How Open-Hearted Can You Be and Still Survive?
Finding a balance between openness and self-protection is hard.
Landscape (1968) by Helen Lundeberg
We all have to have built-in defenses to keep us protected against, say, breaking down in tears in the middle of a work meeting or confessing our loneliness to someone on the subway. While it’s a beautiful thing to be vulnerable and open everywhere you go, the true mark of a balanced, flexible adult (ugh, adulthood, boring, who cares?!) is the ability to shift gears when necessary.
After all, you might be having a devastatingly bad day when your boss gets some terrible news on the phone. You could be feeling extremely sad at the exact moment that your mother is panicking about a scary mole on her neck. Ultimately the goal is not to prance through the world as a brilliant supernatural fairy in long, gorgeous gowns that get snagged in the subway doors.
Okay, that sounds like a great goal, actually. Maybe that’s a nice intermediate goal! But the long-term goal is to become a loving, generous, effusive, pragmatic soul who knows how to protect her fragile heart while also sharing the endless resources of that heart with the lost and brittle world outside her door. The long-term goal is to become a swaggering, courageous cowboy who’s assertive enough to tell his little cow buddies where to go next while also being flexible enough to breathe in the romance of the wide open sky. Sometimes you have to get a little bossy in order to make yourself heard, and other times, you have to be soft enough to drink in the pink light of dawn scattered across the frozen range.
We all need that balance between defended, protected, safe territory (that sometimes looks a tiny bit rigid or arrogant but it feeds us what we need) and compassionate, open-hearted vulnerability. The crying boy on the sidewalk can see and feel the tragedy of life on earth today and would probably give his thermos of soup to someone who asked for it, but he might not be able to face another hard day of work in his unfeeling office. The brilliant fairy with long chartreuse locks of hair and elaborate gowns now wedged into the elevator shaft might inspire some potential friends but also repel others who are just as fit to love her, but fear her absolute explosion of emotions will engulf them in chaos and selfishness. She is not selfish — quite the opposite! — but they don’t know that as they watch the elevator repairperson try to pull chenille and velvet out of the oily black gears of his little elevator buddy.
People fear emotion and they even fear courage. People distrust a sharp mind and an open heart. They might privately crave more exposure to these things, but when these forces enter their lives out in the wild, they become bewildered and suspicious. They encounter a swaggery cowboy and believe that he’s a thief or a lying scoundrel. They think his little cow buddies are suckers. (Let’s keep thoughts of their ultimate destination out of our heads for now!) They see a whimsical fairy with tangled chartreuse locks – what a color! – and remember their actress girlfriend, who dumped them for the lead in the musical because his lips looked extra pouty and juicy when he hit all the high notes of his solo in Damn Yankees.
When you’re trying to come to grips with a world that seems to reject your unique gifts at every turn, you have to get a little practical about what our culture (or your particular culture) has prepared the people around you to accommodate.
And here’s the one subject that I write about regularly that sounds selfish but it’s not: You have to contend with the shame that comes from YEARS of showing people who you are and having them misunderstand or retreat or abandon you in response. If you’re a wise fairy or a smart cowboy or an observant elevator repairperson, you’ve noticed that people misread you regularly. And you can’t feast on those misunderstandings repeatedly, or beat yourself up on a daily basis for not being all that great at suppressing your tears on the train or nodding along with your dull boss at the office or pulling chenille out of oily gears without getting a teensy bit flinty about it, then feeling like a dick for it.
We all fall short of our visions of how we should be. We do it every single day we’re alive. Contrary to the glowing faces and bursting heart emoji on our screens, no one navigates this world smoothly and peacefully without fail. There is never an end to the recalibrating you’ll do in your life and never an end to the strong emotions you’ll feel about your struggles (IF YOU’RE LUCKY!). And if you do have the enormous blessings of sensitivity and keen observation and vulnerability and courage and thoughtfulness and bluster, then you will find it especially hard to fall into lockstep with the dumbed-down, dulled-down, rote-sounding, thoroughly defended, simple-seeming human beings around you.
There is no easy solution to the disparity between the colors that live inside your heart and the gray shades that dominate the world outside — a world you’re forced to navigate and accommodate and placate in order to survive. But there is one practice that will help you to stop feeling shame at your inability to fit in and adjust and celebrate a world and a population that are often extremely disappointing to you:
You can wake up every morning and forgive yourself.
I know I write that a lot, but I want you to consider it as a daily habit. Forgive yourself for being exactly who you are. Forgive yourself for asking for more when someone was very clear about wanting to give you less and less. Forgive yourself for wandering down the wrong creeks and into the worst gulleys without stopping to drink in the pink light of dawn over the prairie first. Forgive yourself for saying the wrong thing, being weird or rigid, making a bad joke, backing away, becoming dismissive, because maybe that’s what made it safe to have the parents you had as a kid. Forgive yourself for wearing an empire-waisted embroidered gown with a velvet train to work, even though you knew when you put it on that there’d be trouble ahead.
You just wanted to feel special. You just wanted to feel safe. You just wanted to feel loved. You survived this long by doing some strange things and saying some weird stuff and reaching for love and specialness and safety in the most whimsical and insolent and needy and even thoughtless ways. Those adaptive and maladaptive traits live at the center of your most colorful self, and they’ll sometimes prove themselves useful and inspiring and necessary. You’ll find deep connections with others by accessing those parts of you. You cannot throw the beautiful, loving baby out with the confusing, angry, sad bathwater. You have to make space for everything.
