I used to have a chronic fear of being boring. This fear was, in part, tied to my own frequent boredom. I was easily excited, but interest was hard to sustain. I would start books and not finish them. I would write initial drafts of poems or stories, but never revise them. I got restless and worried.
I was (and am) a romantic: full of dreams and visions and possibilities. And these ideals intersect and collide with present bodies, with others seeing visions and dreaming dreams.
There is a danger to dreaming: If you don’t let the dreams change as they mix with present bodies, your ideals can drown you. They must remain fluid and open to possibilities. Even in sleep, our dreams are contingent and open-ended: We wake, only to dream anew night after night.
And I wanted fixity, permanence, stability.
But I felt like I was inwardly unstable. In my lack of sustained attention was a latent fear: If I stopped moving, if I stopped to look too hard, what would I find? Would I still be enthralled by the faces that met me, not least of all my own?
The gaze becomes reality, but it is not static. To continue to be enthralled by anyone or anything, I would have to change along with it. To be enthralled with myself, I would have to let my ideals of myself change with my fluctuating body.
The fear of my own boredom was rooted in yet another fear. If I could lose interest, it meant others could lose interest in me. I could not sustain their gaze. Only they could do that, but it felt like an indictment on me. I could only ever look and observe the world’s details and hope that it noticed me, too.
This fear was exacerbated by a deep wound. Powerful adult figures in my formative years failed to notice me, and when they turned their eyes, it was to look with criticism and disapproval. No matter what I did, I had no power to make them look at me with deep, abiding delight.
In the shadow of evangelical purity culture, my fear of rejection bled over into interaction with the divine and affected who and what I felt permitted to be enthralled by. The only right answer in this scenario was god. Be delighted with god. Be delight with him as he is with you.
But god was both a jealous being and a loose cannon. In the substitutionary theology I was given, the deity could not abide to look at me because of my sin nature. So instead, he looked at his favorite son, Jesus, shrugged, and said, “I guess she can come to heaven if she’s with you.”
Love is in the details. The deity couldn’t love my (or any human’s) details, so he looked at us through his Jesus lenses.
And then there was the issue of my own affections: who or what I could love. In the context of evangelical purity culture, delight in god meant dissolution of interest in other things. “Turn your eyes upon Jesus” meant turn your eyes away from most everything else.
And I embraced this mind-set with both vigor and frustration. I loved this world. But the deity had decreed that it was dying and that I should not love the things that pass away. Divine jealousy functioned as a protective mechanism for me: I was quick to stifle any crushes or attractions to flesh and blood humans, labeling them “unholy” or “not in accordance with god’s will.”
It was better to kill the dream before god did it for me. I felt guilty about attractions, any potentials, because I knew that the visions of a romantic did not cohere with the will of the deity, who wanted me all to himself (but was still not satisfied with me, a sinner).
And throughout all this raged the voices from the verbal abuse I experienced in my formative years: You will never be enough. You will grow dull, you will lose your shine, and your mind will become nothing. No pleasure will be taken in you--you who cannot even stop to take pleasure.
These harsh words still haunt me now and again, and I find they grow louder in proportion to my hope in people. I still want to kill my dreams before the deity does, to snuff things out before someone disappoints me, or before I disappoint me.
But I’ve grown better at being present, loving the shapes and textures of the now. I interpret the cacophony of denigrating voices as a sign that I am still that beautiful, strong, fragile being of old: a little girl in a vast garden, longing for open eyes and immanent presences.
And she has learned to open her eyes. She gets lost in the wonder of things. The laughs and gestures of a stranger. The turbid river rising, winding through the mountains beside the small town. Groups of people organizing themselves around a meal. People talking with their movements and expressions, speaking without words.
I gaze with hope, anticipation, and gratitude. Do they see me? Some do, some don’t. Do those that notice me love me? Yes, in varying degrees. As much as the scope of their gazes allow. Do I love them? Yes.
This is a perilous way to live, to pull the imaginings of potentials face to face with the present. Here, having no power except that of my own gaze – isn’t this where I started? Isn’t this the trembling, heart-sore romantic of my girlhood?
Yes. And I look at that girl with deep, abiding pleasure, and whisper to her: Good. Very good.