Freedom and acceptance can’t be found by diving to the depths of self.
Let me ask you a question.
Would you rather be given complete understanding of your heart and mind—your motivations, desires, subconscious thoughts—yet not be known intimately by anyone else, or would you rather be known completely by at least one other person—all the nooks and crannies of your soul—yet not know yourself any better than you do right now?
I’ll give you a second.
I ask people at work this question. All have said they would rather know themselves, which is the safe answer. Being an introvert, I would initially say I’d rather know myself completely. I spend quite a lot of time trying to stare a hole in my soul and divine what’s happening in the opaque parts. Imagine having complete knowledge of self—not only the boundaries of your consciousness, but all that lies within. How far down do my roots of consciousness go? Put one single desire under complete analysis and what strange alchemy of feral instincts, idol worship and altruism would I find? Then multiply that times the ten thousand desires, decisions, responses, actions and complacencies in any given hour of life that I would dig through to get to the bottom of myself. What would I see when I got there? Oceans get black and colder and heavier the further down. Are souls the same?
But on the other hand, to be known by someone else is a great risk. If my soul is a Pandora’s box, at least I can open it in my own apartment. If I spend a few minutes lurking around my motivations with a flashlight, it’s a wonder I trust myself around my own kids. What would someone else think if they had complete access?
One of my favorite movies as a kid was The NeverEnding Story. In that movie, the hero, Atreyu, has to pass through three gates to accomplish his quest. He dashes through the first gate before he is warned about the second. Engywook, who has spent a lifetime studying the gates, shares his fear with Falkor, the Luck Dragon.
Falkor: I knew he would be safe.
Engywook: Next is the Magic Mirror gate. Atreyu has to face his true self.
Falkor: So what? That won’t be too hard for him.
Engywook: Oh! That’s what everyone thinks. But kind people find that they are cruel, brave men discover that they are really cowards. Confronted with their true selves most men run away screaming!
This sounds about right.
Here is the rub. We all desperately want and need acceptance, but the question of whether or not we can truly be accepted by another is dependent on if they have all the information. The acceptance we experience in the world through social media, acquaintances, friends and even spouses is based on a relatively shallow representation of our total self, a self we don’t even know. We all accept others to the extent that we know them. But the question of our ultimate acceptance and love remains unanswered until there comes a person who both knows all of us and yet accepts us. It is the only way. Hiding behind every smile of friendship is the shadowy thought, “But if you only knew.”
I was in a cult once. True story. A home church one. I was good at it, too; I was an ideal member—didn’t question a thing. It was one of those cults that think they are the only saved ones and everyone else is hell-bound because they didn’t get taught from this guy in a basement. You know the type. As my wife and I were in this “home church,” over the weeks and months our family and friends started to ask us questions, share concerns. I was pulling away from them out of arrogant disgust for their ill-informed beliefs not originating from a guy in a basement. I rode side saddle on my high horse. But inside me there was a knot of judgement and fear. My father-in-law took me aside one day on a hill. He told me he had no idea what was going on inside me, but he loved me and was on my side. I didn’t believe him. I wanted to. If you only knew… I wanted to be known but how could I tell him what I didn’t know myself? And if I did know it, what language could I use to express it? And if I could express it, how could he love me? My soul was calloused and watertight.
Things dismantled from there. We were rejected by the home church, yet the poisonous lies were still at work in my mind, infecting my relationships with others. I abandoned the idea of church. A great gulf of chaos was fixed between me and God that I could not navigate or scream across. The bones of my voice were broken. Every verse in the Bible that spoke of judgement was highlighted with fiery red, every thin strip of night under the baseboards held a demon. I spent days in the bedroom, in the dark, in a tangle of stale sheets with my prayers deflecting off the low ceiling, my soul decomposing. I was a pariah, cut off from God, from others, from my wife. I dug deeper into the rot of my soul so that, by some blind fumbling, I might find my way to the other side. It is cold and dark down there. Lots of pressure. You don’t think right.
One night I had a dream, a vision. I hadn’t ever had one before and never once since. But this was from him. Here’s what happened.
I was sitting on the floor of a library, a place of knowledge, with the shelves lined with books and understanding. There were a throng of listeners sitting in a circle around Jesus, who was seated in a chair in this depression of the room. He was teaching, though I don’t know what he was saying. All I was thinking about was how I was going to ask him a question during the question-and-answer time. (Strange that my vision had a Q&A with the Godhead. Still haven’t figured that part out yet.) I was formulating in my mind this eloquent question, prefaced with reasons about how sometimes a man has difficulties committing his mind and soul and heart to God and how even Peter took a while to come around to committing himself fully to Jesus and so on. I raised my hand and stood up, erudite, but the words left me. I began mumbling and stumbling through my thoughts using disconnected gesticulations. As I continued stumbling over my words, Jesus got up and walked through the seated crowd right up to me. I couldn’t see his face. The closer he got the deeper my head fell. I looked at the ground, a hot tear hung from each eye. The well of pretense had run dry and all I found at the bottom was a few coins of truth. “Sometimes I have a hard time giving my life to you,” I said. It was the only truth I knew.
He gently grabbed my shoulders with both hands, looked at me in the eyes. “I know,” he said. He pulled me into himself.
I can’t make you hear how it sounded. It wasn’t pandering. It wasn’t sassy. It wasn’t even omniscient in the sense that I was merely one fact out of a trillion in the universe. It was experiential. He knew it before I said it.
I woke up with a spear of sunshine cutting through the thick wood. That was the beginning of the end of my depression. I was known. He was an authority on the subject of me. All the spidery sorrows and settled malice of my soul, he knew. I was accepted by him as a traitor, a fallen god, a deposed king, an exposed conman. I can still feel the lightness of being when I think about it.
The band Waterdeep has a song called “The Worst Is My Being Alone.” Here is the first verse and chorus:
“Aaron, have you ever had a burning in your chest
That made you just want to be free?”
It was a warm afternoon when she asked him this,
As they sat on the shore of the sea
Well, Aaron just tugged at his hair and he took
A very long time to reply
And by the time that he spoke, she’d forgotten she asked
And was lost in the clouds of the sky
He said, “Kelly, I don’t think
I’ve ever wanted as much
To be free as I’ve longed to be known.
And of the things that I hate
When I look at my life,
The worst is my being alone.”
This is pre-chloroform surgical songwriting. There is a longing to be known that supersedes even freedom. But, in a more true way, being known and yet accepted is the greatest freedom. There are no more additions; the sum is complete. Until someone has that access, you can smile, you can Instagram your life with sepia tones, you can post your cupcakes on Pinterest, you can disgorge your soul to a shrink but you can never be free. There will always be the shard of doubt, that if they really knew…
The death of Christ is demonstration of his acceptance and the only way to freedom.
Look behind you. It’s gloomy, no? That dim light is not dawn. Face him; he has walked in the trenches of your deep. He is life and that life is a light to you. You are known fully, open and naked before your Creator who knows all your crumbliness of being, the loathing of self. The darkness has seen a great light. That’s gotta be me.