On the morning of January 6, I visited my friend Josie's house, and she gave me a late Christmas present: A mint green pillow in the shape of a cactus, with peach flowers atop its branches. When I got home, cactus in hand, some traumatic things were afoot in our nation’s capital. The cactus, who I had named on the ride home Prickle, stayed gripped in my hand for the next couple of hours while I watched the news. I began to think of her as my Emotional Support Cactus.
Now six weeks later, Prickle is showing signs of distress. Her thread blooms are coming unraveled. I looked down at her yesterday on my bedroom floor, where she awaited being picked up and placed back on my bed, and reflected that emotionally supporting me had been a little hard on her.
As an Enneagram Two, the Helper, and a recovering codependent, this metaphor unfortunately plays into my biggest fear: That caring for me is going to break people down. That I am TOO MUCH for my friends. That though I desperately desire deep connection, I can only really get it through helping other people. Asking for help or emotional support is going to be a bad, bad idea. Shame rose in my throat as I looked at Prickle. See, my shame said. All you do is wear. People. Out.
My closest girlfriends might actually be a little surprised that I still have this inner shame dialogue. Because I actually reach out regularly when I’m feeling confused or blue, and I trust them to love me through my issues. But sometimes the weaker part of my nature begins to believe that loving me means agreeing with me, approving of me, and signing up to join every cause that God has placed on my heart. And the more distressed I am, the more I’m likely to do have those unhealthy expectations. Making me harder to love. It's a vicious cycle.
That cycle has sometimes taken over during the pandemic. Sometimes I felt frayed, and sometimes when I turned to friend for comfort, she was also unraveling. Sometimes I've been distressed by things going on in the world, and the friend I called to jump on my bandwagon was on a wagon going in the opposite direction. I hung up from conversations feeling misunderstood, uncomfortable, even wounded. And pretty sure I had wounded my loved ones too in those moments, which means they didn't approve of me or agree with me. Ack!
It was basically like two cacti trying to cuddle one another. Everyone got a chest full of bristles.
I was feeling pretty low about this in mid-February. I felt I was running out of places to go with my pain. And then, on Ash Wednesday, God gave me an odd directive for Lent. He said “Fast from needing to be understood by people. Lean into being known by me.” And I knew I was hearing from God, because what should have been an overwhelming and distressing directive felt like an invitation to sweet surrender.
Being seen and understood by loved ones is one of the building blocks of all intimacy. But it can also become an idol when we need those specific things from specific people at all times. When I'm at my most unhealthy in my desire for approval, I can have ten sound relationships that are wells of understanding, and then, in a distortion of Jesus’s heart to leave the 99 and go after the lost, I go after the one person who doesn’t agree with me, doesn’t approve of me, can’t offer comfort, or isn't called to join me on the path that God has called me to.
But in just one week of fumbling toward this fast, I’m finding relief in shifting subtly in my interactions with people. God is reminding me that the point of all fasting is not simply to go without, but to go without a finite thing in order to receive the infinite gifts of God’s presence. In just one week of fasting from understanding and approval, walking into conversations with the goal of understanding someone else, I found that knowing God understands me is enough for now.
The first name given to God by a human was “You are the God Who Sees Me.” In the Hebrew, El Roi. Spoken by the discarded and mistreated slave girl Hagar, the name reminds me that I am never alone or misunderstood by God.
What I need to be known, God knows.
What I want others to see, God sees.
What I am grieving, God grieves.
The desires of my soul, God cares about.
The motives of my heart -- good and bad -- God discerns rightly.
The mistakes I make, God forgives.
The wrongs I can't right in myself, God absolves.
The shame I feel, God covers.
The passion I feel, God gave.
I love people, especially my people, but all people have prickers. I'm surrounded by discerning, wise women, but all women have perceptions of reality that are incomplete (including me of course). So their love will always be incomplete as well. And their approval, though comforting, doesn't justify me; and their disapproval, though uncomfortable, shouldn't send me crawling into my dryer to suck my thumb. (Sorry, does no one else ever feel like doing that? Just me?)
Psalm 51 says, "Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge." God is the only one who can condemn me, and he chooses not to. Instead he offers lovingkindness, mercy and compassion. That's in Psalm 51, too.
Putting God in his proper place this week has also has led me to spaces where the parts of me that desire to be seen in community can be — like my online AA meeting, for example. Called Ladies’ Happy Hour, it’s a lovely place to unravel at four o’clock in the afternoon, and the whole community -- stronger than the sum of its parts -- absorbs each other’s distress, and shares stories of experience, strength and hope.
God is not calling me – or any of us – to do without the support of humans, but to put it in its proper place, not as an idol, not as the center of life, but as an accessory and training ground for understanding God and his love.
I’d like to close these thoughts by sending a lot of love your way, whether you’re feeling beloved and blooming, or your blossoms are falling off the branches.
Some of you need to hear that you are not too much for your friends: that’s it’s okay to reach out in vulnerability for love and support.
Some of you need to be reminded that your friends need love and support, so if you have any to offer, open your heart and ears to them.
Some of you who are already good at vulnerability need to be reminded that even your best friends can’t do the job of God.
The gospel news is that you are not too much for God: you are a child of God, and can always come to him as a child, never needing to grow up and get it together. Be a child in his presence, and he will help you be an adult in the world. So go be seen. Be known. Be comforted. There are no cactus prickles in His presence.