I have written a lot about my marriage. A lot. My husband is the central character in a book-length memoir I’m trying, with the help of my agent, to get published. He has appeared in short essays and long essays, funny essays and terrifyingly close to cracking essays. The memoir ends after celebrating our tenth year of marriage, and we are now celebrating our thirteenth year together. Still married.
At the end of my memoir, I added “Careful Intimacies,” an essay about the ways we hang on to both mercies and offenses in spite of our attempts to keep no record of wrongs. I wanted our recorded story to end happily, but I also didn’t want to leave the reader with the impression of a happily ever after, a state I aspire to and hope for but is never a guarantee.
It doesn’t matter if love conquers all at once, or even a bunch of times, or even if you publish a book about love conquering all. Love can still fail. Marriage can still fail. My marriage could still fail.
I know this, but when you publicly deliver a testimony of grace, mercy, and forgiveness; of love, longing, and faithfulness; of “I was sick but now I’m well,” it implies the end of a journey. That’s it, last time I’m ever going to have to face down that demon. It’s dangerous because it cordons off a section of my life as safe from harm, dangerous because by closing that door I turn my back on nursing that tender place, certain it can’t be bruised again.
The narrative arc we tell of “I was lost but now I’m found” projects a resolution I haven’t yet found. This story of our lives is more spiral or daisy loops, a Spirograph always rotating on its gears almost in line with the last streak on the page but maybe just beyond it if you kept your pen in the pen hole and advanced the gear just right. The pattern is the same, the struggle so similar to the last loop, but with any luck I’m just a little bit further along this time. With any luck the pen doesn’t skip out of the hole and draw a long, jagged line across your design. With any luck, the pen returns to center.
I think victory stories and testimonies are intended to inspire faith and perseverance—if she can conquer all, then surely I can too. But the safe resolution in our testimonials does the opposite for some people. When these personal stories of our journeys with God or through life end in the “happily ever after,” they imply victory once for all. We are okay now and forever more.
What was intended to be a bridge becomes a wall. The mirage of health is convincing because of the distance between me and the onlooker.
When I say “I’m better now,” it feels like “I should be better forevermore.” I have made it so. I project a pretty hologram.
In my own Spirograph sketch of marriage weak and marriage strong, mother weak and mother strong, daughter weak and daughter strong, Christian weak and Christian strong, I sometimes wonder, if I collapsed inward, would anyone notice? What if I stopped posting to social media? Would my silence warn anyone of the hollow filling out my rib cage? Or have I done such a good job of saying “Don’t worry, don’t worry! I was sick but now I’m well! I’m fine! I’m fine!” that my silence would be misinterpreted as health and wellness, the usual busyness of my life?
Here in my post-college world with long-distance best friends and casual acquaintances who only know me through my kids, here where I only sometimes see my parents and struggle to maintain a regular pattern of life with my husband, here where my impulse is to bury need… if I didn’t reach out would anyone reach in, beyond the wall, through the mirage?
I wonder how many others are hiding behind “I’m okay now” and “God is good,” afraid if they let on they are sad inside, empty of the love and worth they have claimed to find in Christ, they will fail to shine for God—or worse, ask and not be given, seek and not find, have it confirmed that yes indeed they are too needy? Didn’t they just say how strong they are now? So why this need? Why this emptiness?
We must keep telling true stories about ourselves. I am an amazing hologram artist—I post the happiest selfies, the most inspirational verses, the snarkiest blog posts, the most cheerful family portraits. But sometimes I am deeply sad. Sometimes my bucket of need is so vast I want to flee and to quit all of the things, to try to find something, someone, anything that will say, You matter. I notice you. I care. You are important.
The demon I have to face down when I am sad and needy like this looks a lot like the pious Christian. She says I should find all my needs and desires filled only by Christ. She says in all things Jesus satisfies. Don’t you know you’re saved? What more could you want? Why demand more than this? How dare you expect more?
Except that Jesus isn’t here, and his people who are supposed to be his hands and feet don’t always hear the Holy Spirit or take action on the words of Scripture. Except that Jesus called on his disciples to love one another, and sometimes we can love another, and they fall short on their end of the bargain.
I have to remind myself that when I sing “Jesus is all that I need,” what I am also saying is that God is all I need, and wouldn’t you know that God is Love, and Jesus is Love, and how are we to know the Father and the Son but through Love, through loving others, and through receiving that same love? How else is that supposed to be made real on earth except through human love?
Sometimes we succeed in this as a people of Christ. Sometimes we love one another well. And sometimes we love one another poorly. We need both stories.
We need both the stories of conquering demons and rising again, and we need the stories of falling so hard, of being stuck in that place of dark humanity, of need, because in both places we find the community of others who have been there and maybe are there now. It’s in telling both stories that we find relatability and hope. Both stories are constantly happening in and around us, unfolding and intermingling and disappearing for a time only to reemerge. Some stories are ending and some stories are continuing. All the stories are only part of the truth, part of the journey. It is through continuing the story we find truth. It is through continuing the story we find grace.