I was ten years old when the word “cancer” came to live in our house. Upon their return from what I thought was a routine doctor’s visit, my mother and father summoned all six of their children into one room to explain to us that Daddy was sick and that he might die.
My brain at that age didn’t have the categories to process the information. I didn’t know the meaning of words like “prognosis,” “chemotherapy,” and “terminal.” I didn’t understand why our phone rang off the hook that week, my parents’ friends calling to console us and to cry. I didn’t understand in the months that followed the changes I saw in my father’s body as he weakened under the weight of hospitalization. I couldn’t comprehend what was happening, but I remember how it felt. It was the beginning of my experience with loss.
Over the next four years, the battle with cancer raged on. Life got more unstable for our family as my father’s illness progressed. We moved to a different city that boasted more resources to support a larger family, changing schools three times in the process. Financial crisis followed my father’s eventual death, leading to more unwanted transitions. He died in February of my freshman year of high school. Two months later, the bank foreclosed on our home and we moved into an empty parsonage behind a little church across town.
All those changes accompanied other traumas—some of which might have been normal casualties of growing up. But collectively, my childhood experiences taught me to expect tragedy. Loss had so deeply shaped my plausibility structure that I anticipated abandonment at every turn.
At the end of the road, I became someone who trusted no one. And I feigned indifference toward anyone who might claim to love me. Loneliness, I reasoned, is less painful than loss. At one point I sat down to write a thank-you note to an older man in our church who had come alongside our family and helped father me. It seemed right to tell him that his care and friendship were having an impact. But as soon as I started to put the words to paper I was gripped by overwhelming emotion and a commitment to silence. If I told him—or myself— the truth about how much this meant to me, it would make me too vulnerable. I couldn’t risk caring, knowing that rejection is inevitable.
My feigned callousness might seem something of a teenage stereotype, and for good reason. All of us have something to lose, even those of us without major crises to process. All of us ask the questions, “Am I lovable? Can you be trusted? Will you stay?” They’re terrifying questions, and to voice them makes us feel powerless.
When we acknowledge our longing, we experience our dependence on others to help us forge our own identities. We are vulnerable because we do find ourselves, ultimately, in the gaze of the other. As young people, we intuitively know how dangerous openness is. So our fear of rejection masquerades as indifference.
Adults, however, develop more sophisticated ways to manage their fear. We learn strategies that make us feel competent and strong and help us hide behind the false impression that all is well. For me this most often looks like power and control. I tell myself that if I can successfully manage my household, mother my children, and steward my finances then perhaps tragedy will not befall us. Perhaps I can face the tempest of my own childhood and this time, conquer it. This perfectionism usually serves me well but it has a dark undercurrent. It helps me remember to pay the bills, but keeps me awake at night checking the locks on our doors again and again.
Early in my marriage, I forgot to bring my lunch to work one day. The frustration and even rage that fueled the condemnation I heaped on myself for being forgetful and wasteful shocked my husband. His attentiveness in that moment exposed the scarcity mentality which utterly controlled me; he was able to name my fear for what it was and rebuke it. “Hannah,” he said, “Go buy some lunch. We can afford it.”
My adult obsession with budgeting might seem unrelated to my teenage angst. But at the core, they are the same. Both are ways in which I’ve sought to manage a deeply rooted fear of loss. Both are smoke-screens, obscuring from me the terrifying reality of my powerlessness in the face of life’s unknowns.
Nobody likes to feel afraid. We would much rather feel angry and powerful and in control. Our enemy understands us, so he often disguises fear as something more attractive. The result is that it can be especially difficult to find healing from our fears—we have worked so hard to bury them that we become unable even to access or name them.
The Gaze of Love
But in order to heal us, Jesus is willing to expose us. He sees through our self-protective masks and reveals the very things we strive to keep hidden, even from ourselves. In his gaze we are uncomfortably known and fully loved.
As a child, I did not comprehend the loss I experienced and I did not understand my subconscious, self-protective response to it. As an adult, I often do not make the connection between my white-knuckled grip on perfection and my fear of another family tragedy. But God in his mercy beholds me through the eyes of his messengers—surrogate fathers and mothers, pastors, friends, my husband—reflecting back to me the vulnerability I often seek to destroy.
Their gaze exposes me, but it does not shame me. Rather, seeing myself in the eyes of love is what gives me courage to name my fears and, in some ways, to accept them. For the reality is, I am powerless to prevent future loss. There is no guarantee that everyone in my family will stay healthy, or that I will live to see my children grow up. There is no promise of physical, financial, or relational stability in this life. But as I express my fears to God, I learn to let myself be known by him. He already knows me fully, of course. Yet unless I bring myself to ask those terrifying questions—“Am I lovable? Can you be trusted? Will you stay?”—I won’t be able to hear and believe him when he says, “Yes.”
Cover image by John Noonan.