But you must learn to be less neurotic and rigid and brittle and insecure and punitive about all of the above. And the only route to that more balanced, calm, generous outcome is through the long, wide, soft creek bed of FORGIVENESS.
Because you can’t lug your shame to the office or over the prairie’s wide expanse forever. And if you forgive yourself every single morning for being the exact way you naturally are, inspired bursts and self-hating spirals and all, you can start to chip away at your shame. Forgive yourself every day and feel that forgiveness inside your skin. Feel it every single morning and eventually, trust me, your load will get light enough to feel more and to make more space for a friendly stranger who is really, truly a romantic cowboy and not a thief cosplaying John Wayne.
And even if that romantic cowboy eventually steals your wallet and skips town, you forgive yourself for the mistake of letting him all the way into your heart, which was not exactly a mistake after all, so much as a way of letting adventure itself and courage itself into your heart. In fact, one of the long-term benefits of forgiveness and casting off shame is that you start to see how every ill-fated adventure you’ve ever had brought you more and more color and life, even as it was bringing you pain. Pain itself sometimes starts to feel like an adventure — not in a sick, self-destructive way, but in a necessary or unavoidable way. Sometimes, in order to keep your heart wide open, you have to let the pain of not having and owning and feeling everything you want into your heart with everything else.
Our shared idea of “closure” these days often seems to rely on closing yourself off from people who’ve disappointed or hurt you. But I would argue that staying open to past friends and past loves and allowing their full, flawed selves into your heart, whether they’re actually in you life or not, is one of the best ways to be both open and protected, safe and flexible, romantic and realistic. When you shut the idea of someone out of your heart permanently, that keeps a sad wall up inside you that can incite confusion and regret. But when you allow them to be acknowledged and loved by you, silently and privately, you’re also acknowledging the flawed, fragile, conflicted reality of love itself. Your flexible, forgiving love is an echo of the adaptable, fluid turmoil of being alive.
The beauty of forgiveness is that it makes space for what comes next. It makes space for more mistakes, which are never to be feared, and it makes space for more chenille caught in the gears and more flinty elevator repairpersons, who are actually sort of sexy when they’re a tiny bit impatient with your foolish satin slippers and the silly little bell necklaces that jangle when you laugh. The thrill of forgiveness – and it is thrilling! – is that suddenly you get a clear, cold burst of understanding that everything you’ve done up until this day has been interesting and useful and maybe even worthwhile. And that cold, delicious blast of knowledge, which feels like a bracing wind on a freezing early morning, makes you less neurotic. It makes you less bogged down in the darkness and airlessness and black mold of unsolvable puzzles like HOW CAN I BE MORE LOVABLE? and HOW CAN I GET MORE? and WHEN WILL I BECOME SOMEBODY? and HOW CAN I MATTER? and WHEN WILL I FEEL LESS INVISIBLE?
When you forgive yourself, you become visible to yourself in all of your unique beauty, which is fragile and robust and scared and courageous all at once. Sitting and breathing in that view is like noticing the pink light of dawn on the frozen prairie. It smashes all of your old, inaccurate stories and burns through the cobwebs of your shame and crushes your big collection of unsolvable puzzles. When you forgive yourself, you also forgive your infuriating family and your disappointing, impossible friends and your zombified coworkers and your chippy bodega clerk and every deeply stupid and impossible human creature bumping across the surface of the planet.
When you forgive yourself and you feel it deeply, you might as well have long, curly chartreuse locks or a chestnut stallion and gorgeous perfectly worn leather cowboy boots. Forgiving yourself gives you swagger. It makes your subway tears feel like a soft, pretty rain. Forgiving yourself makes you look different and also feel different to the people around you. Soon they can sense that you’re not trying to control them or own them or berate them or avoid them or mess with them. The sensitive ones feel forgiven in your presence, and they can’t get enough of that feeling, because it’s honestly pretty rare in our world.
And now, in order to model self-forgiveness for you, I will forgive myself for the linguistic excesses of this column. We’re here to show ourselves to each other, and excess is one of my worst *and* best traits. Let’s be excessive together, within reason, so we can find peace and calm and balance out there in the real world, where excess is forgiven less and less.
Today, in order to navigate the gray world with grace, give yourself the gift of private excess, and keep everything. Keep the beautiful, loving baby and the confusing, angry, sad bathwater. Keep the freezing wind and the despairing loneliness and the tangled branches bathing in the pink light of dawn. Keep the cowboy boots and the jangling bell necklace. Keep the disappointment and the longing and keep forgiving it until the that ugly knot of fear and regret slowly, gently takes a new shape.
In order to feel truly safe and protected in this world, you have to surrender to the fact that you will never escape the hard parts. The world is full of cowboys and thieves and fairies and repair people, some with big hearts and some who’ve grown rigid because they never learned to forgive a thing. Your body is full of unpredictable emotions and insatiable desires. Keep all of it. You don’t have that long to live inside this impossible place, where everything does battle with everything else. Keep it close and feel it. It’s all yours and you’ll never be in control and it doesn’t last forever. Keep everything.
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