Fathom Mag

Words shape us.

Published on:
March 12, 2018
Read time:
3 min.
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The summer I turned eighteen, I worked as a camp staffer. At the end-of-the-year ceremony, they handed out wooden medallions emblazoned with a word representing the recipient. I got the word “deep.” We were supposed to hang them on our rearview mirrors. I threw mine away.

If I remind myself all of us weep, wake, whisper
in the same dark, and the sudden footfall or the longer silence
separates us beyond each locked door, I am returned
only to my own. And am reluctant to complain as if
exaggerated is the high water, as if it didn’t swallow thousands,
these fossils, this bone, as if between us are not many
extremes: the taste of blood in our mouths though the blows
are seldom physical.
—Claudia Rankine, “Elsewhere, things tend”

To me, “deep” meant “There’s a lot going on in there. Could she . . . settle down?” Meanwhile, my friends received some fruit of the Spirit or words like “cheerful.”

Perhaps our individual personalities and neuroses define us far less than our common humanity.

Since that summer memorialized by sweat and self-consciousness, countless personality profiles have described my “intensity” and “passion.” I’ve been asked more than once if I ever really relax. 

Depth, passion, intensity, high risk and high reward traits reign in me, as prone to push me deeper into myself and away from the world as they are to help me offer insight in helpful ways. The swirl of depth, passion, and intensity often tastes like blood in my mouth.

Twelve years later, I still want a different wooden circle.

Paradoxically, I cannot release the belief that we all “weep, wake, whisper in the same dark.” That perhaps our individual personalities and neuroses define us far less than our common humanity. Perhaps the parts of myself I’ve wielded as weapons and hidden behind as shields aren’t nearly as unique or inherently isolating as I think.

The past few weeks have brimmed with the realization of how fearful I am—of exposure, of being wrong, of running out of self to give. I am afraid that my depth will send me tumbling down into holes where no one else dares to fall. I am afraid that my passion will be mistaken for bluster, or, worse, that it is bluster. I am afraid that my intensity achieves no true good in the world because of my gender, because it could be labeled as outrage, because sometimes it devolves into stubbornness or anger.

Those qualities come with me into every relationship. I am faced with a simultaneously simple and excruciating choice—will I cultivate those qualities for good? Or will I seek to disguise them, refusing to offer my true self?

Genuine friendship can bear the weight of our heaviest traits.

I wonder what “many extremes” exist between you and me, what parts of you taste like blood in your mouth. What is your “depth,” your “passion,” your “intensity”? Further still, what words have others spoken that fused with your self-perception, rendering you ashamed? 

A friend’s offhand comment. A decades-old parental correction. An authority’s disapproval.

Do you taste the salt and copper on your tongue too?

Genuine friendship can bear the weight of our heaviest traits. Friendship can help us bring our full selves further into submission under Jesus Christ, and reveals to us the ways we are uniquely suited to usher the kingdom to earth. But friendship never stands a chance if we hide—if we give in to shame and believe the worst about ourselves, like I did at camp that summer and have many times since.

I’m thirty now, and I’m still not sure I could stand to hang the word “deep” from my rearview mirror. But the thing is, I’d want you to hang up “joyful,” or “creative,” or “wise.” I’d see immediately how your word indicates the ways God could bring glory to himself through you. And maybe, in some sense, that’s the point of it all. Maybe this is a vital part of why we need one another—to see and name the parts of us we don’t know what to do with and too often throw away for fear, or shame, or embarrassment. 

Like Rankine, I too “am reluctant to complain as if exaggerated is the high water.” The waves of shame and self-criticism build monumental, crash hard, and sweep us under with alarming force and speed. But stemming the tide arm-in-arm changes the game entirely. The waves may not shrink, but their threat will. The undertow cannot snatch us away when someone’s arms are wrapped around us, refusing to let us be taken, shouting over the storm, “You belong here.” 

Abby Perry
Abby Perry is a weekly columnist for Fathom Mag and has written for The Gospel Coalition, Christ and Pop Culture, and Coffee + Crumbs. She currently attends Dallas Theological Seminary and coordinates communications for His Grace Foundation, a nonprofit organization. Abby lives with her husband and their two sons in Texas. You can find Abby at her website and on Twitter @abbyjperry.

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