Donald Miller, one of my favorite authors, wrote a new book that was released at the beginning of February. I was really looking forward to it, and pre-ordered it, and when it arrived, I tore into it with gusto. I like to read. I have hundreds of books sitting around the house, all at different stages of completeness. I tend to jump into a book, then I get distracted by the next new shiny one, and then another trip to the bookstore results in three more books, and...well, I don't always finish reading them. I keep post-it notes as bookmarks, and, during one of my semi-annual inventory/clean-ups, I realize I've got a huge stack of started-but-not-completely-read-thru books that I become re-invested in. I guess I should stop going to the bookstore on a thrice-monthly basis. Or read a little faster.
Anyway, Donald Miller, who wrote the landmark Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, a book that re-energized my own walk in faith, has written Scary Close: Dropping the Act and Finding True Intimacy. Wow! I feel like this book was written just for me. The book is, essentially, Mr. Miller's journey to finding intimacy with others, in particular with the woman who became his wife, by dropping the act; or, in other words, stop living a life of isolation through the building of walls, whether actual or within relationships, and consciously allow yourself to be open and intimate with others by being yourself. I hope I've stated that well enough to allow you to understand just how life-changing this can be, particularly if you've allowed yourself, either over time, or because of circumstances, or because you sincerely weren't even aware you were doing it, to throw up masks and/or walls that prevent others from seeing the Real You.
Mr. Miller's journey focuses on his frustration with finding and keeping a partner, something that many unmarried people can identify with, and his search for reasons why. Later, during his courtship of the woman who he married, he discovered the changes he had to make in order to create, and hold, an intimate relationship with her. Based on the stories he shares, I'm sincerely happy that it worked out. I cringed at some of things that Mr. Miller did during the courtship that almost derailed their relationship. One, where he picked out the house he decided they should live in after they were married, based on his assumptions of what would be important for her (but certainly was for him) without talking to her about it first, had me shaking my head, even as he described how upset she was when he told her he didn't think her opinion (or financial input) mattered. Whew! But I was rooting for him, and he realized that he had disregarded her feelings and opinions on what truly mattered. They had an open and honest discussion about it and it opened up the opportunity for a key moment in their relationship. To make it work, you have to throw selfishness out the window. You have to consider the thoughts, opinions, hopes, and desires of your partner, not just your own. And that can only come through intimacy. Ephesians 5:31 is one of my favorite verses: "Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." (ESV)
There are many more stories Mr. Miller tells in his book that reflect on his attempts and successes at making himself more open to meaningful relationships, and it is so worth your time to read it. It had a profound affect on me. My story is a little different from Mr. Miller's, though. I am very much an introvert. It isn't easy for me to connect with people on my own. I've been so fortunate to be surrounded by folks who were open enough and, through circumstances and conversations and connecting, friendships developed. In 1998, at the age of 28, I met a young lady named Teresa. We fell in love, and, by placing God at the center of our relationship, we found true intimacy. It wasn't just romantic love, though that's part of it. It was an all-encompassing love, full of respect for each other, acceptance, trust, understanding, familiarity, and affection. We married in July of 1999, and we thrived. We made our home, found success in our careers, found opportunities to serve in our church community, and then we started a family. Our daughter, Melody Grace, was born in November of 2003. We were ecstatic! What we didn't know was that the strain of childbirth had a significant effect on Teresa's heart. She had been diagnosed with Mitral Valve Prolapse, essentially a "leaky" valve, a condition where blood in the heart falls back into the previous chamber while it is pumped out and through the body, when she was a teen, and never really had any problems. MVP is a fairly common condition, and many live with it without any complications. The problem was that the condition had worsened, and Teresa was experiencing severe fatigue in the months following Melody's birth. Teresa hated going to the doctor, and since everything she had read and heard about dealing with motherhood emphasized how tired she would be, she chalked it up to that and not anything more serious. In fact, the fatigue she was feeling was a significant sign that her heart condition had worsened, and, during that beautiful evening in April of 2004, while we were walking around at the school she taught at, she collapsed right in front of me. At the hospital, she was declared dead at the age of 31. Melody was five months old, and I was a widower after fewer than five years of marriage. It was a life-changing moment for all of us. However, Teresa had given her heart (no joke) to Jesus, and I know she will have everlasting life, and I will see her again.
