Updated: May 24
I saw a purple thistle on my run today in the mountain's feet. It reminded me of a story.
Back in the midwest, there is a similar thistle that grows in certain ditches, but it's five or six feet tall. The exotic flower pokes out of a spiny achene perched on a stem covered in glass shards that stab your fingertips.
As a homeschooled little girl in a rural town, collecting things to haul home and catalogue was typical. I picked plenty of wild violets, mushrooms, mint and morning glories, but the bright blossoms waved to me above my head, always out of reach. More than once I drew little red drops of blood on my fingers trying to pick them, but I never managed to acquire one.
One day, on the rare occasion that my dad was home, we were walking down our road together and I pointed out the pretty flowers. Dads are enormous to little girls. They are tall and strong and know everything. He reached above me and broke it off. Then he pinched the stem with his thumb and forefinger, just below the bud, and slid his hand down, absorbing all of the thistle slivers into his skin. I stared, openmouthed.
“No dad,” my six-year-old self cried, “You’ll hurt your fingers!” Believe me, I know.
He handed me the clean stem with the treasured little purple flower and told me something. Sometimes love is absorbing the pain for someone else.
This will be useful information later in my life.
More really messed me up as a kid.
A similar and equally formative message for my young mind was forged in the legalistic, dogmatic Evangelical church of my youth. If there's a religion that touts suffering, it's fundamentalist Christianity.
The more obedient you are, the greater your remuneration will be. The more you suffer, the greater your faithfulness. The harder you are attacked, threatened and devastated, the more love you need to answer with. The more it costs, the more rich will be your reward. More and more and more. To the brink of death. Even to death. The more you sacrifice in love, the more like Christ you become. You can always absorb more. Meet every beating with redoubled compassion and turn the other cheek, then another. Your purpose on earth is to serve and love selflessly, regardless of any consequence at the hands of the devil.
And, for a long time in my life, there was always more devil.
Sometimes I wonder if the reason I can mentally struggle through a couple hundred miles is because I survived a decade of capital T Trauma. Even now, I don't want to admit that I suffered. I want to seem stronger and smarter than the pain, not pinned under it. That's the point: I survived. I want to whitewash over it and say it didn't hurt that bad. I want to tell you that I absorbed the thistles and I was fine and you will be too. But that's not how it was, not always. Sometimes more is too much.
There was always more violence coming, which meant I would accrue more pain to bury and muster up twice the compassion. With the slow-to-anger, kind, and patient love of Christ. And the more I was beaten, the more obedient and faithful I became. When I asked for help, when I cried out, I was told to examine myself for sin and have more faith. I taped actual mustard seeds to my locker in high school to remind myself every day to ask for faith. All I needed was the smallest amount, and God promised to help me. He was the Savior, after all. I was promised over and over again: someday things would be different.
How much is too much? You know the feeling when your heartbeat breaks your eardrums and rattles your vision? Desperation is loud.
I started having panic attacks and I grew despondent and withdrawn. I dissociated more and more with reality around me, especially emotional reality. I had cried out to God so many times, weeping on my floor and into my Bible and over journals. I believed. Still the assaults came. Without trying to launch an argument of hermeneutics, the apostle Paul says in Corinthians that when we are "burdened beyond our strength that we despair of life itself," that the pain drives us to rely on God even more.
Well all that started to sound like bullshit. The poetic romance of scripture's promises didn't breathe air into my lungs. It hurt. I hurt. I was powerless and vulnerable and instructed - lauded - to continue to be soft and submissive directly in the face of uncontrolled, livid anger. I continued to meet persecution with love, even to the brink of death.
By the time I reached sixteen years old, the pain consumed me. I began to think about how and when I would kill myself. I'd rather face Jesus' disappointment (I even questioned my belief in predestination in case He sent me to hell) than continue the survival dance with the devil.
I knew I failed. I failed God. As a perfectionistic kid shackled by the fear of punishment, to fail was the surest way to incur more pain. What sick, cyclical irony: too painful to continue, too painful to quit. I ran away at seventeen, from both home and church. At the time, I did not completely realize what I was doing. I just needed the pain to stop. Enduring suffering in the name of Christ at the hands of Christians left me bulimic and lonely. I'd cut myself like bloodletting, like maybe I could get the bad out somehow. It was the same with purging. I needed to get the bad out. I felt dirty and sinful because my body and heart were infiltrated.
For a long time I was an obedient, antidependent, and boundlessly loving little girl who, even to this day, feels the old teachings admonishing her to protect and love her abusers. Gruesomely. Because love is absorbing the pain.
You can imagine how a young woman, naked with resiliency and completely reliant on intellect (since emotions and faith were garbage), fared on her own in the years that followed. I learned that love is absorbing the loneliness. Love is absorbing the blame. Love is absorbing the work. For a long time I thought I could take on more and more forever, limitlessly. I finally found the saturation point of my capacity to absorb. I found it at the bedrock bottom of a very empty glass bottle. I found it in a bed. I found it in a cell. I found it alone in the darkness.
Love is still absorbing the pain, sometimes.
Not too long ago, I thought that love was absorbing the anger from someone else. In a partnership, love is carrying a burden for one another. I still think that is true. Some times, you carry your partner. Not always. Always is too much. For me, love was the questions from family, friends, co-workers: how can he leave you? I thought love was staying, even in a lake of tears. Love is putting on a brave face and dismissing others' concern as if you are too strong to be bothered by it. Love is whitewashing over someone else's faults even if they are wrong. Love is saying it doesn't even matter. Your feelings are second. Once again, the emotional reality is anyone and anything but honest. Love is denying yourself.
The saturation point is wherever I've had enough. The end is where I draw the line and say no. It's the limit of helplessness. Maybe it's a whisper and maybe it's a scream, but more ends when I decide. My capacity is defined by my honesty with self. I can choose to take on more, but I also need to know when it is enough.
I am learning that love is everything I don't know. Love is also fearlessly honest and rigorously truthful. Real love has reality and emotional depth and an exchange between two people. Ideal love is one-sided. Love is also letting someone else absorb the thistles. My dad loved me that day, more than any other memory in my childhood.
I am learning that my heart needs to be annealed in order to function in truth, in health. Sometimes that still hurts. t's a different kind of hurt, though. It's the fatigue at mile seventy, not a compound fracture. I can still continue forward on these legs. And at the end of this kind of pain, there is immense satisfaction of having endured the devil.