When spring break rolled around it came as a sigh of relief after the breakneck pace of life at Duke. I was going to the beach with some of my closest friends. I resolved not to bring anything that resembled schoolwork. I was going to actually get a decent amount of sleep. This week was going to be a much-needed oasis in the desert of my junior spring semester. I was excited to take a break from running like a chicken with my head cut off, but I had not considered what would catch up with me when I stopped.
I was immediately overwhelmed by things that I usually did not have the time nor the headspace to think about. My insecurities came crawling out of the corners I had so nicely stuffed them into, reminding me of all the ways I fall short…
“You didn’t score higher than a B- in any of your math classes. Why do you think you can be an engineer?”
“The only reason you got an internship this summer is because you know someone who worked there.”
“Do you think your friends would still love you if they really knew how needy you were?”
I was confronted with my sheer exhaustion. I missed my family so much that I cried myself to sleep. I thought I had left those days behind after freshman fall.
The Wall of Lies
Then a friend asked me, “How is your break going? How are you?” My response? “It’s good! I’m doing well.” Um, what? Did I not read that last paragraph? I was definitely not “doing well,” and yet my reflex was to say all was fine. I decided it was better to add another brick to the wall around my life than it was to risk opening the door too wide and revealing how messy my life really is. I chose silence, and I felt alone.
In reality, there is no way I am alone in this experience. I am certainly not the only person on Duke’s campus, let alone the planet, who is insecure and imperfect. In fact, we all do this on some level. We rehearse our answers to questions on life updates, we find ways to frame our weaknesses to truly be strengths, we describe our hardships in a way that garners admiration at our grace and perseverance.
A friend once told me that during international student orientation, they tell students that when an American asks you, “How are you?” it is expected that you just say “Good, you?” in response. What does this say about us as a culture? As a community?
Shame and Silence
What I came to realize in my self-imposed vow of secrecy to my insecurities was that shame feeds silence and silence feeds shame. At first we look at our lives, feel ashamed of areas where we don’t quite measure up, and we strive to hide those parts away. But in that hiding, in that silence, shame only grows. With greater shame comes greater incentive to keep silent, and so on and so on. I felt as if this vicious cycle was unconquerable.
Luckily, insecurity has an Achilles’ heel. My dear friend looked me in the eye, said, “Okay, how are you really doing?” and offered the time and space to talk about how I was feeling. Once again I had the choice: silence or vulnerability?
This time I chose vulnerability, and let me tell you, it was not pretty. I was about as far from eloquent as I possibly could have been. I certainly was not emotionally composed, and yet as I let out my insecurities, there was room for peace to move in. Naming my silent fears took the wind out of their sails, and they were no longer able to snowball in my mind. And the best part? I had a true friend willing to stand by me in the midst of my mess and dispel insecurities with truth.
Known and Loved
As humans we have two basic social needs: to be known and to be loved. Our relationships are just as vital as food or sleep. Our fears tell us that if others fully knew us, there would be no way they still loved us, so we are quick to sacrifice being known for being loved.
As Timothy Keller writes, “To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear.” This superficiality propagates the need for pretense and furthers the belief that we are failures when we do not have it all together.
However, Keller goes on to write, “To be fully known and truly loved is…what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.” I am blessed with incredible friends that show me more love and grace than I deserve, but this perfect knowledge and love is impossible to find in any fellow human. In case it isn’t clear yet, we are all pretty imperfect.
Where Is This Love Found Then?
This need can only be met fully in God, who knows entirely and yet loves truly, despite our flaws. The beauty of this love is that none of us are perfect next to the Creator and Sustainer of all things, so there is no room for facades. When we experience this perfect love, we are free to be vulnerable with others, and true community can happen. C.S. Lewis says it best: “Friendship…is born at the moment when one says to another ‘What! You too? I thought that I was the only one.’”
For those of us who know deep love and friendship in Jesus, we ought to be compelled to model this vulnerability and openness in our human relationships. If we as Christians insist on maintaining the walls around our hearts, we reinforce the counter-gospel culture that says, “You have to have it all together.” Instead, let’s live a counter-cultural gospel.
If you are reading this and don’t have a relationship with God, I invite you to look around for the places where you see authenticity, empathy, and humility. Find out what is different in these places. I hope that in many cases it is because of the love of Jesus.
The Apostle Paul tells us that God’s power is made perfect in our weakness, and in that we should boast (2 Corinthians 12:9). This is the paradox of Christian community, and in it there is sweet freedom.