Or, “Why Intentionality Is Nobody’s Magic Word.”
“I wanted to see
if you’d go to dinner with me.
As a date.
Sorry for the bluntness. I just wanna be intentional with you.”
I sighed a little, because I knew he thought he was being my knight in shining armor.
I knew he thought he was being a man.
I knew he thought he was doing the “right thing”.
But from where I was sitting in that dimly-lit coffee shop, it signaled the end of something. The end of two people – two strangers – just learning how to BE together. Instead we were, in one fell sentence, learning how to be TOGETHER, regardless of who we actually were.
In an article entitled “We’re Just Talking”, The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood attacked the idea of talking to the opposite sex, because supposedly, talking obstructs the ultimate goal of all male and female relationships, which of course is MARRIAGE. Using a bunch of extremely problematic words like “quasi-manhood” (WTF?! Is there one monolithic way to be a man that all men must, at all costs, mold themselves into?) Here’s how they get there:
This new phase of pre-dating called “talking” is like adolescence for relationships: an unnecessary stage in the relationship allowing young men to avoid taking responsibility and acting like men. It prevents the man from having to be clear about his intentions to pursue or end the relationship. If he wants to stop “talking,” he simply walks away, leaving behind a confused, and potentially wounded, young lady.
Oh no! The worst thing that could ever happen is a confused and wounded young lady! Let me clue you in, Councilperson Gunter- relationships – in case you are somehow irrevocably alone and unacquainted with how they work – relationships are a constant state of confusion and woundedness that you must continue to fight through at all costs, regardless of the effect it has one’s always-present, always-interfering FEELINGS.
That goes for friendships. That goes for family. That goes for romance. That is love.
Can we, for once, just stop trying to preserve everybody’s feelings? Dear lord! Feelings are there to be hurt. That’s the whole point of them. They are the current representation of our favorite possible reality. Feelings are “what could happen”. What has been. Rarely are they a reliable indicator of what should or what WILL be. Regardless of how much we protect them, they will get hurt, because change inevitably bruises them.
But, as one of my favorite slam poets would say, “Hearts don’t break ya’ll. They bruise and get better.
We were never tragedies. We were emergencies.”
And while I sat in this dimly-lit coffee shop reading the influx of text messages that communicated this man’s die-hard intentionality, I couldn’t help feeling like I’d missed out a little. Of course I was going to accept his dinner invitation. Of course I was going to allow him to move our relationship from friendship to romance. But at the same time, I felt that I had missed out on learning how to appreciate him as himself, apart from what he could do for me or his potential as a future spouse.
And I did. I had. Because I didn’t know him well enough to know if I wanted to be his wife, we stayed in a five-month holding pattern during which I broke up with him three times – pre-dating, mind you – because I couldn’t match his enormous, overwhelming intentions. When we finally did date, we lasted two weeks. Every time I walked out of a dimly lit coffee shop after breaking up with him yet again, I left kicking myself for not being good enough. For not being sure enough. For not overriding my intuition and letting him act on these most excellent intentions.
Reflecting on this situation, the question for me is, ‘What should our intentions be towards another strange, unique, image-bearing human being?’
And all I can come up with is love.
Our intention should always be love.
Love looks different for different people, because different people need different things.
The idea that “intentions” should always include marriage strikes me as overwhelmingly selfish. I don’t think anyone means it to be, because we’ve been groomed to believe that it’s the right and honorable way to treat the person we’re attracted to. We don’t want THEM. THEMSELVES. We want our emptiness to be filled. We want that relationship label that will lull us into a false sense of security & intimacy with someone we haven’t yet gone to the trouble of loving. We want whatever we assume will help us most, and overlook completely whether or not that thing – marriage, the supposed cure-all for all of our emotional problems – is actually what’s best for the other person.
I propose a new kind of intention. I propose selflessness and sacrifice and getting your feelings hurt on the regular. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve crossed paths with and for one holy, stand-still moment I had this one chance to see exactly THEM before all my enormous, blinding, overriding intentions got in the way.
I remember sitting with an old friend of mine in his living room, a year after I’d been using my interest in his art, fraught with ulterior motives, to get close to him. It was hard work, this charade I was playing in order to get him to see me as his closest friend, confidante, & of course, future love interest. As he sat in the armchair across from me, eyes filling with tears, I suddenly heard him say, for the first time, that he was so disillusioned with and disconnected from his writing that he was considering stopping altogether. Shocked I realized that this, in fact, was the moment I’d been brought into his life for – a crucial turning point in his life and art, and I had so nearly missed it.
