Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Independent Woman

For my whole life I have been labeled the "independent child," (often-times the nicer way of saying the strong-willed child), and I have always considered it a compliment. Something to be proud of. Something I managed to achieve without working too hard, and therefore one of my natural talents. It became, over the years, something that defined me. It became something I just --- was. Who was I, if I wasn't independent? Now, at 22, I find myself in independence. Without it I am lost, devoid of that one characteristic I have always been proud of.

Proud because independence is a quality exalted by society. In this world of increasing individualism and decreasing intentional community, independence is a quality one is blessed to be born with and those who are not so well-endowed in the personality department read self-help books teaching them how to boost their self-confidence and rely on that inner voice pushing them towards increased self-reliance leading to the ultimate destination - complete independence from one's neighbor and the absence of the necessity to rely on anyone else to make yourself happy.

Lucky for me I was born with it, right? But lately I have only felt trapped. Trapped by the necessity of being independent purely because that's just who Ashley is – an independent woman. Independence has become my clutch, the personality trait I fall back on when I don't feel like making an effort with people. It's my disclaimer for avoiding close relationships. It's the scapegoat for my loneliness.

I’ve felt lonely the past couple of weeks precisely because of the so-called blessing that is my independence. I avoid being tied down too much to one particular group of friends because I am independent. Or is it because I feel the need to be independent – it’s something I just am, something I just have to do even when it stops bringing me blessings but instead leaves me feeling empty?

My friends define me as independent. In order to give me my space and allow me to flourish in that department they aren’t overly demanding for my time. They understand that I spend time with lots of people, with multiple groups of friends, and so when I’m not there everyone assumes it’s because I am with someone else. As a result, the intentional invitations decrease. The attitude becomes, well she’ll make it if she wants – we’ll plan without her and if we see her we’ll she if she can come.

Yes, it might be that the need for independence is so deeply ingrained in my soul that I unconsciously cringe at being tied down to any particular circle of friends. The idea of being pegged as, well, any stereotype is mildly repulsive. At some level I might be willing to accept that with a certain level of independence comes the sacrifice of the deeper intimacy I think is lacking in my friendships. Independence is after all an integral part of the (Protestant) American dream.

Recently I took a step back and wondered how this scenario evolved. How my life came to be this way. When did my friendships stop feeling intimate? When did I start feeling like I was at the fringe of all of my friend groups; in order to be a part of so many different circles did I unknowingly forsake being a part of the core of any group, of my presence being noticeably absent when I’m not there?

Such self-introspection also causes me to wonder if I perpetuate this situation, or if it is purely natural: a slightly undesirable but nevertheless undeniable consequence of that ever-so-blessed God-given independence. After much thought over the past few weeks I have reached a tentative conclusion:

In most areas of my life I work diligently to avoid failure. This might imply that I throw myself headlong into everything I sign up for so I might always succeed and come out on top. This is, regretfully, absolutely not the case. Over the past four years I have discovered while I may be capable of above-average success my combined fear of failure, laziness and insecurities push me towards mediocrity. I don’t work super hard in my classes lest when I do put forth maximum effort I (gasp) don’t receive an A. What’s worse than working your hardest only to realize it wasn’t good enough? It’s much easier to claim, “Oh, I just didn’t try as hard as I could have,” when that lower GPA comes around than to realize my effort, a direct extension of who I am, didn’t make the grade.

This tendency is not restricted to the world of academia. I’ve found it to be true in my relationships as well. The idea of failing at a relationship, the aspect of life I find the most significant, fulfilling, and closest to Christ as we can possibly come on Earth, is terrifying. It’s more than terrifying – it’s crippling. By depending on myself, by climbing back into myself when I sense tension in a relationship, when I sense I might have caused someone hurt, when I feel like a burden on someone else’s life…I immediately step back to avoid that failure. I would rather be a little bit lonely than to cause anyone to possibly think, even for a moment, that a friendship with me is a little more intense/problematic/high maintenance/annoying/time-consuming/insert negative adjective here, than they would like. I can handle that loneliness if it prevents someone else from experiencing discomfort because of me.

But as much as I try to convince myself this is true, I know it is not. Independence is the fa├žade behind which I hide my insecurities, my fear of failure. Yes, I can bear loneliness – my life’s not that terrible. And I do have plenty of friends – I can fill my days with coffee dates and movie nights and dinner parties. To the bystander there is no cause to question the quantity nor quality of my friendships.

But no matter how often I think “it’s okay, I’m fine, I can handle it,” there is always that dull but aching pain of loneliness. I crave intimacy, tenderness, sensitivity – to be loved. No, to be cherished. I want someone to tell me, “No, Ashley, your friendship is worth it. I want, need you in my life.” I want to be the first one someone calls to tell me they’re engaged, they’re pregnant, they got $20 in the mail from their grandmother. The first person someone calls when they have a few hours to kill. Someone on whom I can always count on for dinner dates. Someone who compiles a list throughout the day of things to tell me because there is an infinite amount of things that remind them of me. (Maybe, yes, it seems that I am just waiting for marriage. And to a certain extent that is probably true. But many of these qualities are fulfilled in deep, intimate friendships.)

So I write this at risk of sounding trite, at the risk of appearing to throw myself a pity party. I’ve struggled for years to graph the fine line between over-sensitivity and true pain, placing myself more often than not on the side of over-sensitivity to avoid, again, being a burden on anyone’s life. And certainly part of the reason friendships of this caliber are lacking in my life is because I rarely lived in a place long enough to complete two grade levels, let alone have time to become bosom buddies. But even if most of the times I am over-sensitive, reading too much between the lines and drawing tension out of thin-air – that pain is still there.

Where does this sort of introspection lead? I’ve learned something about myself, as we are supposed to do in college, and I’m left wondering where to go from here. To a certain extent, I know that this loneliness I feel, this aching hole in my heart, is built for someone literally out of this world. Part of the hole in my heart is Christ-shaped and can only be filled with his love, when I let him – something I’ve struggled with my entire life. But I am learning to let him love me by helping me learn to love myself. Because of this I have hope that one day I will find that intimacy, be it in a friendship, in marriage, or in heaven. And while that ache is ever present, it will be okay – not because I can bear it, but because Christ already bore it on that cross 2,000 years ago this Sunday. Because he cherishes me. And he won’t let me forget it.

1 comment:

Victoria said...

wow- this was so eloquently insightful. it describes you perfectly (from what i know of you). beautifully composed- and i like the ending tie to Christ and our longing for Him. you have successfully understood why you are the way you are, based on childhood factors, etc. its true soul-digging, something we are talking about in my core group. but i think this is the first step in intimate relationships- doing the real digging of the heart. i think step two is being real to yourself and others about these findings, not picking up the mask and saying things are okay when they really aren't. at least, that is what i am learning to do, even in my considered "intimate" friendships.

a quote on soul-digging:

"It is so hard to look deep inside yourself...

I'm learning that very few people actually live from their heart. Very few live connected with their soul. And those who do the difficult work, who stare their junk in the face, who get counsel, who let Jesus into all of the rooms in their soul that no one ever goes in, they make a difference. They are so different; they're coming from such a different place that their voices inevitable get heard above the others. They are pursuing wholeness and shalom, and it's contagious. They inspire me to keep going"

- Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis