There is a haunting movie out there called "The Others," a dark Nicole Kidman flick that I have always enjoyed, revolving around two families interacting in curious ways over an apparently haunted house.
In the film, the exploration of human relationships is so vivid. The mother, at times appearing the perfectly poised and responsible and even superhero-ish Army wife she must be in her situation, increasingly acts completely insane as the pressure begins to mount. My husband says we are all just a hair's breadth away from insanity.
Her marriage is a source of complete struggle. Relying on her husband's imaginary presence and memory to keep her going, his actual presence when he finally returns is a source of confusion and heartache. The ghosts in her house end up being her closest companions and her greatest source of confusion, fear, and unrest.
How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word.
-- Psalm 119:9
I am a married woman now, and I haven't always lived a Christian life. When I was younger, teachings about purity and living a chaste life eluded me for various reasons, and though I felt I was always a "good person" or at least trying to be, I am a person who has been intimate with others, besides my husband (among many, many other sins besides.)
This little fact-- seemingly unimportant among other qualities I have and daily impose on my husband-- has been one of the most relevant pieces of baggage I have brought to this marriage, and has had a profound effect on all parts of it. Because of that, it seemed like a good idea to discuss these things openly, so that someone, somewhere, reading this might finally understand why God places such seemingly restrictive "rules" on our feelings and our bodies.
Let me be clear: my previous relationships, of which several really stand out, are not things I regret. They were beautiful, and had a potential to be pure and glorious and life-giving. They were sincere, and genuine. I use the term "relationships" loosely here. Some of the encounters I am talking about lasted one moment, but it was a moment full of the strongest and most noble of possible emotions-- moments that were stopped in their tracks by life's circumstances. Other encounters were conscious enterings into a long term partnership, or an attempt at life sharing. None of these--- none of them--- even come close to marriage. But they were powerful encounters, and life changing, and I will never forget them. And neither will they, those "others" that periodically invade my marriage bed, home, or family life. Like Nicole Kidman's ghosts, sometimes they are welcome guests, helping my husband and myself to work out an issue. Other times they are intruders...inescapable presences that lurk behind every closed door and invade every quiet moment.
I look back on most of them with great fondness and affection, with tenderness. Unbearable tenderness, sometimes. They were not, of themselves, a bad thing. Love is good. I've heard it argued that these types of relationships were not "love" in and of themselves, and I have to agree-- love is an action, not a feeling, and is sacrificial, not self- serving. But I use the term "love" here to describe the intense fondness and affection that one can feel for another human being. I do not regret having had those feelings. I have learned from them, and I have had a glimpse of the joy that true Union can bring. A glimpse, mind you. Just a fleeting vision.
What I do regret is the progression of that "love" feeling into boiling lust, and then into.... blandness or boredom, a natural side-effect of human relationships. Worse, what was then transformed into..... lies, deceit, anger, unrest, and eventually.... brokenness. I have "loved" others with my whole heart, only to take it away from them when I found myself bored by them, or interested by the next passing thing. And I will live forever with the guilt of the pain that I caused in some of the dearest people I have ever known.
Some of these loves I have lost went on to live "normal" and productive lives. I have even remained friends with them. What passes between us now is a deep friendship, one that is hard to define but obviously understandable... we have shared life together. When I think about these relationships in retrospect, I am grateful. These are people who allowed me to make serious mistakes- even to hurt them in the worst kinds of ways-- and had the inner strength and grace to not only forgive me but move on and still give me this beautiful, undeserved kindness. These people helped form who I am today and by allowing me the freedom to make serious mistakes but still love me, gave me a wonderful witness of Christ-likeness in their behavior-- even the ones who are not, and never have been, Christians.
But there are others. Though they also helped form who I am, these others haunt me and the thought of them makes my stomach turn and my heart beat anxiously. These are the people I know I will answer to God for in my final hours, whose suffering faces I can not forget. These are people I hurt and who never recovered, or who recovered only superficially. These are people who are broken because of my actions and lack of love and selfishness. Some of these faces are the faces of people I was in a direct relationship with. Others of them are people who were in relationships with people I developed a sexual relationship with. All of these people are hurt, directly, in some way, because of me, and don't have a relationship with God to shed light into those dark places in their heart and psyche and to warm and heal them.
Because purity wasn't on my moral radar, my soul became fragmented. Because purity wasn't on my moral radar, I harmed people and left them to rot in their sadness.
At the time, it was so easy to justify what I was doing. I loved deeply, and then, one day-- the next day, in some cases, I'm embarrassed to say-- I simply didn't love deeply.
In retrospect, I think my French and American backgrounds combined to create a perfect storm in me: My inner French girl-- deeply romantic and interested in the seduction game, accepting of sexuality as a whole part of myself, and on the other hand my inner American girl--a creature of excess, of blacks and whites, of hypocrisy and of idolized stoic morality, and of stepping on the little guys to get to the top of the power ladder regardless of convention or tradition or obligation.
On the other hand, maybe I was just.... lonely. I can't fully explain it. And I can't say I've always come out "on top" either--- I can think of a few relationships that left me weeping and mourning in the dust. But by and large, I've been responsible for way too many heartbreaks, and my past is a story of love lost and hearts broken.
Nothing wounds like love. Khalil Gibran, in my favorite poem on love, says:
"When love beckons to you, follow him,I have often heard Christian testimonies given when people talk about how they were empty or sad or "looking for something" when they met God. Many talk about how having had a long string of relationships meant that they were seeking what God had to offer. Though I can understand that, it wasn't my experience. I felt full and overflowing when I met God and came face to face with him for the first time. I was not looking for him, and I did not feel that I was visibly in unrest... I felt content with myself, my life, and my relationships at the time.
