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“I hate Amber Cunningham. For the record, the girl I’ve chosen to call Amber Cunningham isn’t actually Amber Cunningham. Her real name is Eliza. And before Eliza she was Ashley, and before Ashley, she was Jamie, and before Jamie she was Kelsey—my first arch nemesis at church, dating all the way back to church primary school. If this were a biblical story it would go like this: Kelsey begat Jamie who begat Ashley who begat Eliza who begat Amber Cunningham. I lump these women into one because I resent them for the same reason: They’re crazy dogmatic Christians on a quest to find celestial popularity. An Amber is like a Heather, only she’s attacking your spiritual worthiness and your dress size at the same time.”
—Elna Baker, The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance
I have an Amber Cunningham (who for the record, isn’t actually Amber Cunningham) in my life. I’m pleased to report I’m no longer haunted by inadequacy when “Amber” and I cross paths—even as she scans the room for someone more important than me with whom to converse. I say a little prayer for her as I walk away: God, please bless "Amber." But God, why does she tilt her head so far to the right when she says hello? This compels me to dive for her head—like a glass of water that’s been knocked off the kitchen counter.
I didn’t always have a sense of humor about “Amber.” But as I faithfully confessed my feelings to God, I discovered that the very act of confession delivered me from the darkness of inadequacy.
Time spent conversing with God is time spent valued—never underestimate the power of His presence. In the Light, my sense of humor snuffs out judgement. In the Light, I can empathize. Only God knows the unseen pressures beauty a queen smile. In the Light, I can see where I've smiled plenty of my own, minus that whole head-tilt thing. Alas, some things remain a mystery.
In the Light, I can a time in my life when I used my smile to make myself feel better with no regard for how my actions would steal the smile of another.
I didn’t intend to hurt Lori. But I did. The year was 1998 and her live-in boyfriend was my on-again, off-again live-in boyfriend’s twelve-step sponsor. I hope I’m not offending delicate Christian sensibilities. If need be, imagine I’m the only Christian woman who’s been physically intimate with a man she could not call husband. Or, simply concede that this is the course many of us take when we operate in a state of survival or neediness.
I had a long list of needs. I needed my boyfriend to stay clean and sober. I needed my children to not be traumatized by my dysfunctional lifestyle. I needed sane people to stop judging the insane choices I made. And when my boyfriend disappeared for days at a time, I needed the emotional support of Lori’s boyfriend, Mark.
He knew firsthand the pain and frustration caused by addiction. What began as one person sharing their experience, strength, and hope quickly morphed into an intimate friendship. We spoke on the phone every day. He held me when I cried. It never once occurred to me that I was breaking another woman’s heart. It also never occurred to me that I was capturing his. I’m tempted to call myself insensitive, except this would imply that I was aware of the hurt I’d caused, only to dismiss it. Truth is, I lived within a narcissistic Narnia with zero awareness for anyone’s feelings but my own. Three years later, I reaped what I had sown.
Our baby was six-months old, and my boyfriend’s addiction was in full swing. It was time to be off-again. The plan was for him to clean up and rejoin our home. But eight months later, I stood outside his apartment and used a key to scratch the word cheater on his car. I look back on our relationship and marvel at the dysfunction. You can remove yourself from a crazy environment, but that’s just geography.
I later learned that the young woman he’d gotten involved with was on the heels of a painful breakup. Her fiancé had broken off their engagement. So, two people sharing their pain bonded with no regard for anyone else’s. The truth is, neither of them would have gotten involved in this way had they known the love God has for them. The same was true for me and Lori’s boyfriend.
Today, I’m forgiven. But I’ve not forgotten the pain and destruction that “friendships” of this sort cause. By the grace of God, I no longer need to use others to obtain a sense of value. Elizabeth Gilbert said it best in Eat Pray Love: “So be lonely, Liz. Learn your way around loneliness. Make a map of it. Sit with it, for once in your life. Welcome to the human experience. But never again use another person’s body or emotions as a scratching post for your own unfulfilled yearnings.” Yikes!
Stuff worth considering:
- Do you have an Amber Cunningham in your life? Write about it. No need to worry about your Bible-study group reading your journal unless you, like, leave it open on the coffee table then go to the bathroom. (I'm kidding.)
- Are you an Amber Cunningham? Don’t answer this question until you’ve first asked God on bent knees. If He answers yes, then ask Him to bring to mind, the name of the woman whom you most likely did not intend to cause pain. Pray for her.
- Have you ever implored the emotional support of a man who was already spoken for? Are you now? Once again, these questions should not be answered in haste. Assume a humble posture and ask God to reveal the circumstances where you disregarded another woman’s feelings. Confess. Repent. Make an amends when appropriate, meaning it will not cause further harm.
