“And you’re wondering why you felt like you weren’t good enough?” my friend Dave said. “You were literally conditioned to think that way!”
I had just finished telling Dave about an exercise I had been doing for a class on addiction in which I created a timeline of my life. In doing so, I realized that there was a lot of rejection in my younger years. Prior to college, nearly every girl I had been interested in either dumped me after a few weeks, or flat out rejected me from the start.
I hardly dated anyone after that.
It has taken me a while to freely admit it, but one of the deepest roots of my addiction to pornography has been this feeling that I’m not good enough for a real woman.
You see, in middle and high school, I was not the oxen of a man you see today. I was not the “Shirtless Wonder.”
I was a nerd.
Whatever label you want to stick on the kid that moved a couple times, went to three high schools and two middle schools, and had a collection of 500 comic books. The kid who had every detail about Middle Earth memorized and longed to become Batman (truth be told, that’s part of the reason I started working out…I guess comic books were good for something.)
After a number of failed relationships (or whatever you call two 9th graders going to a movie), I came to think that the problem was me. That I was the undesirable one.
So I worked to change it.
I chopped my Beatles-era haircut and hit the weights. I bought nicer clothes and dropped the Star Wars t-shirts. I did everything I could think of to change people’s perception of me into a man who was worthy of dating. The problem with these things is that they do nothing to heal the wounded heart of a man.
Dr. Dan Allender says that men today are broken hearted. “Not broken hearted as in sad or full of grief,” he writes. “Instead, we are broken into fragmented selves that are unable to do much other than posture and pretend we are someone whom we know we are not.”
At an early age, my heart was broken into a dozen different pieces. Some of these pieces ventured to the identity of a nerd while others worked at getting into better physical shape. Some tried to earn value in artistry, while other fragments delighted in being the class clown.
All of these “identities” were only parts of a shield, though. Like a turtle shell I could tuck into whenever someone looked my way, while the Real Ethan, the weird, eccentric, tender-hearted self stayed safe inside.
John Eldredge echoed this sentiment when he wrote,
This is every man’s deepest fear: to be exposed, to be found out, to be discovered as an impostor, and not really a man…We are hiding, every last one of us. Well aware that we, too, are not what we were meant to be, desperately afraid of exposure, terrified of being seen for what we are and are not, we have run off into the bushes. We hide in our office, at the gym, behind the newspaper and mostly behind our personality.
The sad thing is, most of us go on living like this and wondering why we feel so severed from our real self. Why there is no peace inside us. Why we feel splintered into so many pieces. Social media doesn’t help because we can look any way we want online.
I maintained the charade for many many years until recently when I decided to do the tough work of examining myself and taking a good, hard, honest look in the mirror. It was like pulling a hermit crab from his protective shell: It was ugly and it snapped and fought like hell against being exposed, because the work of healing is not easy.
Several years ago, I was on the bus in Chicago with a Moody student who was an acquaintance of mine. He began sharing what the Lord was teaching him in that season, and the only part I remember was one line: “The Lord is teaching me that it’s okay to be weak, to be broken.”
I don’t think I’ve ever had so much respect for another human being in my life.
It’s as if he was standing before me as the bus tilted and rocked, holding his palms open to me saying Look, this is me. I’m not that cool. I’m hurt and broken. But God’s cool with that, and I’m learning to be cool with it too.
So I’m attempting to become like that too. It’s incredibly hard for a man to admit that he is weak and broken, but I think that is the first step in healing.
Because women don’t fall in love with how many pounds you can put up on the bench, or that sweet new shirt from H&M. They can’t even love the jokes you make or the intelligence stored in the folds of your brain.
People love other people, not the things they try to wrap around themselves as a disguise.
Learning this is hard, because ever since we got the boot from the Garden of Eden, we’ve been trying to cover ourselves up, trying to look better than we actually are.
Underneath all the fancy fig leaves and one-liners, we are all pretty ugly and weak, but that doesn’t mean we’re unworthy of love. God doesn’t stop chasing you because you woke up with bedhead, or you can’t curl a 5 pounder.
It’s hard to examine myself and see that there are a lot of things I don’t like about myself. But it’s even harder to accept that despite them, God still loves me. And hopefully, there’s a woman out there who will too. But living with a splintered heart and trying to be a dozen men at once is exhausting and will keep us returning to the fire hydrant of porn to try to nourish our broken heart.
My friend Michael Cusick points out that the word “integrity” comes from the word “integer,” meaning whole. A person of integrity is a whole person, not a shapeshifter who modifies themselves to fit the scene.
So may we be a people who give up disguising ourselves and trying to be more impressive than we are.
May we seek wholeness, root ourselves in quietness and peace and know ourselves as we are known by God, recognizing that God loves the weak and the broken; He lifts up those who are low. (Psalm 145)
“But [Jesus] said to me, My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in my weaknesses…For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
-2 Corinthians 12:9-10