I saw him – broken, lazy, disheartened, withering – and I was taken aback. He was not the image of him I’d so carefully forged and sculpted and daydreamed about! He was so much more human, so much more soul than I’d given him credit for. And silently I thanked God for lifting the veil before I missed out on the chance to love him like he needed to be loved.
What if we stop flirting and start listening? Stop daydreaming? Stop forging. Intentionality is no magic word, & people are so much more than the golden-calf images we like to turn them into. See them as you would want to be seen, & let love grow as it will or as it must.
I broke my four-year dating fast and dated four men this year.
Call it a response to purity culture.
Call it an attempt at personhood.
Call it whatever you please.
Four times I ventured outside my comfort zone. Four times I decided to let someone inside my wall. Four times I took a deep breath and said, “Hey, yeah, in spite of logic, in spite of even my better judgment,
you have the permission to know me.”
Four times I showed up as myself, and four times I learned how to stay myself when it ended.
Four things stuck out as my take-aways from these experiences. Four quotes come to mind when I see each of their faces. I’m going to share them with you because I am tired of the way that people who love Jesus DO love, and I am trying to change.
I am trying to work harder.
I am trying to be better.
And if I stay single for the rest of my life after this sudden surge in my romantic life, Lord willing it will not be because I never figured out how to love.
Relationship #1: “I’m not over her.”
This one killed me. This one put me through two months of early morning torment,
waking up every morning to lethargically to drive to work and run through that last freezing Friday evening when he told me he wasn’t over her, and he wasn’t ready.
It turns out that wasn’t true. I’m sure he meant it, and I’m sure he really thought he wasn’t.
But this same man just sent out his save-the-dates with some other woman, so I can only conclude that was not quite true.
Here’s what I can conclude, because I still respect and trust the man who told me this particular un-truth.
He wasn’t over the idea of her… and I know a thing or two about that.
I spent three years of my life being in love with an idea, and here’s the thing about ideas:
Ideas can’t spoon you. Ideas can’t hold you. Ideas can’t pull your head onto their shoulder when one too many three-year-olds yell at you one day.
Ideas are the loneliest things to love, and they are also the easiest.
They require nothing of us.
We get to write angry love poems about them and pine for them and route and re-route our potential lives like a thousand Google maps for them.
We’ve gotta stop. We need to do better.
Relationship #2: “I’m not trying to tame you, I just wanna come along for the ride.”
So this was technically the right thing to say.
This is what I always wanted a man to say.
I wanted to be loved for my fire and my quirks and my passionate couch-jumping and my loud voice and my red lipstick and my cut-off t-shirts and my adventurous, wandering, grieving, revolutionary-type soul.
And he did, he really did. Or at least he tried harder than most.
Except he didn’t tell me the truth either.
Because most of us ARE actually trying to tame somebody. We are trying to love a real person while somehow fitting all of their square pegs into the round holes of our well-edited good Christian checklists.
We’re not looking for people, we’re looking for spouses. We are desperately trying – to fill this role of our perfect sexy virgin spouse and none of us – NOT ONE OF US – is good enough to be anybody’s perfect sexy virgin spouse.
Epilogue of relationship #2: also engaged.
What can I say?! I’m good luck.
Relationship #3: “I’m not what you need, so I’m not gonna fight for you.”
He sat across the table from me, one of my dearest, oldest friends,
and before this last quote, he half-heartedly said something about how we weren’t that bad. We could still work things out. Things hadn’t been bad that long.
It only took twenty minutes for him to give up on all that.
Admittedly, my communication skills leave whole worlds to be desired.
Bono said that “the best of us are geniuses of compression”, and I am an expert bottler. My heart is a bottling factory.
All of a sudden all of the concerns that I’d kept inside our whole relationship came spilling out of me.
They were good ones, too. I was fighting for my faith; he was letting his slip away. He was spending his nights bar-hopping with co-workers; I was reading and blogging and studying and arguing theology with people who actually cared. We were growing apart before we even had a chance to grow together.
But what’s sad is… we could have. We could have worked at it.
And when he walked to the door that night, tears gathering just underneath his lids –
when he turned around and said,
‘I needed this, Hannah. Nobody ever calls me out on anything.
