Life is not a matter of creating a special name for ourselves, but of uncovering the name we have always had. – Richard Rohr
My sense of the self I try to project, the name I hope to make for myself, started to unravel one day when I was deep in my own thoughts, walking down Road Number 5 toward the market. I reached into the chest pocket of the bag where I kept my small bills, a habitual response to the rhythmic cry of “Allah, Allah” from the lady hunched over by the mosque entrance.
She smiled her crooked smile and started to say a prayer of blessing for me when I felt eyes on me besides hers. Four men sitting across the street, prayer mats neatly tucked under their arms, had their gaze intently fixed on me.
Their stares following my every move jarred me out of my daze and I looked up around at the bustling street. My mind started racing and I felt a flutter of worry. What did they see when they looked at me; what did my interaction with this woman who was begging communicate about me? What about all those times I was in too much of a hurry to stop and walked right by someone on the street? People were watching then too.
After that day I noticed it everywhere like that tiny loose thread on a sweater that turns into a hole once you start picking at it. I would often get in a rickshaw that would turn down our street before I said the directions; most people knew where the white family lived. I became acutely conscious of the assumptions people made about me and knew everyone was watching.
I also noticed my reactions to the attention —the way I could craft what they thought about me by the local clothes I chose to wear or the kind of places I frequented. I knew just how to act to be what people expected me to be in my various identities: non-profit worker (do-gooder), a follower of Christ (devout), family member (devoted), writer (deep), and on and on.
But there were only a handful of people who really knew all of me. It felt terribly lonely.
All of our lives are on display everywhere. From the people who interact with us at stores and on the street, to our online profiles, and in our own homes, everyone is making assumptions about us. And we are busy carefully molding our identities in their eyes by the choices we make and the things we say, by the parts of us we allow to be seen and the parts we keep hidden. We’re busy making a name for ourselves...
There’s something inside you waiting to unfurl. It is quietly growing beneath the surface. You can feel it gathering itself up, the momentum of its growth building. How it began is a mystery. What it will become is yet to be seen—even to you. But in its time, if you nurture it well, it will bloom.
“I understand now,” she said slowly. My mom sighed deeply and shook her head like she was trying to shake off the realization that had settled over her. “Seeing the way you interact with the people, seeing how you are here…” her voice trailed off as she gestured toward the old city street bustling locals and tourists entering shops. “You’re different somehow,” she finished after a pause. “You come alive,” she said as she placed her drink down on the table, every move deliberate as if the words pained her.
I wasn’t exposed to much diversity as a child in the middle-class Bible belt of suburban Georgia. I don’t know why this hunger had been churning and rumbling inside me or why it founds its place of rest and belonging the moment I stepped off a plane onto Asian soil.
I was twenty-one before I ever traveled outside the borders of America. It wasn’t for lack of trying before but my parents said no to that trip in high school and my college study abroad plans fell through. I couldn’t name this burning desire that had always been germinating inside of me. It longed to connect to something I couldn’t see—somewhere out there. As soon as I could pay my own way and had the chance, I was gone.
In the next ten years, I traveled to eight countries and lived in South Asia and the Middle East. I dragged my mom to Hindu temples and Bollywood movies. She came to watch my classical Indian dance performance and listened to me practice my broken Arabic with at the Lebanese restaurant where she warily tried shwarma. But she never connected with the cultures for which I had an insatiable appetite. I was growing in a direction that took me far away.
My first Bharata Natyam teacher explained my immediate aptitude for the complex Indian dance form as something I was born into. “You must have been a devadasi (Hindu temple dancer) in a past life.” My South Asian friends laugh sometimes at my ready acceptance of their culture—“Sister, you are more Bengali than we are.”
Fourteen years after my first steps outside of my home country, my mom and I sat together in a café tucked inside the ancient cobbled walls of the Arab Quarter of old Jerusalem. It was her first trip overseas in her adult life and my first chance to show her the world I loved. I knew the admission pained her, to say that she finally understood it, in her own way. It was a relinquishing of sorts—releasing me to something that threatened to take me (and my family) from her side...
You've caught glimpses of Michelle Derusha's new book True You and how impactful it has been in my life in my Lifelong Journey of Listening series the past couple weeks (The Movement Toward Stillness and Still).
I never noticed that oak trees are the last to lose their leaves until I began a daily practice of sitting still.
