For the past two and half years, I have been involved in the development of a women's leadership program on my campus. Primarily, the young women are taught skills to assist them in networking and other situations that require professional etiquette. However, over the past year, we instituted a support aspect to the program, where any issue relevant to women is discussed in an informal setting. In the past, we have discussed a wide variety of topics, but many of these revolve around relationships - not just intimate relationships, but those with our parents, siblings, and other women.
These support sessions have allowed me to develop deeper individual relationships with my female students. Many of them stop by my office to talk one-on-one, sharing personal issues and seeking clarification. I even find myself sharing some personal experiences that I think might help them. During these individual sessions I grow, and I learn how important it is to allow my own experiences to become lessons for these younger women.
This hasn't been easy. Over the past ten years, I haven't had many experiences to share. In the past ten years, I have experienced separation and divorce. I have been naive and gullible, vulnerable to men who prey on women who wear their hearts on their sleeves. I have been unable to trust, unable to believe what a man says, because I just did not expect any man to keep his word. If a man makes a vow before God to stay married to you, and breaks that vow, who are you supposed to believe? I isolated myself, protected myself, and pushed people away, content for awhile to stay in superficial relationships. Only a select few could see the pain I was experiencing in the midst of my isolation.
A grad school professor once told me, "You have such a beautiful heart. It's such a shame you won't allow anyone to see it." I didn't understand what he meant at first - I thought I was friendly, outgoing, extroverted, and people connected well with me. After reflecting on his words, I realized what he meant. My heart had been so broken that I created several personas. People could share anything with me, could even trust me, but they never really experienced me genuinely. It seemed I was a great listener, but I grew farther and farther away from feeling empathy for others, because I was no longer allowing myself to experience pain. In avoiding pain, however, I began avoiding all other emotions, including love.
Don't get me wrong, I longed for deep, intimate, authentic relationships, but I wasn't willing to risk my heart to develop them. My heart developed a hard shell around it. It manifested itself in my sarcastic "sense of humor", cynicism, and judgment. I became known as a strong, assertive woman. Some people even found me intimidating. Some men who tried to get close got absolutely no response to me. Some got laughed at. Some were told, right from the first conversation, what I was not willing to compromise. Needless to say, there weren't very many positive encounters with men throughout the past ten years.
As the young women I work with know, I was reticent to participate in the women's leadership program I advise. I felt insecure and afraid. How could I lead a group of women when I don't even know what to do myself? I wasn't sure how to be. I translated "being" into "doing" a whole lot. When I "do", I show myself to "be" confident, poised, intelligent, accomplished, and fearless. Uh huh. As I observed these young women following my lead and becoming just as burned out and lost as I was, I knew it was my responsibility to change ME. I had to stop trying to DO to cover up not knowing who I was supposed to BE.
Over the past year, a person came into my life at the exact time when I decided I was tired of "doing" and decided to "be". I was excited, but I was so scared. This risk would involve me letting down a carefully constructed wall around my heart. It required me to do things I would not have done. I kept being prompted by the Voice within me to love...love...love. Even when the person didn't treat me the way I thought I deserved to be treated, I was prompted to love. I gave when I didn't want to give. I apologized when I didn't think I had done anything wrong. Believe me, there were a few times (okay, more than a few) when I picked up the defense mechanisms I had developed to guard my heart, and I tried to push the person away. Several times, I said and did things that men expect women to do, not because that was how I really felt, but because unconsciously, I knew it would push him away. A few times, no matter what I said, he stuck with me. What a surprise. And what a humbling experience. I learned a lot over the past year that is helping me grow, and I hope will help the young women I work with as well.
Here's what I learned:
1. True love means giving without expectation of receiving. When you deposit love into someone, you may not receive it in the way you deposited it, but it will come back to you in a form you may not recognize. Be open to receiving love in many different forms.
2. Love is hard, dirty work. People are different. Just because you have some things in common with another person, and those commonalities attract you to each other, doesn't mean that the person thinks or feels the way you do. Be open to hearing another's thoughts and feelings, and to accepting them as truths in that person's life.
3. Love hurts. You will argue. You will betray each other. Not having lived the other person's life, you will misunderstand him or her. At some point, you will get it wrong. Be open to asking for forgiveness, but most importantly, for your sake, be open to forgiving, even if the other person doesn't apologize.
4. True love teaches you to love everyone. Be open to "chance" encounters with people you would not normally connect with. They are meant to enhance your life and help you grow and stretch in the areas where you need growth and stretching.
5. Love never fails. A relationship may not work out, but it doesn't mean you've failed. You've been refined and polished for the next relationship. And, if you truly loved that person, he or she will always be a part of you. Be open to seeing a relationship that has ended as a completed chapter. The next chapter will begin with wisdom, strength, and grace that you learned about in the previous chapter.
This is personal, but my attempt to be transparent has a greater purpose than just sharing a personal experience. It's helping me be more genuine, develop deeper connections with others, and, hopefully, will serve as an example to the young women I work with, and love.