I’ve never had a shortage of heart. Growing up in the Hood, Richmond, California to be exact, “Having heart” was essential to having peace. I remember walking into large crowds, say at a festival or a game, knowing someone there would laugh at me, talk about me, and threaten me if I looked soft. You could easily get into a fight if you stared at someone too long or bumped into someone too forcefully. We were sensitive, strong people. People who’d endured suffering and who were now competing for confidence during the war on drugs and the absence of Fathers. See being soft was most likely the result of having both parents, money, privilege as far as my hometown was concerned. Most people were fighting some war, be it in their minds, family or even community. I wasn’t. I was . . . at peace, a.k.a. soft. I didn’t have to struggle and claw like some people. I never saw a food stamp or even knew what Section 8 was until I was a teenager, which inspired jealousy, anger even violence from a few young people in Richmond. Simply because I was different and had an easier life.
In spite of this easier, two-parent, middle income household, my hair was rarely done well and my clothes were rarely trendy. I was a nerd and a theater geek. Let’s pair my “softness” + my lack of style + my nerdiness=I was an easy target. Between 8th grade and 10th grade I got into three fights and was jumped once on a bus. HOWEVER, I was no punk. I had heart. So when other nerds would fall back, I stood up. When someone else allowed a bully to insult them, I snapped back. In my family it was collectively understood that we never backed down from a fight. Whether it was a boy, girl, big person or a group of people, we stood our ground and if we lost a fight, we lost it with honor, and so goes my life.
It’s funny how the lessons we learn as children stick with us as we age. Today, I’m a fighter, courageous and “ready” all the time. When my parents divorced I felt I needed to step it up even further. I’ve gained a lot of knowhow and power from standing up for myself, in warranted and unwarranted situations. This gift and curse, bothers some, because they don’t see themselves that way and it awes others because they see the possibility that they can overcome. But as a gift and curse, it helps and hurts me.
I find great pride in telling my story. The story of how I made it through trials and troubles only God could get me through. I take great rest in my relationship with God; the fact that I can ask for help and help arrives, that I can root myself in the strength of a God of infinite power and withstand a storm. However this “gift” is the other side of the coin. When you stand against all battles, you must dig in to power and strength but what does it mean to fail? To be weak? Is it ALWAYS a fault?
I had to ask myself ‘What if God’s power is in surrendering to this opposition? What does it mean to yield or admit that you don’t want to fight, you’re afraid or you need help?’
Strength thickened my skin and digging into the wrong type of strength, hardened my heart. Could I have been better off folding and perhaps losing?
Recently my Mother was diagnosed with Dermatomyocitis, an auto immune disease that operates like Lupus and a collection of different autoimmune diseases, such as Fibromyalgia, RA, Connective Tissue Disease and Congestive Heart failure. I came home to help and found myself behaving as the anchor for a family of siblings and children suffering through our own life struggles and the challenge of trying to reclaim the life of my Mother. I made it my job to be strong, to be the embodiment of faith and endurance. While this helped my family feel stronger and gave them someone to lean on in their time of need, it damaged me in ways I am still discovering to this day. The choice to deny the sadness I was feeling, to exemplify sufficiency when I needed someone to lean on, to be there for others when I needed someone to be there for me, left me feeling cold inside and lonely. I didn’t share my pain or my fear. I held it in and protected my family from the fact that I was afraid too. While having heart, standing up to the predator which was losing my Mother looked good from the outside, it ate me alive.
My love life soured. Most potential lovers and friends found me too stand offish and disconnected. When someone would come to me needing an ear or a hug, I’d give them a pep talk and a pat on the ass, “Get back out there!”. When some would see me in my worst pain, my armor of “Everything’s okay” made them feel that they and their help weren’t needed or even wanted. And honestly, for fear of being vulnerable, I didn’t want them and I didn’t want their help.
See, vulnerability would’ve revealed my anger with my parents. It would’ve shown my disappointment in my daughter’s father. Vulnerability would’ve revealed that I was sad with my own life and uncomfortable better yet angry about being needed while I was still in need. Vulnerability would’ve pulled my armor off and left me open and made all my fountains of tears visible. It would’ve left my family to their own feelings and left them looking for another source of strength. That source should’ve been God, not God in me.
I grew up believing when times are hard, when opposition arrives, when faced with a “bully” of any kind, the only option is to “Have heart” and fight but the moment I allowed myself to admit my weakness and eventually give love to that weakness, things changed. The few moments of vulnerability that I allowed revealed beautiful friends who bought me cake and took me to the lake to cry. Family who let me vent and speak my anger without judgment. Many people who loved me who were just waiting on my permission to enter. What I didn’t realize is “losing”, admitting a battle may be too big for me, opened the door for help. It gave others a chance to love me and gave me a chance to be my true “whole hearted” self.
While growing up in Richmond taught me to be tough, it didn’t teach me the power of vulnerability. The strength in connection and the encouragement of empathy were lessons I had to learn on my own. Vulnerability opens the door to the heart and allows you to be seen as a whole, strong, tender and fallible person. It took me years to unlearn what it meant to “Have heart”. “Having heart” is not solely being brave enough to stand up to your enemies, it’s also being brave enough to scream out for help and being human enough to receive the love that comes to your rescue.