I met Karen when we were RA’s together at Baylor. It was back in the days when you made $9 a semester and had to pay for your own room and cafeteria food. Karen, a beautiful, intelligent girl with a killer smile and an easy laugh was consistently admired by guys on campus—guys she wasn’t particularly interested in. So I decided to solve Karen’s problems by giving her a “Boyfriend-in-a-box”—an entire kit purposed to convince anyone that you were in a relationship with a real-live human. It was complete with a framed desk picture, ticket stubs from dates, and hand-written love letters. Karen and I loved to take the joke as far as we could. “Brad” would often come up in conversation. I loved to make radical claims about Brad’s work as an orphanage-starter and a nationally recognized hula dancer. It was easier than we could have imagined staving off unwanted male attention with a few ticket stubs and a picture.
Karen admitted it was easier to have a fake boyfriend than deal with the complications of dating actual people. But the ease of a fabricated relationship did nothing to address real emotional needs.
And I’ve realized that while I do long for depth and real connection with others, I often actively prefer the surface over the deep. I’d rather skim the top than engage the unknown below. I’m not sure what it is in me that runs from intimacy the second I don’t like the way it looks, but I do know that real is far more difficult than fake. Daily interactions are more complicated than pen pals.
The more contact I have with someone, the more chances I have to be offended. The more often I see you, the more defensive I become as I anticipate your behavioral patterns. With those we see most frequently, we often approach with self-protection, guns blazing, ready to withdraw or fire at the slightest move of resistance.
And I get it. It’s hard to love people when we have to wade through long rivers of past offenses and hurt. But there’s a problem when our spouses are given worse treatment than our Facebook friends. There’s a problem when our fuse is terribly short with our coworkers or kids. And it’s a problem when we cut and run the second our friends fail us.
It’s the boyfriend-in-a-box mentality. We’d rather keep potential intimacy at bay in exchange for superficial encounters. We’d rather invest in image maintenance than risk transformation through meaningful connections.
Maybe it’s because we’ve all been burned—we’ve all had suitors that we want to go away. We’ve all had people that burden us with their own dysfunction or have the gift of sucking the life straight out of our lungs.
But, the boyfriend-in-a-box, regardless of how clever it was, regardless of the quick fix it provided, was a lie. There was nothing true about it. And lies can’t give life or address emotional needs. We will never be sustained by the superficial. We can’t breathe if we’ve submerged ourselves in the shallow end to avoid rejection and pain. We can’t live if we’re afraid of loving the unlovable.
Don’t get me wrong. I love shallow conversation. I get energy out of quick meetings with strangers. But, how many of my positive interactions are used to boost my image or feelings of self-worth? And how often do I withhold love from my closest relationships—keeping myself at a distance from those who most need me to be near?
The place where I love most freely should be with those I most often see. These are the people who will grate against my generosity, call out my own dysfunction, and invite me to speak into theirs. And these are the people who need to know God’s heart through my love. And until I understand that I am only as loving as I am behind closed doors, I’ll never effectively communicate life to a broken world.
We are trained on real love with those in our closest proximity. The challenge is much greater, but so is the reward. Will we be known or invisible? Will we be embracing or just tolerant? Will we be gracious or apathetic? It’s the difference between resting on the lie of the superficial and embracing the life of the deep. And it’s this reality to which we’ve been called.