The ramifications of Teresa's death were significant. Melody was too young to have any memory of her mom. I hate that she has only had me, her father, as her only parent. I will never be able to give her the love, and advice, and experiences, that she can only receive from having a mom in her life. I can try to fill that void, but it is impossible. I will always be her father, however, and I hope and pray that will be fulfilling enough, and I'm happy that she has both of her grandmothers and an aunt to provide her with role models she can look to.
For me, despite efforts to date and trying to find love again, and I am serious in my desire to marry again after the amazing and beautiful experience I had with Teresa, it has been a difficult endeavor. I thought I had found a new relationship that was leading to marriage in 2009. I met "Jane," a colleague within the agency I work for. There were hurdles, as there are with just about any relationship, but most significant was the distance. She lived in Oklahoma. I live in Maryland. While we both had careers in the Federal Government, there was an expectation that one of us would have to move. I had no desire to go to OK. Maryland is my home, and it's where Melody's "village" resided ("It takes a village," and all that). It would be unfair to her, and to my family, to move so far from home. "Jane" didn't want to leave OK, but she didn't have the same kind of roots, having moved to OK for college, that I had in MD, where I was born. She agreed to moving here to MD, but I know it was a difficult decision for her. Another issue we had was our level of trust. She had never had a significant relationship before, and was in her mid-30s when we began to date. While I believe she and I were experiencing a loving, and very affectionate, relationship, it soon became obvious she didn't trust that I would be able to give her the life she was looking for.
While I had been in a marriage relationship, I was apparently having difficulty "moving on," There is a popular misconception that people who experience significant loss must move on before they can experience healing. This is not true, at least not for everyone. For me, it was only after I realized that my wife's death was a part of who I am now, and not something I had to get over, that I began to experience true healing. That said, I still have moments where a thought or circumstance will set me off to reminiscing about Teresa, and I have had more than a few breakdowns. Additionally, I've had to battle periods of depression that go so much deeper than just Teresa's death, and that has had an impact on me, as well.
I was still living in the home Teresa and I bought together. Jane expected me to move. That included getting rid of all of our possessions. She didn't want the furniture that I picked out with Teresa, or the dishes we used, or anything that she could connect to Teresa. We had to erase all signs of Teresa ever having been in our lives. She didn't want to go to the church my daughter and I were attending, since it was where I attended with my wife. And she wanted me to find a new church right away, not after she moved to Maryland. While these are all reasonable requests, they were still very difficult for me, and I was reluctant to follow through with them. This was Melody's mother, and a part of me didn't think it was fair to get rid of the things Melody would one day want that belonged to her mother. While I did agree to each request, I felt like I was being bullied into accepting them. Jane held these things over my head, saying that she was giving up everything to move away from her home in OK. Ultimately, it became clear that she didn't trust me to do any of the things she requested. I was afraid that, if I didn't agree to them, she would walk away from the relationship. So the walls went up. We stopped talking about any of the issues. Even when we got together, which was as frequently as possible despite the distance, we were too busy "dating" to want to deal with the issues. We still hadn't been dating long enough, nor did we know each other well enough, to enter into such an important institution as marriage, yet, for all intents and purposes, we were moving forward with our marriage plans. We were rushing forward without a well-thought out plan, at least one that we both could agree on and discuss, and without the trust we both needed to build the foundation. We were doomed. I thank God for helping us realize that we were making a mistake before either of us did something that we didn't really want to do. It was a bad breakup. Jane wanted a scapegoat, and I accepted it. We've had no contact since then, and I mourned the relationship, despite the problems we had.
I've dated several women since Jane's and my breakup, but I've put up walls. Deep down, following Teresa's death and the failure of my relationship with Jane, I've stopped trusting. I want so much to find another significant relationship, but I'm so scared that it isn't going to work that I don't let these women find out the real me. I'm afraid of intimacy. I've allowed my circumstances to be a barrier to true intimacy. I honestly didn't realize I was doing this until reading Donald Miller's book, Scary Close. It has opened my eyes. This was so important in order to take the next steps, which, now that I realize the issue, is to work on improving myself. I have to find healing, and that will require changes in how I deal with my relationships, and prayer.
Thanks, Mr. Miller, for your wonderful book. If you're looking for a life-changing book, please check out Scary Close.
Have a great weekend, everyone!