Why I Want to Know You and Also Avoid You

“‘You have come from dust, and to dust you will return.’ In other words, ‘You are going to die. And here are some ashes to remind you, just in case you’ve forgotten.’”

– Mark Roberts, on Ash Wednesday for Patheos

ash wednesdayWe got our first desktop computer during my senior year of high school. We were living in Detroit and Dad set the computer up on his brown L-shaped desk in his study. I sat at that computer for hours late into the night, but I wasn’t surfing the web – no, no. In fact, when a guy at my school that year mentioned something about one of our favorite bands having a ‘web page’ I was all, What on earth is that? You can’t have a page on a computer. Duh.

It was 1994.

Instead, what I was doing on the computer was typing all of my thoughts and ideas and dreams into a document I had saved there under the file name “emily.” (Sneaky. And also secure.)

I typed out all of my innermost and then printed out each entry, slid the page into a plastic protector, and collected them all in a white two-inch binder with a cool title page I made from super rad clip art.binderThat next year I took the binder to college with me, continuing to add to it as well as read from it when I wanted to remember. My roommate, Faith, asked me about the binder one day, wondering if I ever expected or wanted someone else to read the words I wrote in it. Maybe she thought the only reason why her quiet-ish roommate would have a diary the size of our Western Civ. textbook is if she intended on sharing the words with the world one day.

Her question surprised me. I didn’t write to be read, I wrote because writing helped me know what I thought about things. But her asking made me think about it and a small part of me, secret and hidden, liked the idea of sharing what I wrote with someone.

It felt like somewhere deep within, sharing the writing would be the most honest thing I could do. It represented what was most alive within me, and to imagine sharing that with someone else was a compelling thought. Risky, impossible, crazy. But compelling.

My desire to be known was stirred.

“Much of our isolation is self-chosen . . . This self-reliance has many attractions. It gives us a sense of power, it allows us to move quickly, it offers us the satisfaction of being our own boss, and it praises many rewards and prizes. However, the underside of this self-reliance is loneliness, isolation and a constant fear of not making it in life.”

Henri J.M. Nouwen, Here and Now

On the right-hand corner of my desk, right next to the books I’m currently reading, sits a small envelope holder. This is where I keep notes friends have written. I didn’t plan for it to become a prominent place, but every time I’ve received a note from someone in the actual mail, there it goes, right on my desk where I can see it everyday, a reminder of my inability to do this on my own – this living and working and moving through life.

on my deskFor the past several months I’ve been reading Thomas Merton’s autobiography of faith, The Seven Storey Mountain. (It’s a long book, but I’m also a slow reader.) He writes in fascinating detail of the time he spent as a student at Columbia in New York, indulging in all of the things young students in the late 1930s could indulge in, resulting in “confusion and misery.”

“Yet, strangely enough, it was on this big factory of a campus that the Holy Ghost was waiting to show me the light, in His own light. And one of the chief means He used, and through which he operated, was human friendship.” – Thomas Merton

Sharing life and friendship with a few peers at Columbia was in important part of a long journey Merton was on toward finding faith. When I read those words, I thought of the role human friendship has played in my own life, how I have both craved and feared vulnerability, how I have sought connection but also denied my need for it.

Nothing causes me to face my own humanity, frailty, and weakness than when I am in communion with others. Nothing causes me to see myself as I really am, to admit I’m not as great as I think, or to face my perceived entitlements than when I am in the midst of other people.

I am easy to live with in a room by myself. Lord, I don’t want to live in a room by myself. Except for when I do.

To know and be known is both compelling and repulsive to me. Do I even know what that means? Truly? I don’t know if I do.

Today on Ash Wednesday, I acknowledge my hopelessness apart from Christ, my anxiety outside of his presence, my certain death if not for his sacrifice.

