I got back to Georgia last weekend (thanks to my father, who drove the whole way). After dropping my dad off at his hotel near the airport, I stopped at the grocery store — where I was appalled by the number of unmasked people aggressively intruding into others’ personal space. By the time I got home, I was sobbing bitter tears about having to spend four more months in this place where I absolutely, utterly do not belong.
The worst part is that I came perhaps as close to belonging here as I have anywhere, only for that to be yanked away, which is part of why I’m so frantic to escape now. It’s even more cruel than always feeling like an outsider: believing, briefly, that I might finally be allowed inside, able to connect, welcomed into a community — then losing it. That this happened right before the brutal isolation of COVID lockdown is something I still grapple to understand. And increasingly feel very bitter about. And it’s something that doesn’t leave me hopeful that I’ll ever belong anywhere, no matter where I go or how I try to build community.
When I walked into my room, still wrecked, I spotted a book I’d left on my bed in December: The Blessings of Brokenness by Dr. Charles Stanley. He’s a Baptist pastor whose name I recognized but with whose work I wasn’t familiar, and the book’s title had caught my eye. I’d planned to read it before I left for Colorado. That didn’t happen, but given the intense grief and desolation and, yes, brokenness I felt about being here, I decided this would be a good time to pick it up.
Before I continue, I need to say that Stanley talks a lot about God using us. I’ve always been, and remain, uncomfortable with that language. I understand that God’s ways are not ours, and God’s purposes are not ours, and God does not relate to us, nor we to God, in exactly the same ways in which we relate to each other. But I find it problematic to apply words of coercion and manipulation to describe God’s interactions with us. If God is perfect and perfectly loving, then it seems to me that our relationship with God should serve as a template, an ideal, for our human relationships. And in human relationships, while it’s probably inevitable that we all use each other to some extent, we also understand that using someone is neither an expression of love nor a healthy way to relate — in fact, it’s damaging and toxic. So I find cognitive dissonance between the idea that I should “allow God to use me” and the knowledge that using other people and/or letting them use me is behavior to avoid.
The troubling aspects of this language are exacerbated when other people presume to tell us specific ways in which God wants to use us — as though they have an inside track. (I’m constantly surprised by how many Christians are fully confident that they know exactly what God wants, not just for themselves but for others, and aren’t shy about proclaiming it.) And of course, that language of using, especially with the implication that we ought to become passive vessels for a greater power, lends itself very neatly to abusers who twist it to justify their own lusts.
That caveat aside, Stanley’s message was tough to read — I had to take several days to absorb and reflect on and work through it — but was, I think, exactly what I needed to face right now.
He talks a lot about submission. This, like using, is not a concept I’m comfortable with. To me, submission means erasure, nullification of myself, embrace of victimhood, acceptance of whatever a cruel and power-hungry God throws at me. Submission means turning the other cheek — you slapped me once; please do it again. It’s telling myself that whatever horrible things happen (to me, to others, to the world) have a purpose and are somehow part of “God’s best,” which is often presented as so inscrutable that our finite human minds can’t even comprehend why it’s good, let alone better than whatever we can imagine. I do not like submission.
But one thing I’ve started to realize is that when I run up against an internal wall, it means there’s something on the other side of it that I need to understand or experience or confront. And so instead of dismissing the idea of submission, I needed to engage with it, with what it means and might look like for my life.
In the midst of wrestling with this, I leashed up the dogs and took them to the park. I wanted to talk with God, and I knew that wasn’t especially likely with Copper trying to yank my left arm out of the socket and Rufus dragging behind on my right, but once I’d put on my workout clothes they weren’t going to let me leave without them.
And here’s a truth: My dogs teach me more about submission — healthy, necessary submission — than any book or theologian ever has (with the possible exception of Stephen King’s Desperation, which is one of the most profound and brutal pieces of theology I’ve ever encountered).
Bishop, my first dog, was a wild boy. He was large and rambunctious, probably a bit neurologically damaged, and I could not control him. He once pulled so hard that he broke a prong collar; another time, he flipped me through the air.
When Bishop was about eighteen months old, I boarded him for a week at a kennel that a colleague had recommended. The man who ran the kennel prided himself on being an alpha male; he bragged to me that he was so dominant that just being in his presence caused dogs to roll over and “submission pee.” By this point, there were people in my life who were pressuring me to surrender Bishop to a shelter because I couldn’t handle him. Statistically speaking, an out-of-control big black dog did not have good chances in a shelter, and I loved him, but I realized I needed help. So I thought Alpha Male would be the solution. Yeah, he was harsh, but my lack of harshness was clearly not working.
