“You know I absolutely adore you.”
His words return to me vivid and tender. An evergreen glistened with tiny white lights as raindrops pelted the brick landing of the retreat center before I boarded the airport shuttle. I picture the wild hair and dancing eyes of the kind man holding my face in his hands as we shared our goodbyes after a week of intensive care for my heart and soul. The idea of being delighted in, of being absolutely adored, was more than I could bear in that moment. I struggled to let my eyes meet his. And then, the moment had passed and it was time for me to leave.
I have changed my mind about how it is that we come to be ourselves. For many years, I imagined my truest self as something to be discovered, uncovered, as if it were hiding deep inside of me and my work was to unearth her. But as I walk into my fifties, with more life behind me than in front of me, I’m finding that I hold a much broader perspective. Now I can see that my “self,” in fact, is not so much a mystery to uncover.
I believe that my truest self has always been and continues to be formed in the presence of love and delight.
There is a photo on my desk of my cousin and I, a candid shot taken sometime in 1966. I am reaching my arm out towards her and it’s not hard for me to imagine that in the moment after this picture was captured, I was hugging her. Another photo from my childhood, just a couple of years later, shows me sleeping while clutching my favorite doll whom I had named “friend.” I know, super original, right? I think the self being formed in those early years was an open, welcoming, and friendly little soul.
I keep the photo on my desk of my cousin and I as a tender reminder to myself. Because there was a time when I was shaped by something very opposite of love, something very dark that was designed to bring harm and shame to my ten-year-old self. Abuse from my grandfather had a profound impact. The open, welcoming, and friendly girl was shaped and formed to carry a dirty and disgusting secret, and his eyes finding mine were part of that abuse.
In the years after that, I certainly was formed in other ways, some by love, some by continued experiences of harm that came from other abusive encounters, including Christian legalism. By the time I was in my thirties, I had become very disconnected from the idea that my “self” mattered at all. I was more attuned to the need to be something that was acceptable, obedient, disciplined, and what I had come to understand as godly.
Looking back now, I can trace the forming hands of love, always shaping in me something beautiful and true, standing in sharp contrast to the impact of all that has been unloving.
We are being formed by those around us, and I believe that when love is being offered, the self being formed is beautiful and true, centered and grounded.
The past twenty years have brought such kindness and love to the parts of me shaped by things other than love. My body and soul have come to know the difference more acutely. I have come to trust my gut again, to pay attention to when I am in a space where something other than love is trying to shape and form me.
It has required bravery to remain in the presence of love, allowing myself to welcome what is formed.
Back to the brick steps and the kind man with the wild hair, who had offered me fierce kindness, which included naming the darkness that had shaped me as a ten-year-old. His eyes and his words of delight were an extension of love that invited me to allow something more beautiful and true to be formed about myself. And, of course, it had to include his eyes, because it was my grandfather’s eyes that had been used by evil to falsely shape a core sense that my self was dirty and disgusting.
The little girl in the photo on my desk, arms extended, ready to offer a warm embrace…my little self before anything else had shaped me has returned in many ways. Love has made room for her to be with me. And part of the beauty therein is that I have more love, more warmth, and more of my embrace to offer those who allow me to be the gaze of love that is shaping them.
I’d like to close with a poem by Ellen Bass, which so eloquently describes the decision to embrace love, even when life has left me with no stomach for it…
The Thing Is
to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you again.
Tracy Johnson is a lover of stories, a reluctant dreamer and the Founder of Red Tent Living. Married for over 30 years, she is mother to five kids and a pastors wife. She loves quiet mornings with hot coffee, rich conversations and slowly savored meals at her favorite restaurants. She is awed that God chose her to mother four girls having grown up with no sisters. She writes about her life and her work here.