It all began with a whim. One sunny November afternoon while I was walking my dog, I decided to stop and sit on a park bench. As I rested there for a few minutes with Josie sprawled at my feet, I decided I would make this bench-sitting part of my daily routine.
I vowed I would stop at that same spot along our walking route every day, and I would sit for five minutes. I would sit in silence, I determined – without music or a podcast in my ears; without dialing my mother or texting my sister; without snapping photos with my camera phone or scrolling through Instagram or Facebook.
I would simply sit in silence for five minutes. It would be good for me, I reasoned.
Turns out, five minutes on a park bench seems short in principle, but is a surprisingly long time in reality.
The first afternoon I sat on the park bench, I looked at my watch after two minutes and then again after four. The next day I took a cue from Josie, who sat still, ears pricked, nose quivering. I looked at what she looked at; I sniffed, trying to smell what she smelled. When she twitched her ears, I turned my head too, trying to hear what she’d heard.
I noticed a little more of my surroundings that second day, like the fact that the leaves of the burr oak on the edge of the ravine still clung stubborn and tenacious to the branches. Unlike the maples, birches, elms, and ash trees, which had dropped their leaves like colorful confetti more than a month ago, the oaks were still fully dressed, their dry leaves scraping together in the wind like sandpaper.
I wasn’t at all sure what I was doing there, just sitting. All I knew was that I felt compelled to do it, even though I didn’t particularly like it, and even though I knew, after only two days, that I would resist it in the coming weeks.
At the same time, I knew this sitting in stillness was something I had to do. Somehow I knew that the stopping, -- the interruption to my daily routine and my incessant push to get from Point A to Point B -- was important, maybe even imperative.
Turns out, I learned over the weeks and months of sitting in quiet solitude that I am a lot like the oak tree that clings so fiercely to its leaves. In fact, I suspect a lot of us are.
We, too, clutch our camouflage -- the person we present to the world, to our own selves, and even to God.
We, too, are unwilling to shed our false selves, to let go, to live vulnerably and authentically. We are afraid of what might happen if we drop our protective cover, afraid of how we might be seen or perceived, or how we might see or perceive our own selves.
We spend a great deal of our time and energy holding tight-fisted to our leaves, simply because we are too afraid to let go, too afraid of what, or who, we will find underneath.
The thing is, though, even the stubborn oaks have to let go of their leaves eventually. New growth can’t happen until the old, desiccated parts fall away. Spring only comes after winter. There is a rhythm here – relinquishing, stilling, rebirth.
The truth is, God does not wish for us to stand stubborn like the autumn oak tree, cloaked in a façade of protection, our truest, most authentic selves obscured beneath a tangled bramble of false security.
Rather, he desires us to live open and free, our true essence revealed and flourishing, our true self front and center, secure and thriving.
God yearns for us to live wholeheartedly and truthfully as the unique, beautiful, beloved individuals he created us to be. Most of all, God’s deepest desire is for us to know him, to root our whole selves in him like a tree rooted by a stream, and to know his deep, abiding love for us.
God yearns for us to live in the spacious, light-filled freedom of Christ and to know ourselves in him, through him, and with him.
As we slowly begin to let go of our false selves, branch by branch, leaf by leaf, and layer by layer, as we finally begin to relinquish, open up, and allow God to prune us from the inside out, we will grow in ways we never imagined: in our relationships with loved ones; in connection with and love for our neighbors; in our vocation; in our heart, mind, and soul; and in intimacy with God himself.
Our true, essential self, the one beautifully and uniquely created by God, is there, deep inside, hidden beneath layer upon layer of leaves clinging fast. Within each of us is a spacious place, waiting to be revealed.
Letting go is the way in.
This post is adapted from True You: Letting Go of Your False Self to Uncover the Person God Created, by Michelle DeRusha, releasing January 1 from Baker Books.
(Miss Part One? Read A Movement Toward Stillness)
“Let there come a word of solace, a voice that speaks into the shattering, reminding you that who you are is here, every shard somehow holding the whole of you that you cannot see but is taking shape even now, piece joining to piece in an ancient, remembered rhythm that bears you not toward restoration, not toward return – as if you could somehow become unchanged – but steadily deeper into the heart of the one who has already dreamed you complete.” – Jan Richardson, Blessing for a Whole Heart
“The dark night of the soul is the pivot point.” – Michelle Derusha, True You: Letting Go of Your False Self to Uncover the Person God Created
Like my slow journey toward stillness, I have been on the road to understanding my belovedness in God for years. When fellow writers spoke over me, assuring me I was God’s beloved, I wept. But I didn’t truly understand it in my core. I gobbled up Brennan Manning’s words to his Abba earlier this year and longed for that kind of knowing and being known with my Father. When my counselor gave me one assignment for my entire vacation this summer, it was to internalize the words of Zephaniah 3:17: “The Lord your God is living among you. He is a mighty Savior. He will take delight in you with gladness. With his love, he will calm all your fears. He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.”
