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Pain doesn’t have to be your narrative

I’m the kind of person who’s not shocked by much. In terms of humor, I’m as crude and irreverent as they come. In terms of life experience, I surely haven’t done it all, but I’m connected to people in different circles who graciously model and share many different forms of truth. But truth be told, as I was enjoying a lazy Sunday afternoon reading in bed, my book illuminated by a sea of Target candles, I read something that made me drop my jaw.

I was reading Tiny Beautiful Things, a compilation of advice column letters written by Cheryl Strayed (yes, the woman from Wild) under the pen name of “Sugar,” and after reading the majority of the book, my interest had been piqued more than a few times. Sugar received letters concerning just about everything–rape, baby daddy issues, infidelity, death, addiction, you name it–and she nails her advice every single time. You also learn a lot about Cheryl Strayed as you read her responses, which are typically grounded in her own experiences that inform the answer she provides. 10/10 recommend.

Anywho, she was responding to a letter from a 64-year-old man who doesn’t want to be perceived as needy for wanting love and affection at his age, particularly from a younger woman he works with. He feared that if they were to go on a date, she’d notice his baggage and flaws and run the other way. In her response narrative, Cheryl Strayed wrote about a date during the honeymoon dating phase with her now-husband in which she packaged and presented herself as “broken” in order to own up to her fucked-up past. While she was listing her résumé of shit, he interrupted her and said, “You don’t have to be broken for me.”

*cue dropped jaw*

She writes: “I remember that moment precisely—where he was sitting in relation to where I was sitting, the expression on his face when he spoke, the coat I was wearing—because when he said what he said it felt like he’d scooped a hunk of my insides out and shown it to me in the palm of his hand. It wasn’t a good feeling. It had never before occurred to me that I thought in order to get a man to love me I had to appear to be broken for him. And yet when he said it, I recognized it—immediately, humiliatingly—as true. Like truly-uly true. Like how could I have not known this about myself before true. Like what hole can I go and die in now true. Because here was a man—a good, strong, sexy, kind, astounding, miraculous man—finally calling my bluff.”

Homegirl was subtweeting me hard. Not only did she expose me, but she dragged me to hell and back. I didn’t realize that this anecdote described so much of what I’ve done in dating, professional, or platonic friendships: leading with pain. I have tended to discuss the painful parts of my past as a way to build connection with someone, offer my vulnerabilities, and tell my story because it’s important to tell our stories–so I thought. After reading Sugar’s anecdote, I realized she called my own bluff, too: people don’t (or shouldn’t) want me because I think I’m “broken” (which I don’t). Sure, they want to know our story, but the pain in our stories is not what makes us valuable; it’s the resilience of learning from the pain and living in the new. A life of self-identified victimhood is good for no one.

I think about many people I’ve known, especially people who have been in therapy, who are so good at knowing how the intimate details of their past influence their current behavior. I’ve often connected these dots and shared them with people I’m getting to know, and I’ve learned the time and place in which such vulnerability is a positive in a relationship. The old saying goes, “If you’re still thinking about it, you’re not over it”–and while it’s okay to not be “over it,” we might want to examine how much of our identity is consumed by the dark parts of our narrative.

Sugar says: “I didn’t have to be broken for him, even though parts of me were. I could be every piece of myself and he’d love me still. My appeal did not rely on my weakness or my need. It relied on everything I was and wanted to be.”

Amen, sista.



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