In August, I read the book Dear Mr. Knightley after a friend recommended it to me. I was skeptical at first because I knew it was based on Daddy Long-Legs, which I didn’t like much. But, well, God works in mysterious ways?
Dear Mr. Knightley is about a girl (named Sam) who had a difficult childhood and forms a shell around her by hiding behind her favorite books and literary characters. It is how she relates to the world. She picks and chooses quotes and characters, and then channels them when speaking to friends. From the beginning of the book, my heart went out to this main character. I began to contemplate how I, too, could memorize enough passages to channel literary characters when speaking. The only problem was, all the side characters kept telling her to stop hiding behind the literary characters.
Me, I was like – No! Don’t stop! It’s perfect!
And then, I came to this part, and my soul gave a little shudder:
“Freedom remains elusive. And there’s something more Scrooge possessed that I don’t. Joy. The professor says it has to do with surrendering my heart, my plans, and my will. I think that first requires a softening of the heart—a ‘cease-fire’ on fighting inside.”
Anyone who has been reading this blog for long knows that my biggest fight is with fear. What only a few know is the reaction. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. My reaction? I rarely feel joy. Every now and then I can shed the fear binding me long enough to experience it for an hour, or even a day, but it never lasts long. It’s a constant topic of prayer for me, but, as I’m sure many of you know, it’s not easy to let go of fear.
So, my heart went out to that passage, and yet my soul shuddered, because I had a sudden desperate longing for that freedom and joy, and yet…surrendering my heart? Sure, I can do that. I think. I try to surrender my heart to God every day. But…softening my heart? That means…that I might get hurt. Would it be worth it?
I pushed aside the question, not ready to answer it. And then, near the end, one of Sam’s friends confronts her with this:
“You accept [your] relationships on your own terms. We can’t hurt you. Not really. I don’t have access to those places deep within you. And if I did reach one and I harmed you…you’d walk away justified and never look back…”
I swallowed hard, hearing a ring of truth in those words I didn’t want to hear. And then, Sam’s own revelation:
“Self-protection keeps you from love. . .I played God in our relationships. I determined [my friends’] value and their worth by how much I let them in, by how much I let them determine my worth. I’m not God. And I don’t need to work so hard anymore.”
Spoiler alert: I didn’t immediately surrender all to God, soften my heart, let go of my fear of being hurt, and now experience joy on a daily basis. But I was forced to face a hard truth that day.
I, too, assess worth and, based on that, determine how much I let someone in. More than that, however, I protect myself by segmenting…well, me…based on who I think someone might like best. So, one person might get the part of me that reads and writes, while another person might never hear about anything but daily life. Another person might know all about my family, and another might not even realize I hail from Minnesota.
It’s a brilliant mode of self-protection, really. If I’m presenting the part of me to someone that I think they will find most interesting and least stressful, then they are not only less likely to judge me, but if something happens with that relationship, I will feel less hurt, theoretically, since they only knew part of me anyway. Right?
But the truth in this book, in this character, in her methods of deflection and compartmentalization, crushed my defenses. And I knew that in order to have that joy I craved, in order to actually let go of that fear binding me, I needed to stop defining the worth of both myself and those around me by deciding in advance what they were permitted to know about me and my life.
So, how do joy, freedom, and compartmentalizing my relationships relate to each other? Well, my fear of being hurt makes me segment my relationships so that I can control how much I might get hurt, because I, also, allow other people’s judgments and opinions to define my worth. By so doing, I define their worth by deciding how much they are allowed to see of me. All of this is run by fear. If I let go of that fear, and didn’t let relationships define me, would that not free me to experience actual joy in those relationships, instead of constantly being afraid I will say or do something wrong or be hurt?
Anyway, it all relates in my very convoluted mind. But, the point is, I felt like God was using this book to tell me it was time to be more purposeful and less fearful. So, since then, I’ve started trying to break down my walls. I’ve tried to stop assuming that people will only find specified parts of me interesting, and tried to stop protecting myself by hiding pieces of me.
When a friend asked me about life, I didn’t just give her an update on my family, I inserted a little about my writing too. When another friend was talking to me about books, I talked books . . and then inserted a little bit about my family.
I’m not going to lie, it’s been a little terrifying. When I talk about something other than the subject I normally have predetermined for someone, I feel like I am cutting open a piece of me I can’t get back. And, I wish I could say it has been emotionally satisfying, but, honestly, so far it hasn’t. Because they don’t understand the extremity of the emotion it is eliciting in me to share such tiny tidbits, they often don’t react in the way I feel like they should, and I have to stop myself from stepping back and withdrawing from a perceived hurt.
But this isn’t about them. It’s about me. And in opening up even those little pieces that seem like no big deal to the outside, I am forcing my shell to be a little looser.
Joy hasn’t come quite yet, but I am slowly working on opening up my heart, one creaking, groaning, dusty window at a time, and letting my relationships define themselves, instead of putting them into a neat little box. And, I have this little piece of hope that once God helps me open the last of those windows, I can let go of fear, and trust and love with abandon, knowing that it is God alone who defines me.