My daughter Breathe has imaginary friends she refers to as her “kids.” Once, she asked me if I had ever had imaginary friends. I smiled broadly. “I still have them.” She wanted me to tell her their names, so I rattled off several of my most beloved characters’ names and physical descriptions. She thought it was so cool. So do I. And, the last three nights, I’ve been thinking of one character in particular: Abrielle.
Abrielle was the heroine of the novel “Me.” I won’t go into too much detail except to say tha the poor girl led a very miserable life. She just did. Everything that could have gone wrong for her pretty much did. Frankly, I never really liked her. I felt sorry for her, and I cried for her, but she was kind of weak. Or so I thought. But, the more time passed, the more I kind of liked her. And, over the last few days or so, it dawned on me that what Abrielle really wanted wasn’t just to be loved. It was to be wanted. In the novel, there is a scene in which the wonderful hero Clayton tells her that he wants to take her out to eat. She is very confused, and has no idea why he would want to do that. He responds by saying: “Don’t you know that when someone offers to take you to eat, it’s because he wants to, not because he wants something from you? Haven’t you ever been on a date before?” Abrielle does not believe a word he says. She worries over what he’s going to demand she give him as payment for the food and “kindness.” Despite all his reassurances, she doesn’t believe he just wanted to see her UNTIL they arrive back at her house. Poor Abrielle sits stock still in his car, waiting on the bomb to drop, waiting on him to tell her exactly what she has to do to repay his generosity. My hero, Clayton, of course has no intention of demanding anything from her: he smiles at her and tells her goodnight. When she realizes that he has no intention of making her “repay” anything, Abrielle is moved to tears. She was wanted.
I wonder what that feels like sometimes.
The truth is… I’m very effective at pretending all I care about is being needed. I take pride in the fact that others rely on me. I am humbled and honored that people e-mail me, seeking help for horrific things. I teach and devote myself to my girls, noting with some pride that they need me. That’s been my mantra, if you will: “they need me”, pretty much all my life. Everyone wants to be needed. Everyone wants to feel useful. Everyone wants to feel capable and independent and strong and appreciated. Everyone wants to be a leader in at least one area of their lives. And I’m lucky in that I know I’m needed. My girls need me, my family needs me and, I like to tell myself, my church needs me (though it probably doesn’t, really). I don’t take this for granted because I know that there are some people whose hearts ache for the belief that they are needed. I’m lucky in that I don’t have reason to question that. I used to tell myself that being needed and being wanted were two sides of the same coin—that if I was needed, then I was wanted by default. It was a good lie. It helped make me feel better. But it wasn’t really the truth. You can be needed—-needed to make things run smoothly, needed for your skill, needed for your patience, needed for your knowledge, needed because there’s no one else—without really being wanted.
When I’m really brave (or either really sad, take your pick), I allow myself to whisper the question: if you weren’t a good teacher, if you weren’t a good speaker or leader, if you weren’t a good listener, if you weren’t so friendly…. would anyone still care if you were still around? Automatically, tears sting the backs of my eyes and I feel my heart fall because, the truth is….I honestly don’t know. It seems as though I’ve worked my entire life because I care about others and because, when I know for sure someone is surprised or happy because of something I’ve done, it makes me feel … worthwhile. Worthy.
There are no words to explain how hard I have tried, my whole life, to be worthy of the people I love. I’ve believed that if I don’t go overboard in everything I do, then people won’t have a reason to allow me into their lives. Being “okay” has always equaled “not good enough.” It’s not that I’ve cared about impressing other people…. how could I impress someone who didn’t really need nor want me? No, my perfectionism isn’t about obtaining praise, it’s about becoming worthy of the time others spend on me, it’s about trying to fill the ache in my heart that wonders what it feels like to be wanted, not because I’m good AT something but, rather, because, without having to try, my presence makes someone else smile.
