Note: I published this a few years ago as I reflected on a lost love. It’s since been picked up by the Human Parts collective, as well as recorded for my friend Kevin’s podcast, Talk Shoot Radio. In the spirit of collecting my thoughts in one singular location, I’m reposting here for posterity.
“There’s something to be said
I’ll hold on to you
If you hold on to me.” — Over The Rhine
Standing at the Perimeter Wall that separates Israel from the West Bank is a numbing experience, to put it mildly. A 26-foot tall wall, spanning a distance of over forty miles, effectively and poignantly describes the situation: Israel, exasperated with the ongoing threat of suicide bomber attacks during the Second Intifada, unilaterally decided to defend itself through the construction of a physical barrier.
Some call it “The Apartheid Wall,” others simply “The Fence.” But what cannot be denied is the fact that it fundamentally symbolizes the ethos of this regional conflict: the decisions of few resulted in dire consequences for many. Every morning in Bethlehem, a major city in the West Bank, Palestinian men line up at the border crossing in an effort to obtain a temporary work permit that will allow passage to Jerusalem. They are ushered through a series of security guidelines that ensure they qualify and have noble intent. They must return by sundown each night, repeating the process again the next day.
To fail to do so results in dire consequences: for these men, for their families, for their livelihood. And it was at this wall where my reasons for visiting this land were crystallized.
My first encounter with her was at a restaurant in my old college town; even in the dead of winter, she lit up the room as if each snowflake falling outside lent her a bit of its sparkle. Our conversation was radiant, full of laughter, and just about as life-affirming as words between virtual strangers could be.
Eighteen hours, a blizzard, and a frozen-toed walk through campus later, we noshed on omelets at my favorite brunch spot, bewildered at how we just did that, as if we had been close friends for years. Smitten doesn’t really summarize the emotions I experienced through our rendezvous: I hadn’t ever been truly in love with a woman before, and I hypothesized that if she really gets me isn’t an appropriate sign of such a wondrous experience, then I’d be hard pressed to understand love at all, at least in the fragmented version we have as a small sampling of the love God has for us.
About a year passed, and with every random excursion we made, banter from friends and family alluded to the same: we just fit. We made sense. Others envied what we had. Even in the midst of setbacks and heartache, the world continued to lend us its glitter, and with every step a bit seemed to shuffle itself out of our pockets and annoyingly, statically attach itself to other objects. All that was needed to complete this fairytale was a ring on her finger, and I commenced the early stages of seeking one out.
“My wall is up, Matt, and I’m sorry I can’t be there for you right now.”
Two weeks had passed since the glitter ran out. We both had confessed to behaviors, pursued independent of each other, that simply clouded our ability to focus on our growth together. We said things that hurt people say: mean, spiteful, baseless, emotional. And just like that, our relationship was over.
In response, I undertook nothing less than an all-out assault to bridge the chasm that so abruptly emerged after the earthquake that shook our relationship and revealed a foundation that resembled the sands of Lake Michigan. The abuse I received from my peers as a kid taught me that nobody who claimed to love me, mistakes and all, that much would abandon me. Right?
But resolution never came. Pursuit and encouragement took on an air of desperation; I admitted I was afraid of losing her for good. And as I attempted to draw closer to her once again, in a sign of reckless solidarity to show her that I still loved, I still had more to give, and I still saw her as God saw her, the trench she dug immediately after the breakup suddenly became a fortified wall.
My attempts to reconcile failed. And with that failure came perhaps the most profoundly humiliating moment I’ve experienced in my 31 years. I felt the stinging pain of rejection in a way that exhumed the rotting, stinking corpses of my suppressed childhood memories, and along with it came a terrifying form of anger, sadness, and fear compounded by the belief that God truly doesn’t know what is best for me. I felt forsaken.
The night of our breakup, we sat in church as a man named Salim Munayer spoke of forgiveness and reconciliation. As the founder of a ministry aimed at bridging the gap between the warring factions in Israel and Palestine, he witnesses daily the metaphorical — and physical — walls that prevent the decades-old dispute from coming to resolution. We will find areas to agree or disagree, but let’s walk together to the footsteps of the Cross, he noted. I tucked that away in my heart and silently hoped she did, too.
A month later, the opportunity to work alongside Salim’s ministry arose, and while I’ve not often been one to clearly decipher the voice of God ringing through my head, the bell started clanging.
I found myself standing at that perimeter wall — one built on the shoulders of fear. And the crushing wave of realization hit me: I was waiting, hoping my credentials would be deemed worthy of entry past a barrier she constructed in response to people I will never meet.
Walls — hers, mine, and ours — are mangled pieces of steel and mortar, fashioned together haphazardly in response to assaults on our very psyche. I implemented a variety of compulsive behaviors as a way to block the abandonment I felt from people in my childhood — not feeling worthy enough. We built vertically and horizontally to prevent our perceived injustices from occurring again.
Here’s the thing about walls, though: you and I, at our very core, are not at war. Our beliefs, our hurts, and our fears create the perception that we truly need to raise up arms against flesh and blood. One of the Biblical Apostles, Paul, alludes to it as a skirmish between principalities, the dark forces of this world. Yet we still continue to build up fear tactics against one another, as if our feeble attempts will truly prevent the inevitable onslaught from occurring. And as a result, we end up on opposite sides of the barrier: Palestinian and Israeli, East German and West German…me and her.
Through this understanding this that I’ve further grasped the immense, irreplaceable depths of grace and goodness. There’s something liberating about having nothing more to hide in front of those who seek to tear down walls of fear and replace them with fortified strongholds of truth, mercy, and love.
While these lessons of growth bring a fresh season of healing, hurt will often resonate for a very long time, if not decades. I broke my pride’s hand by feverishly knocking at her wall with reckless abandon, but…it has healed over time. I sensed the bones and sinews being carefully refashioned. And the people in my life won’t judge or shame me for my pain or past mistakes, but will walk with me with a necessary dose of empathy.
I’ll always remember that there’s someone on the other side of that wall, past the sinews and concrete, with outstretched arms, ready and willing to say: I’ll hold on to you.