I wanna fight for you, but I feel like you’re speaking from the Lord and I need to heed this warning…
… So I won’t’
I couldn’t help but think how different things could be, if he hadn’t walked out just then.
If he had tried.
If we both had just tried a little harder.
RELATIONSHIP #4: “Move across the country for me.”
Finally I had found my soulmate.
I had found him three years too late, but I had found him.
We had tried to date back when I was celibate and heartbroken, and I had rejected him one too many times.
But here he was, knocking on my door, keeping me up late on the phone, and he got me.
He practically WAS me.
We agreed on everything. We cracked jokes about all the evangelicalism and feminism and we questioned all the same things. We were so in sync. I was getting somewhere. I could feel it. Here was a man I could maybe marry…
if I moved across the country for him.
He was real set, you see. He had grown up in his city and he wanted to die in his city. I couldn’t understand that devotion to a geographical point on a map, but I respected it. I could go, right? I could find something to do, something to BE there, right?
And then, just as suddenly as he had happened to me, he disappeared. I was worried about moving for him for no other foreseeable reason, and at the first hint of strain, he just stopped. No more words. No more phone calls. He just
Four relationships later,
I’m wide awake.
I remember what it was like to love.
I remember what it was like to open up my heart and let somebody walk in my gate.
I remember what it was like to beat down somebody’s gate too.
I used to be real good at this, when I was 18 and in love and planning a marriage to a man I don’t know anymore. I asked all the questions and I listened to all the answers. Then I lost him and I thought, maybe, I hadn’t loved him hard enough.
Maybe, maybe, if I had just tried a little harder.
If I had just fought a little longer.
But what I’m learning is,
whether right or wrong, I am
I am condemned to beat down the doors of the men that I love. I am a hard worker. I’m a fighter.
Because love – love is a skill. Love is a habit. Love is something you work at. Love requires effort. Love requires patience. Love requires determination.
Love means deciding, after considering all things, that
“where you go, I will go.”
After four boyfriends in 2013, that’s what I’ve learned.
For better or for worse, it is my calling.
And I am called to stay single, until I meet a man who can handle that kind of commitment, regardless of emotional attachment and regardless of the reasons why not.
And today I realize that I am rehabilitated from purity culture. My project is complete. I have learned how to be me, and I have learned when to withdraw. I have learned to accept my body as the gift that it is – no more, and no less. I have learned that, while everyone must decide for themselves what these are, physical displays of growing emotional intimacy and attraction are actually healthy. Whereas I used to boycott the institution altogether to set myself apart, I have learned how to be in relationship without giving in to the dating requirements of the increasingly obsolete Christian subculture.
I have learned that my well-being is not dependent on my relationship status.
I have learned that my comfort zone is not necessarily the way things should be.
I have learned how to look in a man’s eyes and tell him exactly where I stand, without using God as my crutch.
I have learned how to just BE.
And I urge you, in the same token, not to expect anything more from anyone else. Don’t expect anything more from anyone than being who they are. None of us deserves any better than that. Love – romantic or otherwise – is something we learn how to do.
Love is a skill. Hone it. Develop it. Stay up late practicing it. No one expects you to know how overnight, but you will be –
you ARE –
expected to try.
Friends, it is time to begin again. It is time to start something new. Something real. Something that does not shame us, something that does not inhibit us from being the men and the women that we miraculously, imaginatively, creatively ARE.
And if you’re ready, let’s get started.
Let’s try. Together.
It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart.
It was not a silence that was malleable.
intimate and brittle,
like a flute of champagne atop a banister, daring entropy.
It echoed out into the recesses of the heavens like a question that admits no answer but must itself exist, ringing unanswered through the ages.
The dome that held the stars had often soared higher as she watched, inviting her further up,
“Ask more. Believe more,” the stars used to cry, but tonight –
they were silent.
She crumpled in a heap on the wet grass, thankful to be away from the eyes of all who loved her and would hate to see her sink into the darkness that she could no longer hold quite at bay.
The dark sank into her heart like the nighttime around her, enveloping and permeating and veiling until she could no longer imagine her own face but silently repeated, trembling, all of the things that she knew and could no longer feel.
Depression is not a disease.
Depression is not make-believe.
Being depressed does not make me a child, a monster, or a joke.
Not that I believe it can’t be feigned.