Thinking about this can make me quite sad very fast, and rather desperate to grasp a little bit of hope somewhere. And what I find is my character, Abrielle, again. See, I never really liked Abrielle, tell you the truth, because she was weak. She doesn’t really change very much over the course of the book and I thought that was bad writing. It probably is. But, tonight, it gives me hope. It gives me hope because she never did have anything of real value to offer and yet Clayton really loved her. He wanted her. Not just in the sexual sense of the word, but he wanted to get to know who she was and why she was that way. He cared about the stories that made up her life and, throughout the novel, there were several moments when he was just overcome with the desire to be near her, simply because he found her wonderful. She was simple, she came with a boatload of “baggage” and, to top it all off, she didn’t really know how to give much of anything. There was no reason to want Abrielle. But she was wanted, nonetheless. Of course, it was just a modern fairy tale: the earth is inhabited by fallen human beings who really want what’s best for themselves rather than another person. Right?
I might think so, especially tonight when I’m tired, out of paper to write on and sad for about a million reasons. But tomorrow is Palm Sunday. It’s the day Jesus rode in on a donkey, with everyone shouting praises and love. I wonder if all the accolades seemed like hypocrisy to Him, since He knew they would so quickly turn against Him. Or did it feel Him with tenderness that they all wanted to be in His presence? That makes me think about why He was there in the first place, and for whom. He was there for those people who had nobody. He was there for the ones who likely had never felt wanted in their lives, or needed, either. He was there to show love and acceptance to the person everyone else was afraid to touch. He was there for the UNwanted ones. He wanted them. Why? Why in the world would He want the ones who had no value? Why in the name of heaven would He want to surround Himself with people who had nothing to offer Him, nothing except gratitude? It really blows my mind.
Until I start thinking about the same kind of people in my own life. One year, I went to this school that was really funky, really different, and really weird. There was an older boy there that no one really liked. He was loud and often defiant toward the teachers. His idea of fun was to feed me salt-infested Twizzlers, he was really not right. But he was also a good kid. One day, while we were at recess, some of the kids were snickering at me because I couldn’t play volleyball very well. This boy came over and said, “You really need some lessons, let me help you” and proceeded to help me learn how to volley the ball. One of my good friends from childhood was a boy my mother watched during the afternoons. He had a club foot and was often teased for it. But my sister and I loved playing Nintendo with him every day after school. Other than my girls’, the brightest smile I have ever seen belonged to a dirty homeless man who changed my life. It was a little boy who had been diagnosed with multiple diagnoses and had been labeled “difficult” by nearly every adult he’d ever come into contact with that first made me feel understood. He once ran off only to get into a golf cart and drive it into a brick wall, then proceeded to lay in the golf cart holding a knife. It was a very scary day but that kid made me happier than I’d ever been, up to that point. It was a weird English teacher who stuck straws in the corner of his mouth the whole class period and sat perched like a pigeon on the arms of chairs that made me feel special. In fact, when I think about the people who have most positively influenced my life, nearly all of them were, in some way or other, outcasts. None had fame or fortune; most suffered under heavy burdens. But they reached out to me and now, when I think of them, all I see is beauty.
You see… the truth is…. we were all made beautifully. We were not a mistake. We were not supposed to be smarter, or braver, or prettier or more anything than we are already. Feeling unwanted is a reflection of what we see in the mirror… when we look at ourselves, we tend to magnify our flaws and minimize our strengths until all we see in that reflection is a lump of coal instead of the diamond that shines in each of us. Just because the little girl with caner whose hair has all fallen out doesn’t feel beautiful does not mean she’s not: we all would agree that, actually, she’s quite stunning. Just because the single mother working two full time jobs and raising a house full of kids thinks she’s ordinary, we’d all agree that she’s actually quite strong and beautiful. Just because the teenager who didn’t get asked to the prom feels like a clumsy, awkward wallflower, we’d all agree that, chances are, she’ll bloom one day into a breath-taking rose. Just because the homeless woman feels old and ashamed, we’d all agree that beneath the dirty lies an unbelievable story. We’d all agree that, without these under-appreciated, unattended to people, our world wouldn’t be complete. They bring character to our world. They bring history and emotion so tangible it moves us to action. The stories of the unwanted are what reminds the rest of us of how blessed we are, their stories encourage us to move past ourselves and feel true empathy and compassion.
