(This is the conclusion of my 3-part “Intro to Me” series.)
“Who we are looking for is who is looking.” – St. Francis of Assisi
It was 2015 when I was a counselor at a church camp and I found out that my youth group mentor had a brother. A cute brother. A cute brother with great taste in music and a priceless sense of humor. He was a fellow camp counselor. We actually met in 2014, but I ignored him, so I opt to say that the first time we truly met was the summer of 2015. I am not much for the fanfare of “love at first sight,” but yet there was something there. Have you ever met someone like that before? A someone who’s energy is electric and magnetic when it collides with yours?
When we met, I had a boyfriend, so dating was out of the question. That allowed Stephen and I’s friendship to blossom. Our staff was small so it was impossible to ignore one another, although I tried. But we were magnetic towards one another. We bonded over the love we had for our campers, ways we viewed and encountered God, and music. We shared worldviews despite vastly different upbringings and childhood experiences. We had a similar travel bucket list and we both kept up with each other’s sense of humor and sarcasm (quite the feat).
The summer of 2015 came and went. We did it all over again in 2016. I still had a boyfriend. Stephen was still respectful of that and we never crossed any boundaries. Things between us still felt electric. Like we were destined to be best friends. We just “got” each other. At the end of camp, we agreed to not let another year pass without talking. I went back to school in Indiana, Stephen went back to his life in Atlanta, and I thought that we would see each other again next summer.
You should know that after the experience of my dad disowning me, I was left feeling defeated and abandoned. Over time, with counseling and community, I was reminded that my identity is not in the hands of an abuser. Yet this childhood trauma still led to the development of a caretaker complex. If I can love you into a state of health, then surely you will choose me and love me. I strived to earn love, but true and pure love cannot be earned—it is freely given like a gift. I believe this is what led me to remain in an unhealthy and co-dependent relationship in college.
When I met Stephen, I was in an extremely unhealthy relationship. When my college boyfriend and I broke up, I was left feeling unworthy and unlovable. I thought that I deserved to be in a relationship where I was miserable because this person needed me; I thought I had to take care of him in order for him to live. I put all of his needs before mine to the point of recklessness on my own behalf. I did not feel worthy of love unless I sacrificed myself and my well-being to save others. I tried this with my dad and it failed. I tried this with my college boyfriend and it failed.
Then, I decided to try something entirely different when I was invited on a new journey. Stephen asked me out on a date, and although I felt unworthy, I did not feel like I had anything left to lose. As I drove to meet him on our first date (yes, I was very stubborn about not having him pick me up at my house and he later told me that was weird but he thought it was cute), I thought about all the major events leading up to this moment. I wish I was joking, but I’m not. I am deeply introspective and often at the most inopportune times when others would just be living in the moment. I decided to really put my experiences to use and create something fresh in my life, so I went into that first date with an open heart and an open mind. It felt unnatural to me, which is precisely why I pushed forward with this exercise.
The breakup had left me feeling worthless and unlovable. I felt like I had a lot of baggage. I just wanted to be alone and get through graduate school with my deaf dog. I shared all of this on my first date with Stephen. It is not exactly first date conversation material, but I had been through enough garbage that I wanted to put it all out there for the next person. Take it or leave it. I thought our first date would be our last date because I had so much “baggage.” After word-vomiting everything to Stephen, he simply replied, “I don’t understand how anyone could be with you and treat you like that. You deserve so much better, and I want to give that to you. Only if you’ll let me. Your past doesn’t scare me.” At that moment, I decided that opening myself up to what the universe had to offer me was the best decision. I decided to keep walking through open doors until I was met with a closed door. Don’t look back. Just move forward. One date turned into two dates and three dates and four dates and we quickly lost track and we were both head over heels.
In ways that I could never see during previous seasons in my life, I was dependent on others to show me my worth and value. I sacrificed myself to earn love, and in turn I met someone who reminded me of the truth I have adored in the gospel message of Jesus all my life: love is a free gift and it cannot be earned by my actions. Now, we are married, and each day I am challenged in all the best ways to embrace the truth that I am worthy and loved and chosen.
I am not writing this to say that acceptance and redemption are dependent on Stephen. They are not dependent on any one person. Self-love is something we must capture for ourselves with our own two hands. I do believe that people can create a safe space for us to do this. I believe this is what happened to me as I began to date Stephen. He was the mode by which these things manifested in my life. He accepted me, and after all the things I had walked through, I decided to take a different approach and tell myself to let this encounter with this person be different. Instead of replaying the broken record in my head, I told myself, “I am worthy to be loved and cared for.”
Stephen didn’t redeem me. No human can do that for another human. He introduced me and opened me up to more ways to love myself, and I know that I have done the same for him. He highlights my strengths and does not let me downplay them. He reminds me that there really is no other option but to embrace my awesomeness because that is how I was created in the image of God, so why not embrace it? Healthy relationships, whether romantic or platonic, do this very thing for us. Our true selves are revealed through community with one another.
Our relationship has changed me because I have allowed truth to be spoken over me and have learned to capture it as my own. There are people around us all the time, seeking to speak truth and love into us, but we often meet their words with resistance. Stop fighting and start embracing this gift of life. We deserve to be helped and loved just as much as those we help and love deserve it. What would the world look like if we decided to just go out on a limb? Just accept their truth and see what happens. Really believe that we are worthy. Really believe that we are lovable. Really believe that we can be taken care of. Really believe that we are a good writer or a good teacher or a good nurse or a good mother or a good anything.
In the words of an ancient writer, “you shall know the truth and it will set you free.” My dear friends, what truth do you need to set you free? How will you receive that truth today? Meditate on it. Share it with me or someone else. Capture that truth and don it like your favorite sweater and proclaim it to the world. The truth shall set you free, and you deserve it.