Turtles intrigue me. I like how they tuck inside their shells so that you can’t see them, as though they no longer exist. Or how they trudge along with their shells, showing such determination to get somewhere.
It looks exhausting, right?
They’re very cute when they’re young. I love videos of sea turtles hatching from the beach and frantically dragging themselves across the sand to reach the water. They remind me that animals do amazing things.
Also, they remind me of us.
We all live in shells, don’t we? I’m well aware of my shell. I assume that everybody has one. They’re all a bit different, but they serve the same purpose: protecting us from what we think will hurt us.
Turtles’ shells consist of bony matter. Ours are formed from all the wounds and scars we get in life. The disappointments, the hurts, the many frightening and challenging moments that make us want to pull back and hide.
I suppose our shells start to form when we’re young and we realize that the world can be a dangerous and disappointing place. As we grow, we hear those messages in many ways: We’re not attractive enough or athletic enough or good enough. We’re not wanted. We’re not loved.
Those messages stick. And our shells grow.
Over time, we get very good at tucking and hiding. We don’t show our real face. We don’t stick our necks out – it’s just not worth it. Don’t get too deeply involved. Don’t risk getting hurt. Don’t make yourself vulnerable.
In time, our shells become thick and confining and so damn heavy. Getting anywhere can be exhausting. We become more comfortable inside our personal, protective, dark space.
An interesting thing about turtles: They connect to their shells at their backbone and ribs. That means when something touches their shells, they feel it deeply. Same with us. Our shells are anchored to our deepest parts. Perhaps that’s why we avoid people who try to touch them.
It’s like a Barry Manilow song:
“You remind me I live in a shell, safe from the past and doing OK but not very well. No jolts, no surprises. No crisis arises. My life goes along as it should. It’s all very nice, but not very good.”
Living inside our shells can leave us safe, but rather sorry. Alive, but missing life. Very nice, but not very good.
Fortunately, there’s a significant difference between our shells and turtle shells: Ours can shrink. And unlike turtles, we can emerge from our shells and live happily outside of them. It’s possible, but it takes work. Little by little, we learn to grow beyond the things that made us retreat long ago.
And if we can summon the courage to stick out our heads and take an honest look around, we’ll see something that’s life-changing.
We see that in addition to the people who see us as lacking, there are others who see us as so very lovable, just as we are — especially the parts that we try to keep hidden. Their love finds its way inside our shells. With exceeding kindness, patience, gentleness and persistence, they encourage us to come out and allow ourselves to love and be loved.
Thank God for those people.
There are those others, of course. The ones who say they love us but really are manipulating us or trying to turn us into a knock-off version of themselves – they want our shells to be just as thick and heavy as theirs. It’s best to keep a distance from those people.
And yes, it’s true that even when someone genuinely loves us, things never go smoothly. Their shells get in the way, too. They’re going to hurt us and mess things up despite their good intentions. They’re going to go about it the wrong way at times. But the important thing is that they’re committed to the messy and amazing process. They know we’re worth it.
They become grace for us.
Grace meets us where we are and helps us to go places that we can’t reach on our own. Grace persistently offers to take us to places that are brighter and roomier and happier. Places that we secretly wish we could go, if we didn’t have these damn shells holding us back.
Grace is all about resurrections. Those moments throughout our lives when we’re freed from dark, confining places. Set free to experience love outside the shell.