A purple and green box used to sit on a dresser in my childhood bedroom full of passed notes, birthday cards, scribbled lyrics and poems, love letters, and juvenile memories. In another room, piles of middle and high school journals sat, dusty. Those journals were filled to the brim with years of teenage spirit and drama, moments both mundane and significant. Although, everything feels significant when you’re fifteen and you think you’re in love or your best friends are mad at you or you can’t stand history class.
Good thing Taylor Swift’s song “Fifteen” didn’t come out when I was fifteen. I may not have been able to handle the emotions.
Eventually, fifteen turns into sixteen, when driver’s licenses change your world. Sixteen turns into seventeen, when SAT scores and college essays are shoved down your throat. Seventeen turns into eighteen, when acceptance letters and campus visits lead to graduation and goodbyes. Then, before you know it, high school graduation has turned into college graduation, and that thing everyone calls “real life” begins.
Sometime during college I decided to throw away every last scrap of paper, every word I’d written throughout those growing years.
Some of you may have just cringed at the thought of disposing of such precious things. Fifteen-year-old me would have also cringed, probably would have cried, and then would have bought a new journal to write dramatic prose about the whole experience. But now, at twenty-four, I’m okay with the fact that I’ll never be able to read those journals again. The journey to that *cathartic* moment was by no means easy, though.
Barely a day went by during middle school and most of high school when I didn’t record something on the page. As an emo/goth/punk kid, emotions meant everything, so recording them was of the utmost importance. Fast-forward to the latter half of high school and the transition into college: As each year passed, my journal entries became less and less frequent. I didn’t realize it at the time, but life started to hurt in much more tangible ways. Emotions were no longer pieces in life’s puzzle that I was trying to put together, but instead they became scary and complicated and harder to figure out. My inclination to document the days was almost non-existent.
Part of the reason life hurt in “more tangible ways,” was that I had blinders on and the temptations of this world seemed to have their hands on the reins. And, in case you aren’t aware, temptation has a horrible sense of direction.
In a great interview comedian Louis C.K. did with Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” he speaks about his experience with drugs as a kid. He says,
The fiction that you tell kids that people that offer you drugs are evil is not a good fiction to tell them — because they’re going to be cool people who like them. That’s why drugs are so easy to fall into as a kid. Right away, “Well, my parents are liars because this person is cool. This person understands me better than they do.” That’s part of why people do drugs — it’s because they’re making a connection with people that they really feel strongly about.
Couldn’t have said it better myself. Replace “drugs” with just about any other “vice” and his statement still works. Connection. That’s the key. During those adolescent years and throughout college, I was desperate for connection! That’s why I blindly stumbled into questionable friendships/relationships, got in any kind of trouble, or felt lonely beyond explanation. And I wrote about those things to connect to and make sense of my own emotions. And on rare occasion, I would seek connection by letting a friend read my journal entries, allowing them into the shadowed parts of my heart that I hid in between the pages (aka the depth of my own self-absorbed and overly self-critical teenage thought process). Funny how easy it was (and is) to disregard my safe home and loving church community and pine for unattainable physical, mental and emotional perfection. My heart sought acceptance above all else, and if I had taken a closer look at those journal entries, I might have noticed how often that desire showed up in my writing.
But instead of seeking the path of true joy, I kept following the path of false connection, which only got longer and exponentially foggier. By the fall of my sophomore year, I stopped writing in journals completely. I had emptied myself of the ability to self-reflect, and so the pages of my journals remained empty as well. The only creative, expressive writing I did came in the form of poems I was required to write for a class; poems that I would come back to months later as evidence of a subconscious struggle, a reality that was too much to flesh out in anything other than metaphor.