Always it was a movement toward acceptance and stillness: Accepting that I don’t have to earn God’s love; accepting that the Spirit is ever present even when I can’t feel it. I’ve been slowly learning how to climb up into the lap of my Daddy and knowing I am his beloved and rest in that. Slowly. Learning.
As this long year of was drawing to a close, I couldn't explain a new feeling I had. It was like the scratchy woolen blanket that had smothered me for months was being replaced by the gentle down of a comforter that kept me warm but let me breathe. It felt like being a sapling breaking through the crackling ground above. From the outside, it didn’t look like there was any growth. But slowly green was unfurling, proof that indeed life was still happening in the silence.
Then I read the words of Jan Richardson and a mirror was held up to my soul. If the words of her Walking Blessing spoke about this year I have spent walking in the wilderness, this new blessing (Blessing for a Whole Heart) spoke to the path ahead: deeper into the heart of the One who loves and knows me.
Next, I was given an advance copy of Michelle Derusha’s new book on the heels of slowly digesting Richard Rohr’s Immortal Diamond on shedding the false self and living into the true you. And the place from which I was emerging finally had a name – what St. John of the Cross calls the Dark Night of the Soul.
As I read about Derusha’s journey into doubt and her analogy of the dark night as the painful pruning of a tree before there can be new growth, I sat in silence for a long time. I didn’t exactly want to thank the Lord for the darkness but I knew it was the place where I began to find the light…so I did.
“Your identity comes not from what you do, but from who you are in God. Once you understand at the core of your being that you are truly God’s beloved – delighted in and cherished by God – everything else falls into place,” I read in Derusha’s book that was like a lamp shedding light on the way forward.
Derusha talks about her practice of stillness, how she would spend a few minutes a day on a park bench amidst her daily walks. Those moments of stillness grew into longer periods of silence on a writer’s retreat in which she came face to face with her own dark night of the soul.
The day after I finished her book, I opened the sliding door that leads onto the veranda outside of my bedroom. I sat on the hammock that has remained unused during the long months of tropical heat and felt the cool breeze of late autumn on my face. It felt like the hand of my Mother saying, “Be still, my child. My beloved.” I said thank you for experiencing pruning and being laid bare, for whatever lays beyond the dark night.
The first day I sat in stillness I felt the usual restlessness rising up in me. I felt a need to control my thoughts, to do something. The second day I watched the delicate black and white magpies building a nest on the ledge of the building next to me. I watched the construction workers slowly stretching their arms to the sky, still shaking off the weariness of morning. I felt a twinge of sadness when the timer dinged ten minutes later, calling me back inside.
I didn’t have any profound revelations. I didn’t feel any movement. I felt stillness. I felt I was right where I should be—still enough to listen. Quiet enough to hear.
I don’t have any magic formulas to offer after several years of walking the path toward stilling the noise of the world and the noise inside my own head long enough to hear God speak. I finally realize there aren’t any. There is the daily showing up to listen and the acceptance of the journey, that it is a lifelong trek.
“There is an anxiety incompleteness to be sure. But there is also peace in the relinquishing, in knowing that God continues his good work in us and through us, even when we can’t yet see what will be,” Derusha promises. And I believe her.
My One word for 2019 is an obvious one, the next progression in my movement toward solitude and silence. It is the intention I am setting over the next year of my life: Still. Even though I feel a momentum moving me out of the darkness, I know that there is still more growth that needs to happen in the quiet, still places underneath the surface. I know this is the place to which I always need to return. And so I do—I finally stop. And then I begin.
Let's encourage each other and I'll be praying for your journey this coming year. You can also share it at the official #oneword365 community.
Interested in stillness/contemplation or finding out more about crafting a rule of life? Here are some good places to start (some I mentioned in this series) as you journey into the new year:
Sacred Ordinary Days resources for Rule of Life, the liturgical calendar, and more
True You - Michelle Derusha
Flee, Be Silent, Pray - Ed Cyzewski
Sacred Rhythms - Ruth Haley Barton