I acknowledge I have come from dust and will return to dust again. But more than dying one day in the future, I have already died with Christ. I acknowledge my need to de-tatch from the obsessions and addictions that convince me my old man is still alive and re-attach to Christ as my only hope.

I also acknowledge that the way God moves on earth is through the hands and eyes and feet of people – both the ones I’m naturally drawn to and the ones who get on my nerves.

I am hopeless without Him.

I am hopeless without them.

“No matter how sad, wounded, neurotic, or needy we are, that may be exactly what some other person needs us to be at that time. We don’t know the ways we comfort and save each other, not only in spite of our wounds, but also in some cases, because of them.”

-Heather King, Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Therese of Lisieux

I did not grow up in a church that observed Ash Wednesday. In the past few years, I’ve started to learn a little more and have found the Lenten season of deeper reflection to lead into an even more meaningful celebration of the resurrection at Easter.

For further reading:


  1. says

    Emily, I have a place on my desk too, where I keep handwritten letters/notes and cards of encouragement fr real people. It lets me know just like you… that what I do matters. That God is using me to affect others for good. Opening up is vulnerable.. that’s for sure I shared that in our writers group the other night. Vulnerability.
    We dare to take a chance showing who we really are… in front of others.. when we share parts of our sacred selfs, our sacred lives.
    But it is there in the sharing, either thru voice or through words, for it is there where God moves and is present. It is there. xo Love you and your writing.

  2. says

    “I have already died with Christ. I acknowledge my need to de-tatch from the obsessions and addictions that convince me my old man is still alive….” No matter the profound and life-changing revelation I have had on this truth in the past (and oh, how life-changing it has been), there is a constant barrage of voices and circumstances that attempt to convince me otherwise. Truly, so much hangs on the “knowing this” of Romans 6:6. This and so much more you spoke of here gives me much to ponder. Thank you…for this and so much more you’ve so graciously offered the world.

  3. says

    I relate so much to this, Emily. There’s a very real tension accompanying our desire for relationship and fear of being seen fully as we are. When I stop to think about it, my fears are silly because I desire to fully know the people in my life. How would I not want them to extend that same grace to me?

    Also, total sidenote: this makes me curious about your Enneagram type, mostly because I finished the type Five analysis last night, which is your sister’s type and there are a few things in this post that sound Five-ish. Although I have other guesses for you, too.

  4. Nicole says

    Thank you for this beautiful post, Emily. I, too, am reading “Bread and Wine” this Lenten season. It is my first time reading it, and I am excited to have it as a companion during Lent.
    Your honest words brighten my days. May God bless you and continue to inspire your readers through your words.

  5. says

    That last quote is spectacular. It seems there are some needy people in my life right now. I know God put them there for a reason. Somehow I seem to think it’s so I can comfort them. It may be more how they comfort me. Thank you once again for your insight.

  6. says

    I didn’t grow up with the Lenten tradition, either, but found it when teaching in an Episcopal school with a predominately Catholic population (Cajun Louisiana). I am so grateful for the gift of Lent these friends shared with me.

    Actually just about to drive up to Santa Fe for an Ash Wednesday service. Thank you for your words today. xo

  7. says

    Emily, I am struck by how much the communion with others calms me–and it shows me how much He is growing me, too. I am less insecure than I used to be around people–growing up so shy and feeling like I never had the right thing to say. I’m sure I still don’t have the right words, but I am more okay with that now. Although our church does not observe Lent, as well, I am also using this season to reflect on the source of joy and strength and love in me. Without Him, I am nothing. And this Lent I am celebrating that, being more keen to the Life within me–this Life that brings forth voice as I commune with Him. Bless you and thank you for your writing that you share.

  8. says

    It’s so funny that you write about your struggle between being known and keeping to yourself. Social media is a great way to “wear our hearts on our screens,” giving us a false sense of progress, no? But it’s the massaged and edited us. I always think that if people just read what I thought, they’d know the real me…but the real me isn’t spell-checked or overwrought or transfigured by pretty font. In fact, she’s still in her pajamas battling norovirus, praying her toddler will fall asleep, and wondering when she will make contact with another human over three feet tall. Even a Target cashier. And that’s admittedly scary.

