We left off with me in Las Vegas, suffocating in my own personal bubble of selfishness. I don’t think I set out to create a bubble of selfishness around myself; I’m guessing few people do. I thought I was creating a safe space.
Self-protection is a natural instinct. When you’ve been hurt, abused, taken for granted and taken advantage of during your life, it’s normal to want to protect yourself. My approach was to isolate myself from others. In isolation, when you don’t let yourself feel hurt or disappointed in others, you soon find yourself not feeling much of anything for others.
A self-protective bubble can become a self-centered bubble before you know it. You’re making all your decisions based only on your own wants. Pretty soon, you find you’re becoming kind of a jerk, with nobody to hold up a mirror and tell you you’re being a jerk.
Isolation and selfishness have prices of their own, and I was definitely feeling that cost when a friend invited me to meet up for dinner. This friend was from the church community group I had been ditching for months. She also worked in marketing and advertising, and was also in Las Vegas that week on business.
We met for dinner, and I told admitted I was afraid I was becoming someone I didn’t want to be. But I was also watching her. In a lot of ways, she is like me. She’s a marketing professional who travels a lot, is happily married, and has two kids. She’s just a bit further along the path than I am in most of those journeys. I saw something that evening more beautiful than the Bellagio fountains across from where we sat and talked and ate. I saw a path forward, and someone else’s feet already on it ahead of me.
In terms of integrating a rich professional life with a rich relational life and a vibrant faith, she seemed a million miles ahead of me. It seemed to come really naturally to her. But she admitted, it wasn’t always easy, particularly in a very worldly career field.
That dinner was the beginning of my turnaround. But like the Titanic, lasting changes in your behavior don’t turn on a dime, at least not for me. It was the beginning of me facing how selfish I’d become, and admitting I needed to begin restoring the relationships I’d cut off.
A couple of months later, I was in church, and I felt an intensity of emotion that I hadn’t experienced in a very long time. Along with the intense joy and love I felt, there was fear. I was afraid of being overwhelmed by my intense emotions. I was afraid I would drown in them. This fear wasn’t entirely unfounded. At earlier points in my life, I have gotten overwhelmed by my feelings.
What I realized in that moment is that I didn’t need to cut off my strong feelings any more than I needed to cut people out of my life. I needed an anchor, so I could experience them without fear and without losing touch with reality.
Shortly thereafter, I made three new friends. One younger, and two older than me. I was struck by our similarities, and differences. All three were intense, creative, deeply passionate women. All had painful, scarring experiences in their past. But I was struck by how vulnerable they remained. Vulnerable, but not insecure. There were no damsels in distress here. They were all anchored in a way that I was not. They were all able to be vulnerable out of a place of strength. It was (and is) pretty awe-inspiring.
From these women’s examples, I gained the courage to be more open and vulnerable. I gained the courage to believe in the changes I saw in my husband, and respond to the person he is, not the person he was. I began trusting that I could risk caring deeply about people, and that even when they do disappoint me, I can manage the disappointment. I started taking risks, stopped working so hard at protecting myself, and over time discovered that I was mostly “protecting” myself from having a rich, passionate, relational, faith-infused adventure of a life. I hope that I’ve also become less of a jerk than I was a year ago.
My problem a year ago was a crisis of belief. I couldn’t act on beliefs that were only theoretical, just because I wanted to believe them anymore. I couldn’t keep “faking it” in the hope that I’d someday make it; and without faking it, my real selfishness became painfully clear. But I didn’t know how to move past my selfishness-born-of-self-protection without fearing that it was emotional suicide.
I needed to believe to act differently. And I needed to see to believe.
It wasn’t enough to be told what I should do. I love books, and I love being mostly autodidactic, but there are some things that you only learn by actively observing how another person navigates his or her life.
Mentoring doesn’t have to happen on set scheduled days or through formal mentoring programs. In fact, I’m not sure that’s even the best way for it to happen.
Sometimes it comes when you need it, even if you think you don’t have time for it. Even if you think you don’t need it.