However, everything around me wants to counter that desire:
- emails and texts keep trickling in, and require responses
- there’s always something new to do around my home
- loved ones and friends deserve time and attention
- my boss and my work want more and more from me
- my family’s future is largely dependent on me
- my own personal health and fitness is not self-sustaining
- so much seems unstable, and pretty much a crapshoot
And so I feel myself being stretched and worn thin. And I’ve noticed that when I’m at peace, my heart is in a very open state. Like a flower at full bloom, if you will. But when I feel the weight of the world’s sorrows and burdens and dictates, my heart closes up. It retreats into itself. It’s like a turtle that goes back into hiding within its shell. So, I’m a flower or a turtle. Those are the options. And I’ve realized that this is pretty much how people live. Yes, there is a continuum in place that bridges those two extremes, but it’s really interesting to consider that we are constantly moving in one direction or the other.
When a flower is at full bloom, it is on display. It doesn’t care what other people think, it’s just showing off its glory. It’s like when a star basketball player dunks on the opposing team at a crucial point in the game, and he sticks out his double-barreled chest with pride, confidence, and strength. He owns that moment, and he knows it. And it is a good thing. If he could stick out his chest any further at that moment, he would. Just like with a flower at full bloom – if it could bloom any further and thrust out its beautiful, colorful petals even a little bit more, it totally would. And it is at that moment that it is its best, its most inspiring, its most captivating. Just by being what it is, at its fullest potential, it has the innate power to affect, to evoke, to transform, to transcend. See it on a gravelly roadside, and it can cause you to marvel. Give it to a girl, and she knows she’s adored. Place it on a casket, and it brings others to tears. That it is being what it was made to be.
When a turtle is withdrawing into its shell, it does so out of fear. It wants to protect itself, and obviously not “stick its neck out” and be vulnerable in any way. But within its shell, it’s pretty useless. It’s definitely not inspiring or captivating anyone. And it’s really not doing anything beneficial for itself, either. Yes, it’s keeping safe, but definitely not enjoying life – or even really living life. “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:25). That turtle, frightened but armored up, is pretty much just a bump on a log. And I’m thinking it probably sucks to just be a bump on a log.
Okay, so I’m going somewhere with this. And it’s more than just a reminder to be more like a fully-formed flower, and less like a terrified turtle. I’m thinking that with every conscious decision and action I make, I am either moving in the direction of being like that flower or being like that turtle. My heart is either opening more and more and more, or it is closing more and more and more. I am on that continuum moment by moment by moment, and every subsequent decision I make is definitely moving me one way or the other.
Let’s say my girl does something that hurts my feelings. At that moment, the tendency is for me to retreat into my “shell.” And this leads to awkward silence, emotional distance, physical avoidance, and both of us on edge. And these psychosocial repercussions magnify the issue unnecessarily when – if we were to take a step back – we’d realize it’s not that big a deal in the grand scheme of things. I realize I don’t want my heart closing up, even though in that moment it is a natural defense mechanism made to restore equilibrium to the current state of drama and conflict and stress. If I want equilibrium restored, I should be intentional about it and achieve that end through another, much healthier option. For example, I should muster as much courage and vulnerability as I possibly can (and sometimes it takes SO MUCH, much more than I think I have at that moment!), and put myself out there and press into the relationship. And yes, I could get hurt again, but at least I’m keeping my heart open towards her. I’m pretty sure that all bad things in both platonic and romantic relationships stem from one person’s heart closing off towards the other. And if you’re not deliberate about it, and you don’t dig deep to fight it off, it is bound to happen and that relationship is going to be so much less than it could be (and possibly crap out).
As another example, let’s say that an opportunity arises where I really could speak words of encouragement into someone else who desperately needs it. Or, I could help them move into their new house. Or I bless someone by assisting them with a school project. But I am honestly overwhelmed, and feeling like if I don’t take care of the tasks on my to-do list for the day, and work on my own life, I am going to lose all control as I know it. Now of course, we shouldn’t always try to come through for everyone else with some sort of “savior” mentality – because God is big enough to help them, and in that very moment perhaps He really does want us to leave it alone. But sometimes when I think about it, I realize that my motive for not offering my time or lending a hand is self-protection and self-preservation. And that means that I am not trusting. I am living in fear – of not being caught up with life, of the “bottom” falling out if I’m not on top of things, of all the problems that may surface if I’m not busting it all the time. And that also means that my heart is closing up further and further, instead of becoming more and more open. Much more turtle, and much less flower. Not good.
