Guarding My Heart


In our families of origin and our most formative experiences, many people develop a set of strategies and tools to guard against further harm. And many of us know the experience of those same strategies and tools, years later, blocking us from the connection we most deeply desire. Here, Becky Allender writes about how the defensiveness she learned as a child sometimes keeps her from accessing the most tender parts of her heart. Becky shares how guarding her heart against defensiveness opens her to a new way of relating to herself and others. This post originally appeared on Red Tent Living.

We were having friends over for lunch and each room looked pleasing. A few days earlier an interior decorator came, and she said that our home needed more texture (throws and pillows), height (stacking objects and books on coffee tables), and more interesting bookshelves. Last night we began watching the HBO series Chernobyl, and the intensity was just what I needed to begin rearranging 400 books in our bookshelves—there was no way my body could sit still and watch the agony unfolding as it did in 1988.

Our guests would be arriving any minute. The meal was prepared and the table set, and I nonchalantly asked my husband if he minded putting away his things in his corner of the kitchen. Chaos looms large in his corner. I was tempted to neatly stack everything and put it in his hallway closet. (That’s right, the entire hallway closet is his for the myriad of gear his life requires.) But sometimes that causes problems, so it seemed safer, and more honoring, to ask him to put his papers and books away.

He appeared irritated but I could tell he was going to concede. He asked, “Why does your need for order supersede my proclivity to chaos?” He wasn’t setting us up for a brawl, yet he seemed intrigued to know why my desire for peace and order before guests arrive was more important than his bizarrely organized piles. Seriously? We have been married 42 years and he knows that I have always desired order. I can own that “my disorder” to have order is, indeed, a deficiency, but something else was playing out. How can I guard my heart and honor my husband’s question? Why does my desire out-trump his? It is too easy to either give in and avoid conflict or rise up and ask for what I would like. And sometimes it is too much energy to ask, and then I become passive aggressive.

There has to be a third way. The gospel has always been called the via media, a Latin phrase meaning “the middle way.” The kingdom of God is not the right or the left, capitalism or communism, open borders or closed borders. When I read or see passion in our day it is usually spent opposing or defending Trump or conservative or liberal politics.

In my opposition to whatever side I oppose, I feel my passion rise to the level of—and slightly above—my adversary. Initially, it wasn’t that different when my husband posed his question. If there is a single dark shadow over my inner world at the moment, it is defensiveness.

If there is a single dark shadow over my inner world at the moment, it is defensiveness.

My family of origin was the setting for me to learn how to defend, since every situation could escalate into a capital offense. This skill was honed at an early age and was extremely useful and wise to keep from being drowned. Now it only diverts me from honesty and engagement.

I want to be curious instead of right, and open rather than working to avoid being wrong. I don’t have to be suited up with armor as I walk through each day. I am tired of that weight.

To this day, Dan will say, “Becky, I wasn’t asking you to defend yourself, I just was curious.” I love his invitation to explore what we don’t yet understand, and it frees me to follow barely visible tracks in my heart that have yet to be followed. My heart, like yours, is a largely unexplored wild place teeming with life and possibility, while also being a tangled dark jungle.

We are meant to tend to our terrain with tender and wise gardening care. Guarding my heart is not an exercise in avoiding conflict or disruption with others. Instead, it is choosing to stand against whatever leads my heart to shut down in defensiveness. My passion cannot be bound merely to what I oppose, even if I think my stance is correct. If I guard my heart well, then when I feel the urge to defend, explain, or justify, I can enter the terrain of what I fear with tender sorrow rather than rigid anger.

After doing a lot of reflection and prayer, I still told him to square up his chaos and keep my counter clean.