by JEFF LAWRENCE
This. Opening up and sharing. I’m not good at it. I can count on zero fingers the number of people I’ve shared with what I’m about to type. But I have a lot to say, so bear with me. I’ve never been good at making deep connections, not easily anyway. And there are probably many reasons for it. Maybe it’s a fear of showing weakness, or being judged. Or worse: being considered a fraud. Even as I type this, my heart is pounding with fear thinking about who is going to read this and what they will think.
I grew up in a decidedly middle-class family in rural northeastern North Carolina and was blessed to have a small group of friends who shared similar values, took academics seriously, were good athletes, and liked to party. Early on, I judged myself against some of them, secretly competing with them, which led me to finish 3rd in my class. I wanted to beat them all, but 3rd was good enough to get into NC State Engineering school where I found out early on almost everyone was at the top of their class. No way was I going to compete with these people; they would be the ones sweeping up the good jobs while I’d be left competing for anything else. So I stopped competing – with them anyway – and started competing with myself.
There was something freeing about that, but I still held myself to a high standard. I worked hard and excelled, graduating Magna Cum Laude with a degree in Electrical Engineering. While I achieved, I felt I had to do it on my own. I found it difficult to work on team projects or to ask anyone for help, even professors. I thought if I didn’t figure it out on my own, it was fake. Trying to figure everything out on my own didn’t always work, but mostly it did.
Everything was cool, right? On the outside, yes. On the inside, it was still lonely and stressful. I masked that by being the ‘fun guy’ and with laughter. I was again blessed to have a circle of friends in a fraternity of like-minded men that gave me an outlet to focus on everything but what I felt. Deflection is another tool. I’m a good listener and like to talk with anyone as long as it’s not about me. I like to help people that need it, but I ask questions about you so you don’t ask them about me. I never felt like my problems or what I was feeling were significant in the grand scheme of things, and because of that they would be dismissed. So I kept them to myself.
But being vulnerable and sharing is not my greatest fear. As the big brother, then as the boyfriend and eventually husband and father, I felt like I had to be the fixer. I had to figure it out on my own. I couldn’t be seen as weak and vulnerable, or not know what I’m doing. As a new father, I had (and to some degree still have) a fear that something would happen to my wife and kids. That fear was realized on April 17th, 1995. My wife prematurely gave birth to twins, Jarrett and Jacob. They lived for about an hour, long enough for me to hold them and rock them – like you do when you’re standing holding a baby. I had to be strong for my wife and my 3-year-old daughter. But I couldn’t fix this. Instead, I needed fixing.
What was wrong with me? Had my fears been realized because I thought it? Our church and friends in Columbus, Ohio were amazingly supportive. I opened up, not to them but to support groups. Finally, someone would listen. They understood. Nobody else did or cared (so I thought). So I kept the hurt and pain mostly to myself, even from my wife. I had to be strong. Then one of our friends gave me a plaque with the “Footprints in the Sand” prayer. And I realized someone did care – God. He was with me the whole time. I knew it deep down, but didn’t recognize it. That gesture has continued to carry me, but I never told her how much it meant to me.
A miscarriage followed before we were blessed with 3 boys in 2½ years. I had fixed it! Then in the Spring of 2012, we got a call. My daughter, in college now, had made a (thank God unsuccessful) attempt on her life. Why hadn’t we seen it coming? As I held her hand in the hospital, I broke down with the nurse at my failure as a Dad. Again, something I couldn’t fix. That fear of what people might think, or to protect my daughter’s privacy, or that they didn’t want to hear about my problems, or (and I’m ashamed to admit this) that we didn’t have the perfect family, kept me from talking about it to many people. To this day, even those closest to me may suspect but don’t really know what happened or the fear it put in me. Fear that I couldn’t fix this. Fear that talking about it would drive friends away. I’m the fun guy, remember? Fear that there would be a next time. Eventually that fear diminished as she got better, but it’s never truly gone away.
I got to the point finally, right? That’s my biggest fear. But it’s not. We have to go back to when I was in 8th grade in that small rural northeastern North Carolina community. Like most Methodists, I was part of the Methodist Youth Fellowship. We had a good time and were led by a caring adult leader. At the end of that year she hand-wrote me a letter. A letter that I still have. In it, there was this line: “God has great plans for you.”
I felt proud of that. God. Has. Great. Plans. For. Me. That is awesome. But since then, it has simultaneously given me great hope, and terrified me. When will God reveal this plan to me? What if He never does? Worst of all, what if He already has and I missed it? What if I heard it and ignored it? What if I didn’t want to hear it? Is this plan supposed to be here on Earth or in His Heavenly Kingdom? Was she wrong? These questions swirl in my head every day. I don’t care about being memorialized, but I want to have mattered to someone for something good. I want to matter to God. I want to fulfill this great plan He has for me. My greatest fear is that I won’t.