Well, Bishop came home from that kennel badly traumatized. For weeks, whenever I even looked at him sideways he rolled onto his back and peed all over himself. For the rest of his life, his immediate reaction to strange men, and some women, was to roll over and pee. He had to wear diapers to the vet and my parents’ house.
Eventually Bishop and I took a series of classes with a man who had previously worked as a K-9 trainer. This man got dogs. He loved them. He loved them so much that he wasn’t afraid to chew out their humans if we were doing things that weren’t in the dogs’ best interest. And he told me, “The trick with Bishop will be to teach obedience without breaking his spirit.”
Unlike Alpha Male, he wasn’t interested in forcing the dogs to submit for submission’s sake. He didn’t need to prove he was the biggest, baddest, most dominant one in the room. For him, it was about leadership and appropriate roles: The dog needs to trust you so that they follow your lead; they will feel more secure if they know you’re in charge, and you will have a safer, healthier, happier dog.
What I learned from him probably saved Bishop’s life. Granted, Bishop never calmed down. He was always wild, always difficult to walk. But he loved me fiercely, and we had eight years full of memorable and sometimes harrowing and often hilarious experiences.
When I adopted Rufus shortly after Bishop’s death, the first call I made was to that trainer. While I don’t know details of Rufus’ past, it was obvious that he’d been poorly socialized, probably abused, certainly traumatized. He has scars all over his body and he was terrified of everyone, especially men. I knew I was going to need help again, albeit for very different reasons than I had with Bishop.
And because the trainer didn’t need to be Alpha Male, because he wasn’t focused on power dynamics, he helped tremendously. He told me right away, “It doesn’t matter if this dog ever obeys a command I give him or even lets me approach. What matters is that he bonds with you.” Everything the trainer did was about showing Rufus he could trust me, teaching Rufus to look to me for food and love and security and consistency.
As I gradually introduced new people and situations into Rufus’ life, I noticed something about this meek, cowed dog: He only shows submission behavior when he feels safe. He only rolls over and reveals his belly to people he trusts. If someone or something scares him, he scrambles behind me, or he lowers himself to the ground and does a frantic canine army-crawl toward safety. When he feels threatened, he hunkers down and protects his vulnerabilities.
For Rufus, submission is the ultimate sign of love.
I was thinking about this as Copper tugged on the leash and Rufus trotted next to me. Copper has many wonderful qualities, but he’s horrible on walks. Although he adores them, he actually behaves better when he’s off leash. At my parents’ land in the mountains, we let the dogs run free. Copper ecstatically bounded through the snow, upslope and down, racing circles around us, but he never left my sight. In fact, when Rufus started to roam too far afield, Copper herded him back.
So Copper’s issue with leashes isn’t that he wants to run away. It’s that he wants me to go faster, and he wants to dart off in 87 different directions, chasing scents and squirrels and birds and pine cones, and then he wants to stop abruptly and roll around on the ground. He’s tripped me, he’s almost tripped me, he’s almost tripped my dad, and in general he is…not fun to walk.
So we’re at the park and I interrupt my reflections on submitting to God to exclaim, “Copper, if you would just stop pulling and walk next to me, we’d have a much more pleasant time and you’d get more walks and we’d all be happier!”
And then I pause and think, is this the same message God is trying to tell me? That ultimately we’re headed in the same direction, God and I, and if I’d stop trying to be in charge, stop pulling in a million different directions and racing off and circling back and rolling around in the dirt, we’d get there faster and with less angst on both sides? Is that what submission means?
I am so terrified of submission. So convinced that my resistance is all that’s keeping the next shoe from dropping. So afraid that if I say, “Okay, God, I submit to you,” I will be alone for the rest of my life, unsatisfied in my job, forced to resign myself to discontent because that’s what God wants for me. That I’ll have to perpetually talk myself into settling for a life that is less than I’ve always dreamed and hoped and imagined, because that is “God’s will.” Because it’s been drilled into me that God doesn’t care about my happiness, only about how God can use me, and that version of God has always seemed to have a preference for using people in ways that hurt them.
But Stanley has a different understanding. Stanley says, Our period of brokenness is not the end, but rather, a passage and a process to a new beginning that is even more glorious….The motivation behind everything God does in our lives and everything he allows in our lives is love (p. 17).
As I finished Stanley’s book. I realized there are two significant areas where I’m struggling to submit, to trust — and both are areas he addresses, so evidently I am not the only one struggling with them.
