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My kids stretch the spectrum of teenagehood: the eldest survived the horrors of middle school and high school and is well on her way to both the exhilaration and existential crisis of early adulthood; the middle turns sixteen this summer, having emerged from (what I sure hope was) the worst of it. Ninety-four percent of the time, he’s really cool and fun to be around. My twelve year old, on the cusp of middle school, is just dipping his toes into the swirling vortex of teenaged angst, and I have to remind myself 27,000 times a day that we will survive this. It’s going to get much worse before it gets better. I know that.
Having survived these seasons with minimal amounts of therapy, I can look behind me and take some deep cleansing breaths. I see moms and toddlers at the pool or the playground or the aisles of Target, and while I would like to walk in their shoes again for maybe 45 minutes, just long enough to smell my kids’ hair and kiss their chubby hands and have them sit in my lap while I read “Guess How Much I Love You?” one more time, I would not want to repeat those years.
None of my kids suffered horrible separation anxiety, but they certainly had their moments. I remember reading about this necessary stage of development: around eight months, a baby realizes he actually exists as a separate human from his mother (or dad or any caring tall person), and that realization FREAKS HIM OUT. He is frightened. So any time the caring tall person leaves his line of vision or, heaven forbid, goes to the bathroom for two minutes of peace, he cannot handle the aloneness and expresses that fear with piercing screams. The caring tall person has to reassure him that she will always come back, that he is loved and cared for, and that doesn’t change when she leaves the room.
Likewise, an eighteen year old, who has always been fiercely independent and gets mad when anyone tries to help her, whose first toddler phrase was “MY do it!” and much later “I got this…” goes to college orientation and is suddenly paralyzed and thinks she is incapable of asking a question at the information desk, and she might snap at her mother. She suddenly realizes she is her own person, responsible for her own self, and that realization FREAKS HER OUT. She is frightened. So her mother must reassure her that she is, in fact, extremely capable, that her family is still there. She is loved and cared for, and that doesn’t change when she moves away.
Fear is so deceptive. It lies to us, over and over, until we don’t recognize the lies. Fear removes our security and our confidence. Fear whispers You are not important. You are not enough. Your life does not matter.
And in that dark place, we turn our ears away from the voices that tell us You are Beloved. You are Enough. Your life has purpose. Listening instead to the lies of fear, we try to protect and save ourselves. We try to prove to the world (and to ourselves) that we are indeed worthy to be loved.
I’ve observed myself and those around me, analyzing patterns and behaviors of fear. I paint these observations with a very broad brush—not all of them apply to every person or situation, and certainly a lot of nuance exists with each one. So consider these with a generous helping of salt:
When we are afraid, we carefully construct a fortress around our hearts and minds to protect ourselves from the (false) reminder that we are not loved. We don’t let many people past the gate. Vulnerability is not worth the risk of being wounded again. Or perhaps the walls exist to keep others from discovering what we believe about ourselves: that we are messed up, unlovable, unworthy creatures best left to ourselves. Ironically, those same walls created to protect us also keep out the truth that we are actually Beloved. Inside those walls is a lonely place.
When we are afraid, we are jealous and possessive. We fear that love has limits, that we will not get enough, that sharing attention means we are not valued or important or worthy.
When we are afraid, we attempt to control people. If we can control what someone does or doesn’t do, we hold power over them, which makes us feel important, which makes us feel loved. Hunger for power is always birthed from fear. (Control, of course, is an illusion. We control nothing but our own reactions.) We might manipulate or lie or attack—either overtly or passive-aggressively—to create the sensation of control. Look at any theatrical villain: underneath the evil facade always exists a deep wound. The quest for power and control is an attempt to compensate for insecurity and fear.
When we are afraid, the unknown and The Other—those who are not like us—drives our need for power and control. (This sentence deserves its own five-part series.) We close our ears to understand anything other than our own perspective, and we draw lines and determine who deserves to be in and who is left out because we fear losing our own importance and relevance.
And when we realize our limitations of control, we get angry. We cannot coerce people to act like we think they should, and oh! how this pisses us off. So we lash out, lose our temper, fling hurtful words like flaming arrows. (And that always ends well, doesn’t it?)
I wonder if this fear, this belief that we are unloved and unlovable, is why Jesus instructed us to love our enemies. Could it be that the root of their abuse is deep fear and not believing they are loved? That their cruelty stems from a lack of understanding? That some deep hurt—which likely has nothing to do with us—led to an insecurity that causes them to assert control and demand power?
(This is, of course, an explanation and not an excuse for bad behavior. We are all responsible for our own actions and reactions, and we while we can love our enemies, we can also set healthy boundaries to protect ourselves from manipulation and abuse.)
Recognizing the root of bad behavior is certainly a game-changer. That kind of perspective lends itself to gracious compassion instead of returning anger for anger. If we understand someone is acting from fear of being unloved, it’s a lot easier to respond with assuring him he is Beloved.
And let us not forget that sometimes we are our own worst enemy—that loving our enemies sometimes means loving ourselves. We should speak to ourselves kindly and offer ourselves the same compassion and grace we extend to others who are afraid. If I am angry, I need to remind myself of Love. I can stop and ask myself, “why am I angry? why am I jealous?” and tell myself to knock it off and breathe and rest into the presence of Love.
Honestly, my long absence from writing was rooted in fear and forgetting I am Beloved. I know this. I hated the silence because what does that mean? It’s not good enough? I am not good enough? I’m not worthy of attention and affirmation? That pouring my thoughts onto a page demands a response, which determines my worth? No. NO. I am Beloved.
We’ll explore the idea of Radiant Love in the next post. In the meantime, think about these questions:
Besides the ones described here, what other patterns and behaviors of fear have you experienced or observed?
Which “bad behavior” in others annoys you the most? Why?
Which fear response to you most identify with? What do you think caused you to have this particular fear?
In what specific ways can you respond to bad behavior with compassion and understanding?
I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments below!
Next: The radiance of Love>