on Willie Nelson, Puppy Dogs, and the Holy Spirit
I am essentially an expert emotional escape artist. I am also a professional performer.
“PAY NO ATTENTION TO THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN,” my life has shouted through the years.
We moved around like gypsies growing up (I am currently living in my 38th house and have just turned 39.) Such a tumultuous upbringing meant always being the new kid and gave me ample opportunity to finely hone my talent of walking into a room, assessing what people want/need from me, and becoming whatever that is in order to earn my place in their world. It feels much like being reduced to the level of a performing street monkey. Watch me clap. Watch me dance. Watch me be whatever you want me to be so you will cast your change at my feet. I suppose I have always feared that if I didn’t do my tricks for people, they would find out that I was really just a weird little flea-bitten monkey in a silly little suit. And if I didn’t perform for them and do whatever they wanted, then they wouldn’t want me at all.
I have always struggled with finding poor substitutes for our Holy, loving God and seeking my comfort and worthiness there.
Growing up so untethered also resulted in much isolation. I coped by creating amazing, vibrant, imaginary worlds for myself. As a child, these worlds most often included music, books, and pets. Since life for me felt a little lonely, these things were my constant comforts. They also became my hiding places.
When I was 6, my grandfather gave me a Walkman and one tape, Willie Nelson’s Greatest Hits and Some That Will Be. Those headphones allowed me to withdraw into my own world, virtually non-stop, day and night. This became a place of refuge for me (and to this day, Willie Nelson’s voice still calms me.)
I also retreated into the magical world of books. Even as young as 5, I can remember voraciously devouring them (I read them in the car and at the store and at the table and on the floor. I did not like the life I lived so I lived other lives in books instead.) I have vivid memories of curling up in closets and reading the days away, imagining myself as Nancy Drew or Ramona Quimby; living some other life in some other set of circumstances where I was strong and loved and known.
My other sanctuary was of the furry variety. With all the moving around, it was difficult to establish friendships, so my pets became my closest companions.
As I grew older, I also began to seek comfort in food and alcohol. I began to binge eat regularly and I always appreciated the blurred edges of a good buzz; how I felt freer to be myself with that heavy layer of fear and inhibition lifted from me.
For years, I lived as though every great joy and every aching hurt could be celebrated or healed by carefully prepared comfort food that had been carefully paired with an excellent wine while listening to a carefully crafted playlist and snuggling up to the carefully conditioned love of a puppy. Even as I type this, I would still argue that this is mostly true.
And of course, all along the way, I was constantly trying to earn the approval of others. In school, it looked like straight A’s, my striving seemingly a virtue at the time. But outside of school, well… it looked like straight desperation. I was a walking target for manipulative people and conversely began to become a master of manipulation myself. I hated myself, so I hid. I determined I had no value, so I gave myself away. And in the process, I built myself a shambling shelter of unrealistic and unmet expectations, and a lonelier world than ever before.
The real root of my issue is that I was looking for love in all the wrong places and when those people/places/things let me down, I became bitter and distrustful of others. With all the drama of my childhood, the idea of a “loving father” was laughable at best, so I struggled with the idea that God was worthy of trust. And because I had such self-worth issues, I figured that even if God was capable of loving me, He would never be willing.
This was fortified by living too long believing that I was unworthy of love and that even my best efforts could only win me marginal tolerance by a frowning God. I truly supposed that apart from what I could do FOR others, I held no value. I ached for attention. I yearned to be noticed. I longed to just once have a relationship be about meeting my needs too. And when people inevitably used or failed me, I blamed myself for not being enough. So with each new town and each new relationship, I strived to be someone else, someone more, someone worthy.
On the outside, all this people-pleasing might have looked kind and caring, but was often borne of selfish ambition with the goal of establishing self-worth. And of course, my flesh rebelled against the confines of conforming to other’s expectations within those unreciprocated relationships. I secretly and deeply resented that I would have to do things and be someone I didn’t really want to be in order to earn approval that deep down I knew would never last. It was so defeating that it often made me want to curl up in emotional fetal position and detach myself further.
So I coped. And by insulating myself with my ears in headphones, my nose in a book, my mouth full of food, my brain full of booze, and my arms around a puppy, I numbed myself from the sting of rejection and the desperate loneliness swirling around inside me. It was from that very echoingly empty place that I finally cried out to God.
Since becoming a believer, God has gently been healing these isolating tendencies and my propensity to seek comfort and worthiness outside of him. But even now that I am united with Christ, sometimes my knee-jerk reaction is still to try to earn my place in the world and His Kingdom, and to escape emotionally when things get hard. God, through his leading Spirit, keeps lovingly inviting me to a place of victory and community in these things, and is helping me slowly peel back the layers of lies and loneliness. This Spirit that has taken up residence in me and filled me in ways that I never thought possible and given me victory over many of my struggles. I no longer battle with food or alcohol, and while I still read voraciously, listen to Willie when I get anxious, and am more likely to hug your dog than you, I am no longer held captive by these things.
Walking by the Spirit has sometimes felt like a terrifying journey- a tremulous venturing out to the vulnerable outside where the light can better expose my weakness and frailties, but it has also been a victorious journey where I have finally emerged from my fear-shuttered cave and now blink like a mole in the light of his unconditional love. For the first time ever, I feel truly known and accepted.
In a song I wrote with my friend Jessy called Gypsy Sort of Soul, I attempt to express this feeling:
And I don’t know where I’m goin’ / but I’ve come to see / that all my restless wanderin’ it’ll never, no never set me free / there’s a gypsy sort of soul inside of me / But there’s glory on the mountain / there’s singing in the sea / I hear him whisper, “Child, you’re finally free” / He fills the canyons / that this world carved inside of me / He heals my gypsy soul.
The Spirit also leads me towards using my personality, passions, and even weaknesses to glorify him by helping me become more grounded in the truth of God as He reveals himself through Scripture, while simultaneously granting me the freedom to fly in my faith and bask in the romance of it all.
When my love of music isn’t used to escape, it’s a great way to worship. When my love of books isn’t used to hide, it’s a way to empathize with other people’s stories. When my love of food isn’t used to numb, it’s an opportunity to cook for and serve others. When my love for animals isn’t used as a substitution for feeling loved, it’s a chance to experience the comfort of God’s creation. And when my imagination, which once served to take me away from truth is now girded in truth, it can be used to inspire others and encourage them towards the same joy and freedom I am experiencing.
My striving personality still attempts to woo me towards the idea that I can prove that I am enough. And this world is more than willing to eat me alive when I am foolish enough to try. But the Spirit within me is still doing the hard work of surrender, reminding me that the truth is even better and more freeing; I don’t have to be enough. Christ is plenty for me.