"Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it." -Brene' Brown
I was twenty and terrified, standing unannounced on their porch in a hot July night. Their kids were long in bed. I couldn’t dig my voice out of the hollow of my chest. I felt like I was dying, every moment my last and never ending. I swore they could hear my pounding heart.
The year had grown harder, week-by-week and month-by-month. There were days I couldn’t scrape together the energy to get out of bed. I’d dropped most of my college classes spring term to avoid failing – I, the straight A student to whom school came so easily. Anxiety made it impossible to eat, and I lost enough weight that people asked if I was anorexic.
I didn’t know it wasn’t my fault. I never entertained the thought this might be depression. I didn’t have words for the pain or know how to feel, process and be healthy. Instead, I wrote it in my skin like a dirty, terrifying secret. Nobody knew my secret, and I knew, without help, I couldn't stop hurting myself.
So one July night with fresh wounds, I’d walked trembling into their house. I could barely voice the ugly words when they asked what was wrong. They were quiet, told me to stay with them for a while and I knew they weren’t asking. Then, words I didn’t know would change my life:
I’m not disappointed in you.
It rattled me. I was speechless.
I don’t think less of you.
How could this be? How?!? A near college drop-out, a youth leader with this nasty secret, and you’re not disappointed? But they were honest words, and though I was incredulous, they stuck. They resonated in my soul, the first to move beyond the shame.
Days later, I would write in wonder, come to a slow realization: if these are the honest words of peoples’ imperfect love, can anything ever make God disappointed in me? If love wasn’t conditional when I was most pathetic, could “nothing can separate you from the love of God” mean something real and alive to me?
It took time for truth to work its way through my soul and for the darkness to lift. I needed help. I sat with counselors and tried things to help my brain and body chemistry work right. But those words were powerful. They stayed with me, shaped me, became part of me.
Eventually, I learned to hurt in healthy ways, to understand depression and self-care and love. Grace and compassion from people (and a lot more from Jesus) made hope grow inside me. I learned to be happy and to rest. I learned dark days don’t last forever, and even if they do, I’m not alone in the darkness.
I also learned those words of unconditional acceptance bore unintended fruit. They weren’t just for me.
I’ve become a magnet for stories like this. Somehow, we find each other, and people tell me where they’ve been, about dark places they’ve wandered and are wandering still. I hear about addictions, depression, abuse and self-harm.
When confronted with another’s shame, I try to give the gift of those words when I can. I know what a balm they can be when you try so hard, but keep failing. I recall the tiniest hope I felt when I unwrapped that gift, wonder if I’d have made it without it.
I’m not disappointed.
I don’t think less of you.
You’re not a failure.
You’re still worth loving.
One young woman slipped me a note I treasure. She didn’t think I remembered that I’d spoken those words on a dark day. She said it was a turning point: those words allowed the rest of her story to come pouring out and healing to come pouring in. I smiled and I wept and my heart was so full to be a tiny part of another’s wholeness.
I don’t know your pain.
I don’t know your struggle. I don’t know your story.
But if we talked over coffee, if you confessed the failure or the shame you try so hard but can’t overcome, I’d say I’m not disappointed. I don’t think less of you. I’d pray you don’t hear my voice, but that of Jesus reshaping the shame into security. I’d hope the words rattle around inside ‘til you know nothing can ever separate you from His love.
And if you’re okay, I’d pray you carry these words, pay them forward to somebody with downcast eyes and the weight of regrets. We all, every one of us, need to know we’re not disappointments and failures. Your words are more powerful than you know, and you can use them to cut through stigma and shame.
You never know whose life you may change.
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