Tomorrow marks the day we celebrate our anniversary. 18 years ago on May 29th, we took the plunge. I had just turned 21 a month before we got married, and Amy was turning 21 in a couple more months. We didn’t know how young we were. We were in love, we knew we wanted to share life together, and we were willing to dive in! So we did it… head first. But unlike the picture shows, we jumped in with no gear… well, I guess I should say we had gear, but no where near the kind and of gear we needed to plunged the depths of the beauty and wonder of love we both longed and dreamt of.
I will speak for myself in this, that when I plunged in, I soon swam quickly back to the surface of the water as I metaphorically got water up my nose, my ear drums popped… the pain was unbearable, and I couldn’t see where I was going. I didn’t know how much pressure water could put on the body. I jumped in with great intentions and expectations, but as I swam around trying to do tricks in the water, I soon realized my limitations, “I need help!” There was way too much water to explore and the depths were intimidating. The current was intense, and some of the waves were bigger than they looked on the postcard. “I can’t tread water forever in this current!” “How could I go that deep?” “The water’s too cold, I need some kind of Jetson’s mobile to take me all the way to explore the bottom, and I’m no George Jetson.” “How in the world am I going to do this?” was my mantra, so I stayed far away from the thought of doing it. I didn’t like to explore the scary places. The dark places. The cold places. “Let’s leave those ones as they are… they don’t need to be bothered.” “It’s for better or worse, I get that, but let’s not help out the ‘worse’ part in that commitment.” So for years, I swam around in the kiddie part of the beach, protected by a rock wall, where the wave breaks couldn’t touch me and the current couldn’t pull me too far out.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved the idea of talking about the deep, dark places, and often I’d jump on the other side of the rock wall and would put my face in the water to try and understand the landscape so I could talk about it with other people and not feel like I’m still a scared man trying to run from my pain. But that’s what I was. A scared man. Marriage had exposed all my sharp edges, all my misled desires, and proved that I was who I was afraid I would be; a fake. I was not a great catch like I had believed I was in high school. I was not as strong as I let on to be. I was not as brave as I appeared to be on the nights when I searched the house because I heard a window bang in the middle of the night. I had strong armor, but it wasn’t me. It was a good self-protective system I had created as a young child/man… but it couldn’t take me any farther. I was drowning in the armor, and the mask kept me from seeing clearly underwater.
I can’t say it was one moment that forced me into the deeper waters. Maybe it was a series of events that kept exposing me, and my pride finally forced me to take the plunge again. Maybe it was the lies that I got caught in, the twists that didn’t work out in my favor to frame me as a better guy than I was. Maybe it was all of it, mixed with the pain of life and the reality of love that isn’t what I bargained for. I don’t know, but I did know that if I was going to experience the beauty and the longings of love and intimacy the way I always dreamt I would… if Amy was ever going to experience the kind of love she deserved from her husband… if my kids were going to have a father who could offer them something more than a good education and fun vacations, something had to change!
I remember the day I first went to go see a counselor. I grew up thinking that if I need a counselor, then I’m not the Christian I’m supposed to be. Where in the hell does that kind of thinking come from? Sounds so crazy to even type those words, but that’s where I was. I needed help, and all my faith tricks had come to a crashing halt. I knew what I was supposed to do. I believed in a God who was big enough for my problems and who was called healer. I had scripture memorized and could navigate through the Bible better than most. I have an academic degree to prove I’m capable of handling divine written truth. I would’ve even said that I have experienced the divine, but if I did back then, most of it was a manufactured feeling that left me confused and longing for something more tangible.
My days seeing a counselor were great, but even that wasn’t the answer… it was part of the answer. I needed others. I had built a great protective wall around my mind and my desires, that I needed help taking the wall down. It was brutal, and it was something I could’ve never done on my own. A mentor once told me, that we need help in life with that type of work in the same way someone training for the Iron Man needs help. On our own, we won’t (nor is it safe to) push our bodies to the point we need to get to day after day to be able to endure the toll of an Iron Man. We need trainers, support, community, and not just surface level, playing on the shore type community, but the deep water, big wave, intense current type community of friends and mentors, to be with us, to absorb some of the intense experiences of those moments.
