My grandpa died unexpectedly when I was 17. Suddenly, the man who poured hours into knowing his grandkids through zoo outings, cheering at T-ball games, and yard work together was gone. It was the first loss I had to process like an adult. In a lot of ways, I think it’s what made me really grow up.
One of the things I remember most about those tough weeks for my family is my own reeling over the fact that I didn’t tell him often enough that I loved him. I probably hadn’t said those words since I was small enough to be carried from the seat of his giant pickup truck to the steps of the house, my face smeared with the ice cream he’d buy me at the slightest request.
And they were all I wanted to say.
As with all significant events in my life, I bought a new journal, hoping for a fresh start and new inspiration. I didn’t end up writing much in it, but I wrote one thing in there that has been written on my life since: I will never withhold the words I love you. When they are true, I will speak them. This applies to family, friends, boyfriends, puppies, and strangers.
I made that small commitment with a heart that had been ripped open by new grief. I didn’t even really understand what I was saying or if it would stick. But it did. I’ve gone back to that open-hearted idea over and over in the past ten years. Every time I want to shut down emotionally, every time I’m feeling bashful or embarrassed by my affections, every time I’m scared I’ll love something I can’t have, every time a wave of unexpected grief knocks me down again, I go back to that scrawled choice. I’m committed to a whole heart in all relationships, not just romance.
See, I grew up in a Christian culture where the idea of “Guarding Your Heart” was not just in vogue, but an obsession.
When a teenage peer would gigglingly admit a crush, us girls would question whether she was “guarding” her heart and remind her of Proverbs 4:23. When she’d cry over losing that crush, it was more proof that “saving” your heart for your future spouse was the only way to go. That was the only way to really avoid pain in romance.
We went to conferences and read books where they told us exactly how to “guard our hearts.” We learned rules like: don’t allow yourself to have crushes, wait and pray, never be alone with the opposite sex, don’t go out on taco dates, only dress “modestly,” don’t have a romantic fantasy except for that Mr. Darcy/Jesus one, etc. We ripped giant paper hearts into pieces and agreed that they could never really be put back together and felt sorry for everyone who had squandered their limited love on mere boyfriends.
Until I discovered that you can’t shut down part of your heart and not shut down all of it. You can’t block all the negative emotions and still have enough space for the positive ones. It’s impossible to have a life overflowing with love in all areas when your heart is blocked up with fear and shame.
I get the appeal of the “Guard Your Heart” message.
It offers us a pain free life if we follow the rules, and that sounds really great. It promises us that if we don’t have crushes, or at least don’t admit them, if we never say ‘I love you’ first, if we act detached until the last possible moment before commitment, if we just get married instead of dating, we’ll never have to experience heartbreak and we’ll be okay. It guarantees in a neat, repeatable phrase that we will be in control.
But it’s a lie.
At the root of any balanced, healthy, true relationship, at the heart of every heart, is vulnerability. And vulnerability can’t exist when you are focused on living out a particular set of rules. The rules for “Guarding Your Heart” are both fear based and ambiguous and, as with most relationship rules, ultimately produce shame, not health. They breed shame because we can’t live up to the ideal put for us: that we can be whole people while avoiding the potential for pain. Shame and vulnerability are antithetical concepts; they cannot coexist.
“Guarding Your Heart” is a system that perpetuates shame – the very thing most destructive to what it promises us – healthy relationships.
In addition to crippling shame, the “Guard Your Heart” rules offer us a false understanding of relational results. They tell us that the best relationships don’t involve pain, or only allow it in specific, controlled instances. But the best relationships actually offer us the safety and love to explore the full variety of human experience and be present in all circumstances, even the uncomfortable ones. They offer us opportunities to actively grow, to recover from pain, and pursue love.
All relationships invite our hearts to walk through disappointment and joy, the more intimate the relationship, the greater the capacity for both those things.
If you really want to be in healthy relationships, stop “guarding” your heart and start using it. Walk through the mistakes you will inevitably make and learn from them. Find a community of people who are practicing vulnerability. Fill your heart full of the love that makes it come alive, full of grace, full of determination to walk with pain rather than around it, and you will be much better off than any heart that has been merely “guarded.” If you want to learn vulnerability, allow God to really truly love you, exactly where you are, with a love that disintegrates shame.
My capacity to love has grown exponentially since I stopped guarding my heart.
I’ve experienced heartbreak and pain, disappointment and devastation, I’ve been nearly enveloped by darkness and I have lost my faith. I have loved people who have hurt me. I have hurt people who have loved me. I am still walking out the difficult steps of particular grief and some days it hurts like all the swear words.
But, I’ve discovered that my heart is stronger than pain. My ability to wholeheartedly love and be loved is ever expanding. I have felt so much joy, peace, affection, freedom from shame, and I have found a faith worth living out every day. I can proclaim my love without fear. I have a heart that is full of redemption.
I have a heart that is unguarded and absolutely alive.
Speak up! Have you ever tried to “guard” your heart? How did it work out? What does living whole heartedly look like for you?
[photo: A Literal Girl, Creative Commons]