- And lastly, you gotta be willing to offer your own broken heart grace and empathy and love. It's hard for anyone who knows me today to believe who I was back then. But it's true. I did those things. And I am forgiven. As women, and as we heal, we've got to rise up with more respect for ourselves and one another. We're all SO worth it.
Published on Tuesday, August 19, 2014 @ 12:27 PM CDT
She never said no. Not once. Counselors deem the word never as unfair within the context of human relationships. It can’t possibly be true. You never listen. You never take the trash out. But no is not a word I heard growing up. The rules were there were no rules. I take that back. She had one rule. “Smoke your pot in the garage.” My brother and I respectfully obeyed.
I came and went as I pleased—oftentimes through my bedroom window.
I don’t recall wondering why she never said no. I was a teenager—it worked. You follow? It wasn’t until I had teenagers of my own that I realized how vital it is to a functional adulthood. So one day I asked, “Mom, why didn’t you say no when we were kids?”
“Well . . . my mother was very strict. Too strict. Mean. And I hated her for it. I didn’t want my kids to hate me. So, I let you do what you wanted.”
Just like that, the tedious distance between feeling unloved—and believing in some small way I was—closed up. Out of love for me, she never said no. It’s twisted, I realize. But it makes sense out of something that doesn’t make sense otherwise. The irony is, while growing up, I hated her. Hebrews 12: 14–15 warns that a root of bitterness can cause trouble and have negative effects on many.
“Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord; looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled” (emphasis added).
I’ve yet to meet a woman who intentionally bestowed upon her children the unintended consequences of the refusal to reconcile a painful past in Christ. But I’ve done it. Mine was a childhood filled with abuse. Emotional. Sexual. My biggest aspiration back then was adulthood. Adults had control. I wanted some for myself. My mother says when I was eight or nine I searched for gainful employment at a local restaurant. Eventually, I got a job cleaning the offices of a trucking company where my stepfather worked. Cash. I couldn’t buy a ticket out of childhood, so I bought a lot of candy.
The eighteenth year of my life had arrived, right on schedule. Just two weeks after graduation, my mother moved to New York to share her life with a man she’d met at a friend’s house. We lived in Texas. Now I would live in Texas alone. I’d been dreaming of life on my own since the third grade. I got a job. I got an apartment. I got involved with my former high school algebra teacher. I got pregnant. Three months after the birth of our son, I got married. I’d arrived. Adulthood.
Little did I know, I carried my wounds with me. Childhood wounds are hopelessly reactionary. They scream. They cry. They pout. They’re jealous, insecure, unstable, and self-serving—cleverly disguised as selfless. They mean well. Somewhere inside my mother, a childhood wound convinced her that I would hate her if she told me no.
I, too, hurt my children when I didn’t mean to hurt my children. My sons needed emotionally stable parents in order to become emotionally stable people. But they were almost out of high school before they witnessed stable. The odd thing about me is that I read to them regularly, and they always had home-cooked meals—two things I didn’t have growing up. That was my way of smoothing out the days’ jagged edges.
Through Christ, I’ve sowed more good seeds than bad. But we reap what we sow; for a while, both types of plants grew together. This reminds me of a parable in the book of Matthew. A man sowed good seed in his field, but as he slept, his enemy came and sowed tares (weeds) among the wheat. Later, when the grain had sprouted and produced a crop, the weeds also appeared. The servants asked the owner of the field, “How can this be? Shall we gather the weeds?” But he answered no. He knew that gathering the weeds would uproot the wheat. Instead, he instructed them to allow both to grow together until harvest time. At that point the weeds could easily be separated from the wheat.
Before Christ, I was asleep. As I slept, the enemy sowed weeds in my family through my choices. It’s been a long road of good slowly outgrowing bad. The enemy whispers hypocrite as you walk along. “Good” Christians point and judge. I’ve watched my children suffer from my brokenness, but I’ve also witnessed amazing breakthroughs through my willingness to do what it takes to be “made well.”
Don’t give up. When you feel discouraged, read Matthew 13:24–30. Ask God to open your eyes to the tiny sprouts growing from the good you’ve planted, and then nurture them. The weeds won’t stand forever.
Just a suggestion: Why not call to memory any dysfunctional/harmful behavior(s) of your own mother. Make a short list. Review that list in light of compassion and ask God: Did my mother suffer childhood wounds that caused her to behave in this manner? Think of these bitter roots as common threads.
Now go one step further. Ask God to reveal how your childhood wounds furthur dysfunction in the lives of your children/relationships today. Ask Him if you've believed a lie and now perpetuate it unknowlingly. Listen for His compassionate voice. God is not condemning. It is always His desire to free us from any roots of bitterness, "lest they cause trouble and by this, defile many."
You are not alone.
Published on Tuesday, February 4, 2014 @ 4:46 PM CDT