    So, thanks.

  9. says

    It seems like more of us are tuning into the invitation that Lent provides, even though it’s not been part of our background. I truly believe that God is issuing us a lovely, compelling invitation that involves way more than giving up meat or chocolate or whatever.

    Your thoughts are wise and wonderful today, Emily. I’m glad I stopped in …

  10. says

    I’ve never practice Lent…until last year. But instead of giving up, I added. I added more time with Him in scripture, thought and prayer. So, I guess you could say I gave up time. But it was so rewarding and such a lovely thought.

  11. Dawn B. says

    I too loved the last quote by Heather King. We are called to serve even in our flawed state! Amen! Encourages me to encourage the women I serve with to just “show up” and be a blessing to another woman in need.

  12. says

    Timely. I’ve been trying to find the balance between transparency and treasuring things in my heart. Thanks for the perspective :)

  13. says

    Emily, that last quote by Helen King makes me want to bawl my eyes out.
    I couldn’t have said the way I feel right this second any better. I struggle so much with wanting to be known and wanting to hide…. which is better than what I wanted before. Thank you for writing this.

  14. says

    I sat up and noticed last week when you wrote about the tension of longing for solitude whilst desperate for community, “May I not be surprised at my own contradictions…” It was so what I feel : to long to be alone and to long for company all at the same time. I’ve considered carefully what you wrote today and realised I’m already feeling more confident with the contradiction and the possibility of the two things coming together to created something that is good and able to express the full life of Christ in me and outwards towards others. I look forwards to reading your weekend thoughts, my regular. Saturday morning read.

  15. says

    Emily, thankful for your heart and words here today. I identify so deeply – the desire to be known yet the shying away from it. I feel so weak and so vulnerable in this season – and so thankful for His filling in of my gaps and His covering of my heart.

    Appreciate you.

  16. says

    ” I thought of the role human friendship has played in my own life, how I have both craved and feared vulnerability, how I have sought connection but also denied my need for it.”

    Oh, I know this all too well. I wrote about this problem I have with vulnerability a while back. What I love and hate are both largely encompassed by vulnerability. It is the fuel and the block, it both paralyzes and inspires me. The books and movies and conversations I tuck away and hold dear are those that involve raw, honest, human interactions. I love to read about them and love to cherish them in my own life.

    Vulnerable conversations are magnetic, and I truly hunger for those moments that are redemptive or stripped of socially awkward reactions because we are in sync with some aspect of the shared human condition. At the same time, I’ve developed a sort of paralysis when given the opportunity to be vulnerable and often real with people (strangers) and I shy away from them, dodging conversation because, well, it’s easier. Thank God that when we acknowledge our hopelessness apart from Him, He encourages us and gives us community. Always a pleasure to read your words here.

    xo Mollie

  17. says

    Love your thoughts today, Emily. I also didn’t grow up in a church that observed Lent and it’s been gnawing on me this week. It seems such a great idea…more of Him…less of me. It’s how I want to live my life…every day. And I fail. Every day. But to be more conscious of the effort and the NEED, is a good thing for me. And I am trying to do that these 40 days. And hopefully the next 40. And the next until I’m taken home. Glad I stopped in and read your thoughts today. Always enjoy them. Blessings from another NC girl…hoping we don’t see ice tonight. 😉

  18. says

    “… and the ones who get on my nerves.”
    are you sure we really need them? ha. ; )

    nowhere do we learn more of HIM than through the lives of those around us.
    thanks for reminding me.

  19. says

    “I have both craved and feared vulnerability, how I have sought connection but also denied my need for it.” Oh how I can relate. I don’t want to be The Lone Ranger but sometimes I fool myself into thinking I do…

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