I think maybe Jesus wanted to surround Himself with the outcasts because He knew a secret. He knew that it was the ones who seemed forgotten that were the most unaware of their own worth. He knew that it was the ones who seemed forgotten that were most likely to teach the rest of us something. He knew that it was the ones who seemed forgotten who were often the heart and soul of a strong community, nation and world. Those who were sick, those who were tired, those who were hungry, those who were abused, those who were ashamed…. these were the people who understood the importance of a hug, who intimately knew the power of words, who were more likely to treat others carefully because they were all too aware of how fragile the human heart is; the outcasts — these were the ones who could really feel love the most, and who, ironically, were the most likely to freely offer love. The beauty of a community comes not from the leaders who shine without understanding but from those whose lives have birthed a dream about which they are passionate, the dream of one day being accepted and loved for who they are. They hold signs up, asking for food or money; they wear a wig because they think they’re illness makes them ugly; they shift their eyes away from those successful because they think they’ve failed but, despite their feelings of shame and unworthiness, they treat others with respect, they pray and they never give up. They go about the business of being who they are, without ever expecting anything in return. Some of them die believing they’ll be forgotten tomorrow.
When you’re hurting, when you’re sad, when you’re alone, when you’re weak… that’s when you’re most able to see the light, that’s when you start to appreciate every kind act that’s bestowed upon you and it’s when you learn to treat others carefully and without judgement. By being forced to ask for help, you learn humility and grace. You learn to form bonds with people you might otherwise never have noticed exist, you learn to trust in that which you cannot see, and you learn how to pray.
When you’re wanted for what you’re not, when you’re wanted because you’ve camouflaged yourself so successfully you’re convinced the other person doesn’t know who you “really are”, then you’re defeating yourself. Eventually, the feelings of acceptance will fade and you’ll start to believe that those around you don’t really love you, or need you or want you: instead, you’ll think, they just want what you can do, they just want the person you’ve proven you can be—not the real you. Believing that you’re unwanted can traumatize you, it can steal the laughter from your eyes and make you doubt everything you know.
But you are the one for whom Jesus rode into the city that would ultimately kill Him. You’re the one who’s smile lights up a room. You’re the one who can speak, or cook, or tell stories or write or sing or listen or motivate like no one else the people in your world have ever known. You’re the one whose hair God has numbered and whose mansion He’s building. Just because you don’t feel wanted doesn’t mean you’re not. You were born for a specific reason at a specific time, intended to share light and compassion and friendship and love to those you meet. Believing you have no impact is to underestimate yourself: you have no idea who is watching you, or when. I like to remember the quote that says “someone, somewhere is trying to imitate everything you do.” We get caught up in thinking that we have to obtain something, we have to “become” something. But we don’t have to “become” anyone we’re not. When we try, we lose the person we really are, the person we were meant to be.
Every day, my girls and I do our “daily affirmations.” I make them go into the bathroom, look at their reflections in the mirror and say one nice thing about themselves. To act as an example, I do it too. It sometimes makes me feel silly, embarrased and a little bit crazy. But learning to appreciate ourselves is the only way we’ll ever be able to understand why we are all wanted and loved and appreciated. It’s not selfish to appreciate what God created. We have to learn to trust what others tell us…. if they tell us they love us, we have to learn to believe them. If they tell us we’re special, we have to learn to give their opinion value. If they tell us they want us as part of their lives, we have to believe them. And if no one tells us those things, if we’ve secluded ourselves or built fortresses around our hearts, then we have to remember that we were created in the image of God and that is something stunning, something awe-inspiring, and something true. Jesus didn’t quit. When He looked upon a leper, He saw something worth saving. When He looked upon a sinner, He saw something worth wanting. When He spoke to the honest criminal on the cross, He saw someone worth sharing paradise with. He didn’t give up on the outcasts He loved—He could have run, He could have been lifted up by angels, but He wasn’t. He didn’t give up believing in the worth of those who thought they had none.
Maybe Abrielle my character didn’t change very much. Maybe she was rather flat. Maybe she was burdensome. Maybe she was simple. But she was kind to others, too, and she loved the people in her life. Maybe she didn’t have anything to give, but she –wanted– to give. She was hurt, but she looked for hope and found grace. Touch one another’s hearts, and lives and watch how a small portion of compassion and love can fill every aching corner of the soul. No matter how hard we try, we’re not islands: we were meant to hold hands, to lift each other up, to encourage and motivate one another. And we were to remember how loudly Heaven is cheering for each of us individually, we were to remember that we don’t have to “be like” anyone else because we fill a space in life and in Heaven that could not ever be replaced by anyone else. In essence, we are.. wanted.