since they are not over-burdened by
past mistakes or wounds and don’t worry much about the future. In fact they hardly think about the future at all.
They are happy, optimistic and fun, but the downside is that they are often oblivious to possible consequences of
their choices in the moment.
I have always tended to focus on the future, imagining its wonderful possibilities. Sometimes this has helped me be an
agent for change and to plan ahead for a lot of eventualities. But I also end up living in a picture perfect world in my
head. Then when reality doesn’t measure up, I don’t persevere if I see that I can’t achieve the ideal I have
pictured. I think that a lot of my life has been lived by the motto, “If at first you don’t succeed, don’t make a
fool of yourself, try something else.” Now in my later years my life challenge is to learn to persevere even through
failures and to accept that nothing is perfect. At seventy-six I still haven’t quite gotten there , but I have made a lot
I am emotionally volatile. In the early years of our fifty-six years of marriage, my husband said I could go from
bubbling with joy to total despondency faster than a speeding bullet. And sometimes when I fell into one of my
feeling pits that make doing anything seem like struggling through quicksand, I would become almost paralyzed. But
along the way I discovered that I can continue to function even when depressed, if I cut myself some slack by
prioritizing and only doing what is completely necessary. And, if I don’t waste time and energy by beating myself up
over this trait, I pull out fairly quickly and can go longer periods without becoming a bottomless pit of wants and
People like me should be assigned a counselor at birth. At several crisis points in my life I have gotten counseling,
some good, some not so much. But good or not, because I’m all about evolution, on the grand scale and the
personal, once I recognize that I’ve bogged down, I persevere at finding what I need to work through it.
And I’ve come to see that we all evolve in different patterns of stages and in a circle. For instance at a different
time in life, I and others like me, begin to focus temporarily on being more task oriented people. And the task
oriented people will at some point do just the opposite, thus developing skills in our weaker traits.
The good news is that in our later years we find it easier to become reasonably competent in our weakest
areas. (Easi er, not easy, because in order to do this we must let go of our strength, a kind of dying to self.)
And for me that means being able to accept imperfect reality and to be willing to persevere in inching toward
becoming the unique, though imperfect, person I was created to be. And along the way are times of lovely peace,
great joy, unmeasurable love, and sneak peaks at what the journey is all about.