I've always found the phrase 'hopeless romantic' to be an intriguing combination of words. In contemporary English, this label is given to someone who is in love with the idea of love, and often experiences a fairy-tale infatuation with every eligible person they meet. At a more literal level, however, a hopeless romantic would be someone who was just that - useless at the art of romance.
For the majority of my years, the second meaning was a much more adequate description of me. I had the smoothness of 80 grit sandpaper, and my moves were most definitely not like Jagger. I would observe my friends going through the courting rituals like zealous peacocks, while my best attempts were about as successful as the All White's defense.
Till one summer, when my awkward advances were met with reciprocal acceptance and I began to perfect the art of flirtation to the highest standard. The object of my affection, however, was not a local lass, but lived far away. Texts, emails, Skypes and flights became the norm as I embarked on the increasingly-popular phenomena of a distance relationship - and lived to tell the tale.
Conquering the distance
Distance relationships are becoming an increasingly familiar phenomena, with an estimated 10% of marriages in the United States going through a season of surviving the distance. With the massive increase of connectivity through social media and smart phones, more and more couples are trying to conquer the distance and pursue relationships that would otherwise be impossible.
About 40% of these distance relationships end with a break-up, and they only last an average of five months - which, coincidentally, is the same length of time as a lion's gestation period.
Although my experience of "doing the distance" was more on-and-off-again than a child playing with a light switch, I did learn some lessons in my time. Most of these learnings were about finding cheap flights, but I also realised something particularly interesting about distance relationships, authenticity and my own selfish desire for control.
Scared by myself
Authenticity is a scary thing. Deep down, most of us have a fear that if someone got to know the real me, they would never truly want to be in relationship with us. So we create these public identities for ourselves, masking our true selves behind images, posts and carefully constructed personas.
In face-to-face relationships, we gradually let our guard down, letting others see the person behind the mask - and are often astounded by the love and grace that is shown to us.
With distance relationships, however, I realised that I could keep the masquerade going much longer. I could come across as a caring and supportive guy, without ever having to get involved and help out in a tangible way. I could appear brave and noble, without having to act in a way that reinforced that. I could appear loving and sacrificial, without ever having to do anything that came at a real cost to me.
I am not saying that these acts are not possible through a distance relationship; indeed, many great people have been incredibly genuine, loving and caring despite the distance. In my case, however, I realised that it is easy to create an ideal version of yourself through a distance relationship, that is not true to the authentic, lived reality of the flesh-and-blood me.
This desire to maintain an image also revealed my broken demands for control. If I was not feeling at my best, it was easy to delay a phone call or a Skype with an important-sounding excuse - allowing myself the power to dictate the terms of the relationship. This degree of control is not available in a face-to-face relationship, with friends and others turning up at bad times - seeing us at our worst - and flourishing in relational freedom. Distance allowed my desire for control to dominate, all in the effort of maintaining an image.
Dwelling over distance
As Christmas draws every closer, I can't help but reflect on God's response to distance in the story of the incarnation. The Scriptures describe humanity in a way that encompasses my broken fears and actions - with us as a people trying to hide our reality behind lies and fig leaves - and always desiring to control God - limiting his presence and actions to certain places and times. Rather than reciprocating, God's response is staggering.
To the masks of inauthenticity, God is embodied in flesh, showing the very fullness of who God is in a raw, real and naked spirituality. Jesus does rally against the hypocrisy of others, but also models a way of living that is genuine and open, calling us to a way of being human that is exhilaratingly honest.
Similarly, to the desire to control, Jesus reveals another way - a way of love. Rather than attempting to corral the people around him into his way of relationship, he honours their individuality by engaging in different conversations and styles with each person. Similarly, he does not become a victim to control, but shows love for others to maintain his authentic self in all times - even when suffering.
Fundamentally, the act of the incarnation is earth-shattering. God does not delight in distance, but humbly and profoundly comes near. Eugene Peterson, author of the Message, paraphrases John's description of the event by saying, "The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, generous inside and out, true from start to finish."
A beautiful awkwardness
Apart from igniting a sense of awe and wonder deep within us, the incarnation also invites us to participate. In a culture that emphasises identity management, self-empowerment and controlling tactics - from business books to gossip magazines - the incarnation calls us to practice authenticity and love. It calls us to delight in the awkward, flesh-and-blood, face-to-face nature of relationship. It beckons us out of our hiding places, strips away our masks, and asks us to be real.
Distance relationships are not a problem - the human heart's desire to hide and control is. In our increasingly thin and plastic Western culture, Christ calls us to begin the journey of authenticity, and to desire the beautiful, clumsy reality of amazing-yet-flawed humanity meeting in honest, close communion.
"Jeremy Suisted is a student and innovation consultant - www.creativate.co.nz - who has had five guitars, three cars, and one long distance relationship.
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