But based on the thinly veiled fear I find in my friends’ eyes when they catch me at my darkest,
people I know to be astute, experienced, emotionally nuanced sorts of people,
all that calls itself depression might not be.
And people tell me that I don’t pray enough.
They tell me to stand up & rebuke the spirit of ingratitude or hopelessness or whatever the demon du jour.
“Get a hold of yourself.”
“Get your shit together.”
“SNAP OUT OF IT.”
Stop being so self-centered.
(Self-centered really is the worst epithet these days, isn’t it? When a proper understanding of the search for self is not cultivated, then our continual denial of its existence can only lead to despair in those like me who are not content to view life at its surface level.)
I’ll give them one thing – depression is a breeding ground for extreme introversion & painfully sharp self-awareness.
One minute you’re trying to not be seen because the social anxiety is so strong that you can almost believe that every passerby can see the tangible darkness that never does quite leave you.
Some days you are launching yourself at the nearest breathing human body or, even better, group of bodies because the more people that surround you, the more chance there is of pawning off just a paperweight’s worth of the MILLSTONE around your neck on an unsuspecting acquaintance.
You are welcome to try and tell me that my problems are not all that bad. I’ll sigh and I’ll agree. You’re right. It could be worse.
And that is why depression is NOT sadness.
I’m not sad.
I’ve been sad.
I’ve watched beloved family waste away & sink into death, I’ve been *sigh-yawn* heartbroken more than once and I’ve watched the dearest of my friends wander carelessly, aimlessly away from me. I’ve lost all of my worldly possessions a time or two and I’ve watched “home” disappear more times than I care to recall.
I’ve had some sad.
Depression is [often] an actually physiological reaction to the actual horror of the world we live in. Nausea. Paralysis. Fever.
“When the darkness hits me,” she said, “it’s often triggered by actual circumstances, but the heaviness stems from feeling, after my momentary sad has passed away, the enormity of the sorrow of the world we’re from.
It’s like every tear that anyone has ever cried for anyone they’ve ever loved suddenly comes thronging in, in a merciless wave of raw empathy, and I suddenly cannot stand.”
And that’s why it hurts when well-meaning loved ones tell you to get over yourself.
Get over myself, sure. I’d love to. But get over all the ancient sorrow of the sin and separation that our world has brought up on itself? Not likely.
Look on the bright side, they say. Quote Philippians 4:8 at me a few more times. Go on. Make my day. You were going to anyway.
“Whatever is right, whatever is true, whatever is lovely… think on those things.”
Christians can be the most heartless of people.
And I know that sometimes the ones who yell loudest need the most convincing themselves.
I make allowances for you dear,
you proselytizing, you spiritualizing,
you hungry, you bankrupt,
I love you. I do.
Keep running your little philosophical, faux-theological hamster wheels until your empty hearts give out.
I will be here to catch you when you run out of answers.
Because GOD DOES NOT RESIDE IN THE NEON PLASTIC CREVICES OF YOUR BULLSHIT HAMSTER WHEEL.
We could argue out that he’s actually everywhere, and I would probably agree with you,
but I will argue to my grave that you will NOT FIND HIS PRESENCE THERE.
Because God is out here,
in the darkness,
in the pain,
in the sorrow so strong that every nook, every cranny of our lives reeks with the stench of,
where we all actually live & you pretend not to see.
I can’t imagine what it must be like to walk around with those enormous horse-blinders on everyday and try to somehow function. I don’t envy you.
I am out here bathing with King David in a few stray rays of sunlight outside the city gates,
finding the heart of God when I am able to see him as refuge and not as perpetrator.
I weep with Jesus, with Isaiah,
with a thousand mourning prophets over lost generations,
with Solomon, with Paul, with Rachel,
refusing to be comforted until kingdom come.
Because my depression, horrible as it sometimes is, is also my strength.
I can actually weep with the weeping. I can rejoice with the rejoicing.
My tears go deeper and so do my joys. I wrestle with life. I am always exhausted. Every single day of my life is a battle and when I tell you that dying would be a relief, I am in no way suicidal.
I will go on fighting as long as my war lasts,
but I will also end happily – joyfully! – when my time is done.
And when the darkness seeps in and you cannot stand on your sandy foundation of cheerful platitudes anymore,
I will hold you, dear blind,
dear light, breezy, superficial one,
dear starved, dear in denial,
I will hold you.