Monday, April 15, 2013

I Would Rather Not Need You

This title made me laugh, mostly because I know people would think it’s some kind of joke or exaggeration that I would explain later on.

But it’s completely not.

I actually mean that. I would rather not need you. If possible, I would like to be completely and ruggedly independent, like some sort of pioneer lumberjack, except without the beard. Or the lumber and its need to be cut down. Or the lack of indoor plumbing.

Anyway, let me explain this somewhat-hostile-sounding statement. For one of my classes, we read an excerpt from a book about compassion, titled (shockingly) Compassion. Here’s one part that struck me:

“We have lost the simple but difficult gift of being present to each other because we have been led to believe that presence must be useful….Simply being with someone is difficult because it asks of us that we share in the other’s vulnerability, enter with him or her into the experience of weakness and powerlessness, become part of uncertainty, and give up control and self-determination.”

While I read this, I thought, This is great. And really, really true.

As long as it’s your vulnerability. Your weakness. Your uncertainty. I can be the listening, hug-giving, encouragement-note-writing, deep-theological-truth-articulating superhero who is present with other people. I can field emotional breakdowns and give advice and pray for you without judging you for your struggles.

I love compassion as long as I’m the one giving it.

What I don’t want to do is admit that I need help. Or that I don’t know the answers. Or that I am not fine. Most of this is good old fashioned pride, of course, but there’s also the fact that I compare my needs to others and decide it’s not worth distracting people from the real problems out there. I’ll wait till an emergency, a crisis, when I really need help. And maybe there’s just a little bit of fear that if you know I’m not perfect, or if I stopping giving even for a second to receive instead, that you’ll feel disappointed in me.

This TED talk has been stalking me all year. (Sometimes I get stalked by inanimate objects: Bible verses, hymns, abstract concepts. It’s a little strange.) I think I’ve seen it in four different settings. If you have time, listen to it—Brene Brown is insightful, a great communicator, and just plain funny.

What she says, backed up with a lot of interesting research on shame, is that vulnerability is necessary for authentic relationships with other people. This is not something I wanted to hear for all of the reasons I just named, and also the fact that I sniffed, with hermeneutical superiority, “That’s not in the Bible.” (Sidenote: My roommate wrote an exegetical paper on it. It’s in the Bible.)

This is something I’m working on right now. I do not have lots of great insights about how to live a vulnerable life, because I’m not there yet. And it’s probably something that I’ll always be learning and I’ll never quite be comfortable with. But I’m extremely grateful to the people who have helped me, listened to me, and given me advice, even if I decidedly did not want to be helped or listened to or given advice.

Wilbur the pig, from E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, has something to say here. (Yes, I am giving you life advice from a pig. Think of him as a porcine philosopher instead of a pre-bacon snack.)
Near the end of the book, this is what he says to Charlotte the spider: “Why did you do all this for me?” he asked. “I don't deserve it. I've never done anything for you.”

“You have been my friend,” replied Charlotte. “That in itself is a tremendous thing.”

I want to be everyone’s Charlotte, because she is gracious and wise where Wilbur is panicked and not particularly intelligent. (I mean, look at how pathetic his facial expression is in the picture on the book cover.) And if I have to be Wilbur, I want to deserve the help in some way. I do not want to be in your debt. I do not want to need you.

But that’s how I learn about grace. Because I think God knew that if he let me go through life without needing others, I’d start to think I didn’t need him. If I could always solve my own problems, I’d stop being startled by the hopeless pre-Christ condition of my sinfulness. And if I never asked for help, I’d miss out on the simple beauty of compassion.

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