This disconnect mirrored the state of my heart. A refusal to reflect meant I was refusing to see and acknowledge my own brokenness. When I refuse to acknowledge my own brokenness, I am blind to my desperate need for saving. D. A. Carson explains this disconnection in relation to self-reflection:
Believers who spend no time reviewing and pondering in their minds what God has done, whether they are alone and reading their Bibles or joining with other believers in corporate adoration, should not be surprised if they rarely sense that God is near. – D. A. Carson
God felt so far away when the back of my brain weighed heavy with bad memories and my heart was hardened by a thick layer of shame. And what surfaces then? Anger. Anxiety. Disrespect for myself and for others. The inability to forgive and to know forgiveness.
But even when I felt so disconnected, God still never, EVER abandoned me.
Remembering that brings me to my knees at the foot of the cross. Jesus was abandoned by the Father. He was completely disconnected. He bared the weight of my brokenness, my guilt, my shame so that I wouldn’t have to. My sins are forgiven, my slate is wiped clean.
Truthfully, even though I was raised in the church, I did not understand the impact of Jesus’ sacrifice on my life until I was 20 years old. His grace – that undeserved gift that cost me nothing yet cost Jesus everything – became tangible because I finally recognized my dire need for it. The internal battle that ensued was chaotic and beautiful all at once. It is still raging on today.
I think when I was younger and spent all that time writing about my emotions and disappointments and self-criticisms, my main questions were, “Why am I the way that I am? Why are other people the way that they are?” My attempts to find the answers to these questions were undoubtedly self-absorbed, but without an understanding of the Gospel and the cross, of course we are going to ask those questions. We want to know why other people hurt us. We want to understand why we feel so angry, so depressed, so lonely. We want to fix everything so we don’t hurt anymore. I think, in a way, I thought writing would stop the hurting when, in fact, it only made me face the pain and feel it. And who actually wants to do that? Not me, clearly, hence the refusal to write a reflective word for years.
But when we face our pain, whether it be through writing or prayer or talking with a close friend or seeing a counselor (or all of the above), and understand that we are forgiven through Jesus’ taking our place on the cross, we can face whatever suffering comes our way because we know that the best is yet to come. And we can freely love other people through their suffering for the very same reason.
I think one of the best examples in the Bible of facing suffering and questioning God’s presence occurs in the Psalms. My dad once wrote:
The writers of the psalms talk to God no matter what is going on and no matter how they feel. Their honesty shows you that you can talk to God very honestly. – Tim Lane
Here’s an excerpt from Psalm 73 as an example:
1 Surely God is good to Israel,
to those who are pure in heart.
2 But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
I had nearly lost my foothold.
3 For I envied the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked…
21 …When my heart was grieved
and my spirit embittered,
22 I was senseless and ignorant;
I was a brute beast before you.
23 Yet I am always with you;
you hold me by my right hand.
24 You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will take me into glory. –Psalm 73: 1-3, 21-24
Do you see the psalmist’s struggle? I can relate to it so deeply. The writer is basically describing exactly what I experienced: “I slipped away on my own accord, yet you are holding on to me.” Because the psalmist wrote this psalm, and it was recorded in God’s Word, I can read it and make sense of my own struggle. Because the psalmist wrote this prayer to God so honestly, I know that I can pray honest prayers and God hears them. And because I am able to face my own struggle (not without God’s goodness and mercy!), I can go out into the world and connect with others through their struggles.
Over the last few years, the journey back to writing as a means of connecting with God and others has been both joyful and painful. In fact, the very first sentence I wrote when I started intentionally journaling again was, “Fear has kept me from opening this journal for close to two years.” I have dipped my toes to test the waters more often than I have decided to jump in, but when I do decide to jump, it is all the more rewarding. I am thankful for platforms like this blog where being vulnerable is always challenging, but helps me remember that it is only by using our vulnerability muscle that we grow and connect. I’m also reminded that anytime I write, there is a chance I’ll take the shadowy staircase into the depths of my crooked heart, but whom shall I fear if God is on my side?
I want to thank everyone who has ever encouraged me to keep writing. Though it may have seemed like I brushed it off, I certainly did not. I was probably trying to keep my heart from bursting with gratitude. I pray, as 1 Peter 4:10 says, that I use this gift I have received to serve others, as a faithful steward of God’s grace in its various forms.