And let’s say that I am driving around West Palm Beach, and there is a homeless person holding a cardboard sign at the intersection. He is poor, and he is hungry, and he is in need. And I’ve heard the stories about how some panhandlers use the money you give them for alcohol or drugs, or are on the streets because they don’t want to keep a regular job that requires responsibility and a schedule and much harder work. But all of those thoughts just make my heart want to close up. They make me fearful. They make me scared that I will get burned by trying to be nice to someone else. I don’t want to live like that. I don’t want to be more and more suspicious, and distrusting, and cynical, and controlling. I want to move in the other direction, where I am increasingly believing the best about others – regardless of who they are and what they do. Then, I feel so much more freedom and peace. And it even helps me to feel more love inside of myself towards others, towards people in general. It helps me to keep blooming. And it feels really healthy, and even invigorating at times…. It feels right.
Recently, I went to my local gas station to get my car washed in one of those automatic car washing machine stalls. You know, the ones with the monstrous long metal arms and sprayers that move through a series of steps like Pre-Soak, Foam-Wash, Under-Carriage Bath, Wax Application, and No-Touch Dry. If you’ve ever used one of these, it’s not always as easy as it should be. You’re supposed to drive your car in very slowly, and then stop right when the system lights up its STOP sign – when one of your tires is on a trigger spot that initiates the entire automated process. But sometimes you go too far, and the system illuminates a sign asking you to BACK UP. And in your mind you’re like, ah crap. Especially when there is another car behind you waiting to go next, and you don’t want to freak them out as they see your brake lights and watch your bumper begin to approach their front fender. And sometimes when you’re backing up to try to reposition your vehicle, the system doesn’t tell you to STOP and you’re like, blast, I know I’m way too far behind now. And so you have to use your judgement to move from Reverse back to Drive and inch forward again – hoping this time around that you’ll get it right, and stop where the machine needs you to be. I’m telling you, it’s very stressful.
So it was one of those days, and nothing I did was working. I’d move forward, but too far. I’d go backwards, but too far. I’d get to where it totally should have started, but it didn’t. And so after a few minutes, I was like, forget this nonsense. And so I drove all the way through and parked outside the gas station so I could go inside and politely let the clerk know that their car wash just wasn’t working, and to ask for a refund. But when I did this, he started grilling me about why I didn’t stop when it told me to stop, and why I didn’t back up when it told me to back up. And how it’s so easy for everyone apart from me, and that no one else has problems driving into it and using it. And he honestly made me feel like I was a complete idiot.
At that moment, I really, really wanted to rage. In my mind, I am thinking, what the PEZ man, have you lost your mind, I didn’t do anything wrong, your system is whacked out and not responding how it should, and I am here trying to help you not have to deal with other angry customers!!!! And my mind started to furiously manufacture these negative thoughts towards him and his prideful, condescending attitude, and for treating me like I was a moron. But in that moment, I also remembered that if I were to say anything sarcastic or biting to put him in his place, my heart would have closed towards him. My words would have been said in fear of losing face, or needing to defend myself and my competence, or just to make him feel as bad as he made me feel. And I want my heart to be open and stay open and keep getting more open towards others – no matter what they say, and no matter who they are. And so I took it on the proverbial chin, and stayed gracious and humble. And when I got back into my car, God told me that the clerk was probably having a really, really rough day – and just happened to take it out on me. As I personally have done to others in the past.
Every non-trivial decision you make takes you in one direction or the other. It’s really remarkable when you step outside of yourself and begin to observe it in practice. Watch yourself, and see how it plays out. And then, in the interest of better living, work to keep your heart open as much as you possibly can. Don’t allow it to get closed off by what happens to you. Push through that, as hard as it often is. Remember: flower, not turtle. Act in ways that make you more like the former, and less like the latter. It will be so good for your own self-care, and it will draw so many more people towards you.