As I held the phone my chest was tight, clenching my teeth waiting for my brother to respond. I tried explaining why I had not adequately planned nor expressed my desire to see him over a week-long beach vacation near his house. Reasons raced through my mind as I felt misunderstood and small.
My brother exhaled slowly and deliberately, like he could feel the swell of a wave from deep within, and was determining whether he should let it roll and crash or try to push it back down to the dark.
I could tell this was suddenly about more than a simple vacation. He began talking about our childhood and the ways I hurt him growing up. But, it was more than even that. Even more than wanting to unravel our complicated childhood relationship, he just wanted to be known. He asked why I could never let him inside my emotional fortress. He simply wanted to be my friend.
I’ve read many times how hard it is for pastors to be truly known by others. Although this allegation is common to pastors, I don’t think they’re alone. It can be difficult for any person living in the daily fishbowl of professional relationships to turn off their professional image and let people in. One survey found the number of people with no close friends has tripled in recent years. Studies have also found the average person has 2.03 close friends, which is fewer than the previous decade. Evolutionary Anthropologist Robin Dunbar found a person can feel lonely without 2-3 friends in their “inner-most circle”. I consider myself a fairly open person so never thought I had this problem. But, I was suddenly asking myself the question, “Why had I never let my brother get too close?”
I could blame the childhood loss of my father and the unnatural feeling that I had to be strong for the family. As a third grader I felt an immense responsibility to somehow hold our family together. I could blame that, but I don’t think that’s the true culprit.
I could also blame the pastoral role itself. As a pastor you get used to walking the line between friendship and professional relationship. It’s a strange world. In the same way you would not want to visit the doctor and hear about his/her problems, people enjoy some professional distance from their pastor. But, I don’t even think it’s totally that.
I think I got used to keeping people at a certain distance in the name of professional responsibility, but ended up keeping most people from the deepest part of me. Once you build that fence, it’s hard to let people inside. It may be a professional danger, but the fault is entirely my own.
Now, I would not consider myself a closed person in anyway. In fact, if people really are like onions like the great prophet Shrek once said, then I pride myself on letting people in pretty deep. I’ll be honest about where I am and how I’m doing. I do find I have a significant need to be known by others and enjoy genuine and meaningful friendships. But we’re talking about those 2-3 friends who have access to our deepest layers.
So, the question is, how many people do I let see my deepest layers? My wife and my best friend Matt see them, but who else? Who else do I let past the professional curtain?
I hung up the phone with my brother that day with a bucket of feelings; sad, frustrated, disappointed. But, I knew that what my brother was asking for was reasonable. There was no reason to keep either of my brothers out. I might have said it was for their good, but that’s not true. If I kept them at a distance, it was merely for my self-protection. Also, it was to maintain the lie that my perceived put-togetherness was somehow a contributing factor to their life stability. We’re not kids anymore and there was no reason I needed to protect them. I didn’t realize how many fences and walls I had built around my heart.
So, the next week I gave my brother a call to simply see how he was doing. In this call I tried my best to let him in. Over the past few months I know I haven’t been perfect, but I’m really trying to not have any barriers in sharing with him. I’ve thought a lot about who I let know all of me and realize I need more than the very few.
My question for you is, “Who knows you”? Who do you let into the deepest layer of your onion? Please don’t use your professional career as an excuse. Everyone needs to be known. If we don’t let people know us, then we are preparing a table for a feast of secrets. As we separate ourselves from others, offering different pieces to different people, we risk losing our true self. I wrote THIS article about the need for self-awareness. Close friends are a constant source of grace. They’re a source of refreshment and protection. They’ll encourage you to keep going when you fall, and gracefully let you know when your zipper’s down. We need them in our life.
This week, think about who knows you. Who do you let in? Maybe you need to take off your armor and give your brother or sister a call. Or maybe you need to pick up the phone invite a friend to lunch to tell them what’s really going on. In the classic story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” how much pain and embarrassment might the emperor have saved himself had he respected and listened to those closest to him? I don’t think it’s too late for me to make a change with my brother’s relationship and I don’t think it’s too late for you either.