The tether. That thing that binds us to our families of origin, not by any desire of our own, but through the mere act of existence. We spend our lives exploring the roots of this connection, be it to an unending wellspring of love or the heavy, unshakeable burden of pain.
In its healthiest form, the tether is meant to eternally connect us to a place of love and acceptance. It ties us to the hearts of those who know our deepest flaws and greatest mistakes and yet love us anyway. It is the place we can always return to and the greatest security life can offer us. The very existence of an umbilical cord, that first biological connection in utero, suggests the importance of this tie between humans.
A broken tether leaves us in freefall. It exposes us to the greatest anxiety a human can know- the potential of being detached and alone in the world. To be deemed unloveable by the humans we need most to love us, or the person who committed to do so until death do part, shifts something in our interior life that we can never fully regain. It is antithetical to the existence of humans, the deepest pain one can experience. And yet, almost all of us will experience it at some point in our lives.
Like so many others, my life has known a series of these breaks. I carry the frayed cords with me and finger the scars where they once attached. For a long time, I stared at the empty space where someone once existed, screaming my pain into the void and trying to call them back. There is a sort of blind madness that eventually settles in- the push and pull between the self-destruction of unlovability- and the desire to be better, to be lovable. It is a tension that consumed the early years of my adulthood, that even now I wrestle with.
As I grew older, I skirted the great abyss of that pain with whatever resources I could find. There are days of my early twenties that I can’t recall and can’t account for. When you’re misbehaving, no one asks you about the pain you’re in. They only demand that you be better, that you figure it out… and quick. Fingers point, and you feel the shame. But you don’t change. You can’t just yet. Not for lack of desire but for lack of nohow and the unrelenting conviction that you deserve nothing more than the chaos you’ve created for yourself. The world confirms what you already know- you belong on the outskirts- you are screwed up, immoral, wrong, bad, unwanted, unloved- you don’t belong at all.
When I was 23, unwed, and pregnant, a well meaning friend asked if I loved the father of my child, a man with whom I’d had only a casual relationship. When I responded in the negative, she asked, “why did you sleep with him, then?” The question floored me, not for the directness of it but for its naivety. Not only was it weighted with disapproval and disappointment, but it seemed to lack an essential understanding of human need. Love was a luxury I had yet to attain in my 23 years of life. Sex was the closest substitute I had found. The why was not a question worth asking. Nor was it one I could answer. How could I have said that I simply wanted to be known, that I wanted to be seen, held, and desired, for whatever span of time was available to me? I wanted a reprieve from the constant ache and the exhausting anxiety of aloneness. I could not afford to contemplate the rightness or wrongness of a thing. The human soul requires sustenance and when deprived, it will beg, borrow, or steal to be fed.
There were many in my life who viewed my pregnancy and decision to keep my daughter as an unpardonable sin. And so, what is goodness? Even then, it was something I believed in, something I aspired to. I once believed in the absolute value of right and wrong, in every moral platitude that had been thrown my way since I was a small child. In righteousness and fervor and good intentions. I had been raised in a church that marked the path to heaven by good behavior, and I had tried with every fiber of my being to walk it. But somewhere between 13 and 23, I had come to believe that I was innately and irrevocably on the wrong side of it. I could see the same unanimous consensus reflected in the eyes of teachers, parents, and pastors alike. I was the unwelcome guest at their table- too much to manage, too far gone for hope. All of my strivings could not save me.
I wish I had understood then that that was the point.
The best I could do was assemble a sense of connection and belonging among the other misfits and miscreants whose spheres I orbited. I found myself most comfortable in the craggy, shaded cracks of existence, where there was little expected and no one to disappoint. I eschewed those who professed to believe in my potential. I wounded those who got too close.
Still, I desired so much. I desired to know the dappled, laughter-ridden love I caught glimpses of in passing. I desired to give voice to the being inside of me who felt good and kind and smart and capable. I desired to understand the presence I felt when I whispered passionate prayers to the being who had been so tangible since childhood. I desired wholeness. I desired love. And most of all, I desired a reprieve from the unidentifiable, aching pain that had defined so much of my life.
I am trying to articulate something here, something I barely understand now. I follow the path from where I am today back to that weary, broken place of my youth and try to understand it all. It was desire that propelled me… but not that sustained me. Several things mark that path. The love of my daughter lines each twist and turn since I was 23 and stands as the greatest gift I have ever known. And too, there are friends and mentors, voices who spoke without expectation and outlined the shape of love in their simple presence. But there is something more.
It turns out that the goodness I had tried to embody in my youth was irrelevant. Christianity taught me to behave a particular way. The church as I knew it was not a place of unrelenting love but rather of judgement and condemnation. It set expectations unrealistic for a child who had already known trauma and pain and despair. The emphasis was on the behavior… not on the grace. It wasn’t until motherhood that I discovered the reality of grace (grace, that element so crucial to our survival). I would have otherwise been consumed by my own fallibility. At certain points, I almost was; at certain points I became convinced that my flaws were too great to parent the being that I loved so entirely. And this was my entry point to the truth of the God that I sought.
I will pause here to clarify something. It is difficult for me to use the term “God.” That name has been usurped and mistreated for so long that it does harm to some who hear it. Many who have been wounded by the church, or who have their own ideas of what that name holds, cringe when they hear it. And so, as I write, I use the term “Elohim” in its stead, one of the traditional Hebraic names for God. Names are inventions of man after all, but they should encapsulate and communicate the essence of that which we refer to. My favorite name for God is actually Ruach Elohim, the term used in the third line of Genesis. Ruach means breath, wind, mind, spirit… all of these things at once. We often reduce Elohim to such a finite idea- few names allow for his bigness. And while Elohim is not human, and therefore neither male nor female, I refer to him in the masculine, because that is most comfortable to me. Substitute whichever word best connects you.
And so, where every other tether was broken, the one between myself and Elohim remained intact. I know, because I had tried to sever it on a multitude of occasions. But just as my daughter did not need me to be perfect, neither did Elohim. More to the point, I was humanly incapable of the perfection I yearned for, even perhaps of the goodness. It was precisely this that allowed me to meet my maker. In my lowest place of despair, I was profoundly overwhelmed by the ugly pieces of myself. I was convinced I was detrimental to my own daughter, that she would be better off without me in her life. I was certain Elohim could never love me as he did those “blessed” individuals that lined the pews of my church, the place where I often wanted to hide my hands in shame. I knew that change, to the degree that I desired, simply was not possible.
And then I was made to understand. In this place of despair, I encountered someone who already understood the mystery. There will be things you cannot change, he said. It is true. That is the grace of God. Your own goodness is of little value. It is the Holy Spirit within you that provides goodness. Without our brokenness, there is little room for Christ, for others, for grace.
I came to understand this in that season: it is by grace that we measure empathy. And it is through empathy that we gain the ability to connect to others. Our brokenness is not the end point. It is the starting point. It is the place where we meet Elohim, where we learn the truth of love, where we are vulnerable enough to connect with others. I think of Rumi- the wound is the place where the light enters you.
These wounds are fundamental to our existence as humans, as fundamental as the joy and happiness that we also strive for. We must hold these things in tandem. Which leads me back to the broken tethers. I have gathered the broken tethers of my life and held them as evidence of the ways in which I have been unlovable. But I was wrong. Each of those tethers left a gaping hole in me. But each of those holes provided space by which the Light can enter. They are not my broken places. They are the places that stand to become the strongest and most whole.
These essays are an exploration of the frayed and broken tethers in my life. There are many that I seek to understand and even some that I seek to repair. I invite you to join me in this exploration.