Our indoor playground is currently closed due to construction. Keep an eye on our website for updates.

When Being Real Means Looking Dead

By Julie K. Rhodes
In eLetter
Back to Blog

When you have a chronic “thorn,” you also have a chronic comparison problem.

I did, at least.

In March of 2020, I was a healthy, jogging mother of two kids whose go-to uniform was yoga pants. By the end of April, I could barely get off the couch. The symptoms of what my medical team would ultimately decide was probably a long-form version of Covid-19 — fatigue, fever, brain fog, shortness of breath, racing heart — would last for the next 18 months in varying degrees of intensity.

What would not vary in intensity was my grief over the widening gulf between my current self and all of my other friends, who had apparently boarded some cruise ship of good fortune without me. I had aged 25 years; they were still flirty and thirty. I was bed-bound; they were taking their kids to the park. I was suddenly an infantilized child-lady trying to navigate the healthcare system while unable to think in complete sentences; they were holding down their jobs.

The worst comparison I made during that time, however, was the one I kept making to…myself. My former self. That self that was just out of earshot. We had left her back around the corner and up the hill, but she was close. I could still remember what she looked like and smelled like, how she talked about things, like the future. I remembered all the things that were just so easy for her, like walking down hallways and climbing up stairs to kiss the kids goodnight. She taunted me from the photos on the fridge. Her things were still in the house — the perfume bottles all crowded on the dresser, ready to be sprayed before a night out.

Would she ever come home?

If she did, I would be embarrassed, because this version of me was so inferior. The woman occupying this life — this home, this family, this career – was too inadequate, too small and weak and afraid and bitter. Maybe this version of me was the real one all along: the miserly, angry version just waiting to be revealed when her ease and privilege had burned away.

I was at the Fort Worth Botanical Gardens last month when everything was dead, about to be dead, or only just appearing dead. There was very little variation in the deadness, except for a giant aluminum art installation of a fuchsia rose rising 15 feet above the grey and damp of everything else. It looked so vibrant, but in a metallic, suggestive way, not in the way of real living things.

In the actual rose beds, everything was all wilt and crumple and shrivel. The dry husks of spent roses hung from their stems, heads bowed, about to fall off. It was all very depressing and made the rationale for the art installation plausible: the staff needed something lovely for patrons to look at this time of year.

But the thing about gardens is that we go to them for life itself, not for the representation of life. If we wanted the representation of life, we’d go to a museum. This made the aluminum rose so much sadder than the real, headless rose. The sculpture was pink, but someday it will weather to a metallic grey. The sculpture will only get dinged and pulled down by time, gravity, or vines. The real rose, however, has a chance of blooming again into something beyond the mere adjective “pink;” it could even propagate, spread, and explode hundreds of bee-beckoning blooms.

Some things only look alive, and some things only look dead. On any given day in January.

Psalm 16 describes a person who has come truly alive, and spoiler alert: it’s not someone whose externals are perfectly curated, freestanding, or static. Verses 5-10 describe a person who is exultantly dependent on the presence of God.

And not much else.

This person relies on God for spiritual sustenance, security, and insight. The end. There’s no other key information about this person’s health, career viability, race, gender, or economic privilege. It’s just a living person with a deep root system in God.

This person, therefore, can walk around happy and rejoicing during the day and then can sleep well at night (verse 9) because there’s something about the presence of God that promises this: life will go on, it will take other forms, but that’s not really the point or the place to take comfort. The real relief is you are alive right now, just because you are with him, regardless of your externals, whether you’re blooming in vibrant hues or dormant in winter greys.

God hasn’t left you like a sculptor leaves his art in some public place to stand on its own and hopefully maintain its beauty or functionality. You’re a rose, not painted metal. And if God has nestled you in the dirt of a particular place and time, he must want you to exist and didn’t plant you to die. And sometimes your head might fall off or your leaves might brown with the shock of freeze, and months or years might go by when you have nothing pretty to wear or offer to outside observers. But you’re actually alive. There is mystery to the times and seasons of our flourishing, but at least we are real and intended to live.

So let’s do ourselves a favor and stop trying to stylize our friends or our former selves. Our illusions of our friends’ lives and of our own former lives are all just aluminum stand-ins for a much more interesting and democratic narrative.

After all, that former version of myself in March of 2020, with her blow-dried hair, was dealing with massive insecurity issues and other blights that weren’t visible. My friends, too, were each weathering huge snowdrifts of fear and inadequacy as they home-schooled kids in the pandemic. We are so much more intricate and lovely than our flimsy social media feeds, and we owe ourselves a greater dignity. We might be contending with some form of harsh winter, yes, but with a living connection to God through Jesus, we are also being deeply cultivated in hidden, secret ways.

Even if our unfixable illness/grief/relational difficulty has plunged us into a dormant season, we still have roots because we still have God.

______________

Julie K. Rhodes grew up at Irving Bible Church, is the oldest daughter of Pastor Andy, and is the author of "Chronic Grace: Prayers, Saints, and Thorns That Stay." Don’t miss Julie’s book signing at IBC February 25 after the 10:45 service at the bottom of the coffee shop stairs. Books will be available for purchase!


Julie K. Rhodes
Julie K. Rhodes


We Recommend Reading Next: