Imagine two young children, aged around two or three years old. Each lives in a different home; each is physically and mentally healthy.
Let’s observe each of these children for a moment.
The first child seems happy and carefree. She is intensely curious and interested in her environment. When she sees something new or hears an unfamiliar sound, her eyes light up with excitement. She is vivacious and seems to have a natural enthusiasm for life. She appears confident in her relationship to the world around her. She responds openly and affectionately to human touch.
By contrast, the second child seems somewhat sad and troubled. Rather than display curiosity, he keeps himself to himself. He is generally listless and disinterested; he responds nervously to new sights and sounds. He is wary of human contact. Overall, he appears withdrawn and guarded.
Which of these two children do you think is displaying normal, desirable behaviour for a young child? Most people would agree that the first child appears to be emotionally and developmentally healthier than the second. One might say she seems well-adjusted, while he seems… what?
It doesn’t take much imagination to surmise that what the second child seems to be is afraid. Perhaps he is neglected and subjected to emotional abuse. Perhaps, whenever he hurts himself or needs attention, he is met with anger and impatience rather than understanding and compassion. Perhaps he is used to being either ignored or treated as an inconvenience and shouted at. The point is that somehow or other, even at his tender age, he has learned to hide himself from the world as best he can and to view it with suspicion.
The two portraits I’ve painted here are gross oversimplifications; real life is much more complex and nuanced. But I’ve painted these portraits to illustrate an important point: there are a great many grown-up people in the western world today who are very much like the second of these two imaginary children. For a whole host of reasons often unknown to them and mostly beyond their control, they move through the world with their defences up, never daring to risk the vulnerability that freedom requires. Essentially, they do their best to live in hiding.
Of course, to live in hiding in this way is not necessarily to physically shut yourself off from the world. Rather, it is to always carry enough armour to keep the world at a safe distance. Above all, it is to do everything in your power to ensure that you never, ever let the real you be seen. For to let the real you be seen would be to risk the real you being disapproved of or rejected, and that is simply too painful to contemplate. Much safer to wear a mask, to pretend to be a certain kind of person; this may require some ongoing effort, but at least it means that when rejection comes, it will only be your current persona that is being rejected, while the real you stays securely buried under layers of protection.
We are all familiar with the story of the Garden of Eden, of how Adam and Eve lost their innocence and moved from unashamed freedom to fear, shame, hiding, and ultimately exile. To understand this story purely as a literal-historical account of what happened to the first two humans is to miss its metaphorical power. Here is something of what I think this mythical tale is telling us: even today, thousands of years on, so many of us are still wandering east of Eden, in a world where the freedom and abundant life of the Garden is a faded, distant memory at best, if not a hollow dream.
I have written this post as though it is about other people; the truth is that it’s about me. Maybe it’s about you too. It’s about all of us who have learned to hide behind masks of various shapes and sizes: masks of perfectionism, success, control, ministry, career, reputation, and so on. It’s about all of us who have learned to use substances, habits or activities to try to anaesthetise ourselves against the pain of deeply buried wounds. It’s about all of us who pretend we are living lives of fullness and freedom, all the while knowing somewhere deep down that this is not the case. And we wish there was some way out.
The good news that there is a way out. Whatever it is that has brought us to the place we find ourselves in, no one is doomed to live in the shadows forever. The slightly less good news is that, if we really want freedom, there is a cost that must be paid. It is the cost of facing our demons, staring down our past, and taking the impossibly scary risk of showing ourselves to the world without armour.
If there is a shortcut back to Eden, I haven’t found it. Sometimes the road seems so long, arduous and, frankly, downright impossible that the temptation to abandon hope and resign myself to the way things are is strong.
But then I remember that I believe in a loving, wildly compassionate and radically generous God, and in a saviour who said he had come to offer life in all its fulness. And I believe that each of us, whoever we are, carries the breath of this wild and free God deep in our souls. And because of this divine breath that we carry, we sense in our bones that we are made for something more than the disappointment of a life lived in hiding. We are not made for the shadows: we are made to run naked through the fields with the warmth of the sun on our skin, laughing at the outrageous beauty and mystery of it all.
I haven’t found my way back to Eden yet; perhaps I never will. But sometimes, when I dare to lay down my armour, take off my mask and lift my head, I fancy I can catch just the faintest whiff of its fresh, cool breeze.
[ Image: Pimthida ]