The other day I got a call from a woman I don’t know asking about something she’d heard me say in an AA meeting. She’d tracked me down because she was curious.
“You said the closer you get to God, the more you’re able to love people – you said because you don’t need shit from them. I’ve been wanting and wanting for years to get closer to that – not wanting or needing people’s approval – but I don’t seem to get anywhere. How do you do it?”
I offered to meet her for coffee next week. But what the fuck will I say to her? How can I even hope to frame in one sitting what’s taken me 22 years to learn? I can’t. But that’s okay. Because the truth is, in taking the risk to reach out to me, she’d begun to answer her own question.
Vulnerability is Scary
Neurologically, most of our responses to life involve an almond-sized part of the brain known as the amygdala, the center of fight, flight, or freeze, which scans our sensory data constantly for signs of danger.
In the US, our culture prioritizes shielding ourselves from such danger. Airbags, seatbelts, baby car seats, and helmets – they’re all mandated by law. By contrast, when I traveled to Costa Rica, the safety policy appeared to be, “Let’s hope bad shit doesn’t happen.” I saw a couple motorcycling down a pot-holed road with no helmets – not for them or the 1-year-old between them, whom the woman could brace with only one hand because her other dangled groceries near the rear axle. Another guy ahead of our car perched on the back of his friend’s motorcycle carrying a full-size bicycle across his back – no hands! Now, I’m sure some bad shit does happen, but among the Costa Ricans I sensed a freedom and happiness – a trust in life and themselves – that Americans can’t even dream of.
If we’re knocking ourselves out to evade physical dangers, it only makes sense that we transfer the same approach to emotional ones. Research has proven that our brains experience emotional and physical pain as virtually identical: the same regions light up when someone turns us a cold shoulder as would if they snapped a mousetrap on our finger. Rejections hurts.
That’s why we drank! Then we didn’t have to give a shit who disliked or rejected us, or if we did, it was all delicious maudlin drama. Yet the day comes when alcohol can no longer anesthetize us, and at the same time the wreckage of our past overwhelms us. When that happens, we hit bottom.
It’s a pain that cracks us open so deeply, god can touch our hearts. We admit we don’t know how to live, and we ask for help from god and sober alcoholics. If we work a program, we learn that ego, unchecked, is the source of our troubles. Through inventory we name the character defects that ego animates in us and start mustering the willingness to part with them.
So who, then, is this new person? This human divested of their emotional shield, inflated ego, assorted coping mechanisms – in short of their boozing imperviousness?
It’s a person suddenly exposed and vulnerable as hell.
Now, we can be hurt. We experience pain deeply, sometimes a backlog built up over a lifetime. If we’re lucky, we have a sponsor who advises us to bring that pain to god. But sometimes, our amygdalas decide god’s just not concrete enough. We need safety precautions, emotional helmets and hazmat suits! So we reduce our vulnerability by learning to edit and hide our true selves. We develop strategies like people pleasing: whatever we think will smooth our path, whatever others want or would approve, we try to appear. The goal is to be accepted. We need it because we so intensely fear rejection’s pain.
The problem is, if we don’t put ourselves out there, exposing our weaknesses and imperfections and hoping to be loved despite them, we also won’t live. We’ll miss the chance to know intimacy, trust, and the warmth of loving other people simply for their humanness. In short, safe inside our hazmat suits, we’ll miss the richest beauties of life on earth.
So I Guess What I’ll Say to that woman is that since I’ve been sober, life has absolutely beaten the crap out of me, over and over. Partners have plopped my heart in food processors set on Betrayal – not just once but twice. My siblings ridiculed and shamed my book – even as I fought cancer. Besides losing a sister and father, I’ve lost half a dozen dear friends to overdose, accident, and suicide.
Pain. Pain. Pain.
But here’s the thing. Every time, god has been there. Every time, god has loved me through it. And the gift from staying sober long enough has been that I begin to fear pain less. It won’t kill me. It is, after all, “the touchstone of all spiritual progress” – that which affirms the real deal: I will love again. I’ll show up for my siblings. Cancer won’t haunt me. And I will never forget my loved ones.
I find I have begun to live emotionally in the same spirit the Costa Ricans live physically – with less caution and more freedom. I can begin to risk pain knowingly. Today I choose to be vulnerable, extending kindness or heartfelt gifts to those who may reject them, because I don’t need their acceptance. Sure, I’d like it! Sure, I hope bad shit doesn’t happen. But what’s the worst case scenario? Those “ouch” parts of my brain will light up again, and I’ll cry my guts out again. And when I turn to god in all my pain and grief, god will say to me again, “Louisa, you are enough, just as you are – I love you in the beauty of your trying.”
Freedom is the difference between hoping for and thinking we need reciprocation. I am all I have to offer. This life’s the only time I can do it. God, I know, has my back.
PS: Happy birthday to me, guys! Thanks for 22 years on the 29th! 🙂