And it was at that moment when I began to realize, that the beginning of my journey had begun, and all the years of “doing stuff” for the good of the kingdom or whatever I would say I was doing, was all mostly for me, to prepare me to get to the point where I could actually be more useful than having good thoughts and right doctrine. I didn’t need another talking theologian who can wow me with great insights from scripture. I needed to experience scripture, I needed all the miracles I’ve read to become real in my own life. I didn’t need better thinking or a belief system that was waterproof. I needed to actually experience the deep waters.
After all, I was already swimming in the water that held all of the good and the ugly in life. I was living off of the fruits that the waters gave out of it’s abundance. I was alive because the waters had kept me alive. And then “Bam!,” just like that, another moment of realization. I wasn’t the one keeping the waters going. I wasn’t in charge of making it happen. I was not “being blessed” because I was keeping it together or doing the right things. I just simply was blessed. Blessed to be in the waters. Blessed when my ears popped. Blessed when my eyes burned from too much water in them. Blessed when a friend offered to loan me their goggles, ear and nose plugs. And there it was, I was experiencing scripture. I was the recipient of a miracle, of many miracles. It was the goodness of God to have an unending source of water to give life. It was the unselfishness of my wife, the forgiveness of my children, the patience of my friends, the confrontation of my mentors, the corrections of my bosses.
It was these moments of mercy and grace from those I could see, smell, touch, and hear that gave me a peak into eternity. It was those everyday normal miracles of love and compassion that was slowly growing me up. It was those experiences that helped me realized I was much more than just the “good” or “bad” stories about myself. I had been too narrow in my view of faith, that I lost view of my need for intimacy with people, and my wife was the first one to feel the let down of my promised love to her. I had been so eager to take the plunge and experience the joy of companionship, without any thought of what kind of companion I was going to be.
I share all of this today, as I celebrate 18 years of marriage with my beautiful wife, because marriage is both a thing that makes us one, and also a product of two individuals who shape the landscape of the relationship, whether negatively or positively. And today, I felt the urge to share the more vulnerable side of me. I didn’t mean to… I meant for this post to be funny, but it kept moving towards this vulnerability.
I guess I wanted to portray more of what it has really been like. We often share the best sides of ourselves, the best days, the great accomplishments, and frankly, that doesn’t match everyday life very well. Everyday there are let downs, fears, worries, lies, unmet longings, losses, griefs, that go along with the positives we like to lead with. I find beauty in both, in embracing the tension of the “good Jeff” and the “bad Jeff,” the “accomplished Jeff” and the “grand let-down Jeff.” So today, I wanted to share some of that which doesn’t define me, but is definitely a part of my story. So here’s what I do know today…
Today, I am not all better, and yet at least I know I’m not someone to be fixed.
Today, I am not a great husband, although I like to think I’m less of a burden than I was 18 years ago.
Today, I realize that joy is not completely depending on me, but that I’m not powerless to experience or offer joy either.
Today, I realize that all my self-made identities that were born out of my hurts and insecurities aren’t defining me, and they aren’t anything to be ashamed of.
Today, I realize that my life isn’t completely just about me, and yet it is not, not about me either.
Today, I realize that when I get full of anxiety or fear and I feel the desire to play in the kiddie pool instead of facing the reality of what the deep waters are showing me, that it’s okay to admit it and be present with the fear and anxiety instead of denying what my body is saying is true.
Today, I realize I don’t have to create my own body of water, but I do get to enjoy the comfort of the water and trust that it will always be there no matter what I do or believe.
Today, I realize that the body of water is in me, and at the same time it is the water I am swimming in today.
Today, I realize that taking the plunge into a committed marriage isn’t just about Amy and I, but it is part of a piece of art that is something much more beautiful and life giving than any ‘one’ relationship could ever be.
Today, I realize the gift Amy has been in my life and the joys of having such a companion to swim the scary waters with me.
Today, I realize what this poet has made clear through metaphor:
“We cannot trade for empty
We must go to the waterfall
For there’s a break in the cup that holds love…
Inside all of us.”
— David Wilcox