The first is in craving a relationship. Stanley says, “Many single men and women define ‘blessing’ as getting married” (139). That’s certainly how I define it; I can’t imagine any version of a good or even worthwhile life that entails remaining single. Partly, at least, this connects to the feeling that I never belong. I think if I only had one person in my life who chose me over everyone else on earth, who invested time in really getting to know me and embraced what he found, who said, “You are the person I most want to walk beside, and have walking beside me, through this life,” then I would finally belong. Maybe that’s a naive, teenage way to view a relationship. Maybe some of those couples who seem like they have deep security and profound belonging with each other are faking it, projecting a false or artificial vibe. Or maybe it’s real and they have something I desperately want and keenly feel the lack of every day.
I have to acknowledge that fear of not belonging is one of the reasons I am adamantly, even desperately, opposed to dating a man who already has kids. Because I don’t see a way for me to belong in a family that was started with some other woman. Because I don’t think I could ever look at his kids’ baby photos without feeling a wrenching agony at my own absence. Because I’d always feel like I was trying unsuccessfully to claw out a niche in a space designed for someone else. (And yes, I realize there is an inherent selfishness in all of this; but I think it’s better to acknowledge it than to potentially harm kids with my issues. I also understand this is my perspective. I have friends who are wonderful step-parents and who are probably shaking their heads at me right now.)
And if I’m going to be truly, unflinchingly honest, I also need to admit that wanting to belong is not the best reason for seeking a relationship. It is, in fact, setting myself up to use someone (and quite possibly to be used) rather than to fully, freely know and love him.
But oh, turning over those desires to God is tough. So many people have told me that God transforms our desires to match God’s, that God gives us not what we want but what we need. And maybe they truly believe this. Maybe they honestly think they’re better off. Maybe I’m only imagining the wistfulness in their words, their faces; that lingering sense that they’re tamping down disappointment even as they talk about gratitude. I’m so scared that what God wants for me is so much less than what I want for myself, that the love I long to give will never have an outlet, that the love I receive now is all the love I will ever receive. That loneliness and not belonging will be my continued state of existence.
The other area I’m struggling with is my career. Since I was a child, I’ve felt like writing is my calling. My job satisfaction has always tied directly to whether and how much time and energy I have outside work to write. As a result, I have disliked and resented most of my employers. I have felt unfulfilled and like I’m wasting my life. I love being in the classroom with students, but teaching has never seemed like a calling; it’s something to pay the rent while I try to write a book. I haven’t managed to finish the book, though, and I have grown increasingly angry and bitter that my employment has elbowed out my calling. Leaving a stable job with health insurance in the middle of a pandemic is not a decision many people seem to think is wise, but I feel like it’s the only way to avoid stagnating and growing ever more resentful.
Last fall I experienced what felt like a strong call in another direction — something that has always been in the back of my mind as a “someday” career. Just as I was poised to act, though, I had a clear sense of God saying, “Wait until next year.” Which made sense when COVID-19 hit the world like a freight train. I didn’t exactly forget about this new calling, but it kind of got put on the back burner, especially after several conversations about how impossible it seemed for me to be able to do this. One of the points Stanley makes in his book, though, is that if we are ignoring or postponing or short-changing a calling, that might be a reason for brokenness in our lives. So I’ve decided to pursue this direction. It’s not something I can figure out on my own or do without at least a minor miracle, but I’m taking the first step.
And I had an honest talk with God last night. I told God I want to write. I want a relationship with a wonderful man, but I want to go into it poised to know and appreciate and love him for who he is — not because being with him means I won’t be alone, not because I’m reliant on him for a sense of validation or belonging. I want to work for justice and reconciliation. I want to help heal wounds. I want to share love with the people I encounter. I want to know and understand and better love God. I want to experience and receive God’s love and peace and joy.
Trust is really, really tough for me. Submission requires trust, but even more, I’m realizing, it requires me to believe, in the marrow of my bones, that God is good and that God loves me. That God is trustworthy and won’t betray my trust. Long ago I intellectually rejected the harsh and demanding and unyielding and manipulative deity I grew up with — but viscerally I’m still scared that’s who God will turn out to be. That’s not a god anyone but a masochist would willingly submit to, and I can’t submit to a God in whose love I don’t trust.
So I’m trying to submit, and to trust, the way Rufus does and the way I wish Copper would: in a spirit of love; in the belief that God’s goodness will look and feel like goodness to me; in the hope that what I want for my life and what God wants aren’t so very divergent; in security and maybe, maybe even belonging.