Though his ways are hard and steep,
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you."
But on the night I met Him--- really met Him-- face to face, He spoke through people directly to my soul and addressed those broken parts in me... not the parts that knew I wasn't fully loved, though they were there, but the parts that knew I had lacked in love.... the parts that knew I had done harm. This caused a great, heaving shift in me. It CREATED unrest. Discomfort. and a place I can only describe as..... a wound. But picking at that scab, I realized that what was under there was a festering, horrible, deep, dangerous mess that had always been there and that I had been completely ignorant of until that night. I needed God.
Reflecting back, it was in that moment that I saw my selfishness for what it was, in all its ugliness. And most of my Christian walk since that night has been an attempt to go back to the fullness of that revelation and to turn from it-- to make the change that I knew that night needed to be made.
The effects of those hurts, magnified by the fact that not only my heart and soul but my body had been "united" with these people (and in some cases, not really my heart, but only my body-- the vessel which carries my heart and soul!) have impacted my marriage in every way.
My husband has had a very different experience of past relationships, as he always "knew" that he was destined to marry one woman and remain with her. I can't believe that woman was me, because the difference in our approaches to love mean that just by virtue of having lived the way I have, I have harmed and wounded him in the most painful of ways. And yet he loves me!
He is and always has been much more pure than I am, and I am grateful for his example and his ability to understand that all things are fleeting in this world-- something I always wish I understood more deeply.
As I watch parents near me parent their children, particularly their teenaged children (I don't really like the term "teenager.") I am constantly reflecting about these issues. In some families, chastity is greatly valued and teenagers, though anticipating and experiencing their first "love" experiences, are so motivated and prepared to wait --to wait for the one prepared for them.
In other families, "significant others" are encouraged, or at least accepted. They become a part of the
fabric of the family. Breakups are felt by the whole family. I still have "other mothers" and "other fathers," "other siblings" that I can't shake. They are a part of me too.
Looking at it this way, it seems obvious why God would ask people to wait. Wait to build a relationship and bond until your wedding day-- the day you stand before God and man and say: forever, through thick and thin. Wait for union and for your turn to taste the pleasures of the flesh the way God ordained it. Wait because every action you take in the other direction runs the risk of remaining with you and a part of you forever as well.
There are eyes and hands I saw and felt, an Italian accent in a deep voice that fascinated me on a long plane ride home one year and that I never again encountered, but that will stay with me forever. There is a Polish boy I once shared a scooter ride, a beer and a postcard exchange with who stopped me in my tracks for a time, and a Turkish boy in Germany with haunting eyes and the sweetest smile. There was a Swedish boy who welcomed me into his family and even moved across the world for me. Good ol' American boys, heavy drinkers and happy partiers, or thoughtful, quiet, artistic ones, who I have loved and walked away from. There are French boys with hearts warm with sun and laughter I can never forget, the sound of whose scooters along the gravel path above me I listened for longingly each night from my bedroom window... until I didn't. There are Irish boys, and Australian boys. Arab boys. Jewish boys. Boys I have camped with, traveled with, or gone to school with. Boys in passing vehicles or walking near me with whom I have shared the most intimate of glances. I can never forget any of them. If I apply myself, not even one.
They grew up to be men-- the ones who still have breath in them, and to form families of their own, just as I have, and to be haunted by their pasts, just as I have been. When those families have fallen apart I have often heard from them and the sound of their reaching is a comfort to me I know comes from the most sinful part of my fleshly nature-- the part that desires consolation, but not to console. They give my heart an easy escape, but it is an illusion, because behind each door is the exact same cage: a prison called Giving.
And no amount of declaring those bonds broken, of the handing over of these relationships to Jesus, will ever erase the memory of them or the lessons that were learned, or the pain seared into me or them whenever our names or faces pop up on my facebook feed or in my dreams or nightmares or in my home or marriage bed. No amount of knowing the wrongness of them will ever make them wrong, because God placed those desires and feelings within us knowing where they COULD lead us, how they would help us to choose now whom we will serve, to declare that "as for me, and my family, we will serve the Lord."
These encounters were wrong because God declares them so, but His declaration is not because they were "bad" but because I am bad. I have evil inclinations bound up within the good I am capable of-- because I am fallen. Because I am not pure, though I am capable of purity.
Because I am not loving, although I am capable of love.
Because I am not able to do this living and loving thing on my own-- only with the help of God can the voices of these others be released from me so that I am free to focus on the thing I am here, doing: loving my husband, loving my children--- a family which is so holy and pure, a family which my baggage has often overwhelmed and which has somehow, some way, loved me anyways because they know that Giving has another name, too: and that name is Freedom.
And so my "others" haunt me, but they also free me. And so by having loved them, I am able to REALLY love another. And so by having loved them, I am able to acknowledge what real love is and what it isn't. When my marriage has been hard, I have often asked myself if I would be happier with an "other." What would our lives be like? Would we argue and struggle as much as this? Although I cannot say, I do know that every human relationship will have moments of glory and moments of pure hell. I do know that entering, and remaining, in a human relationship has a cost-- none more great than Marriage. I do know that that cost becomes more easy to bear when one has not tasted of the wonders that these others have to offer. I do know that everything we do--- each passing, loaded glance, each word we speak, each piece of our heart we choose to share or choose to keep to ourselves must be purified by the Word of God so that it might bear good fruit... because in the words of Khalil Gibran, through love:
Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself.
He threshes you to make you naked.
He sifts you to free you from your husks.
He grinds you to whiteness.
He kneads you until you are pliant;
And then he assigns you to his sacred fire,
that you may become sacred bread for God's sacred feast.