“Walk without a stick into the darkest woods.”

In Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Life and Love from Dear Sugar there is a letter from a man who signs himself as “Beast with a Limp.”  He writes that he has been disfigured by a blood disorder that he has been dealing with since childhood.  He writes that there is no way to remedy this situation and asks “Is it better to close off that part of myself and devote my time and energies to the aspects of my life that work, or should I try some novel approaches to matchmaking?  My appearance makes online dating an absolute no-go.  In person, people react well to my outgoing personality, but would not consider me a romantic option.  I’m looking for new ideas or, if you think it’s a lost cause, permission to give up.” 

Sugar, of course, has a completely eloquent and deep response.  She talks about a friend she made while she was waitressing, a regular customer of the bar, that was horribly disfigured by a gas explosion in his apartment when he was 25.  He responded to this catastrophe by focusing on other areas of life he enjoyed, but he completely closed himself off to the hope of romantic love and, in the end, he committed suicide.  Sugar writes: 

“I’ve thought many times about why Ian committed suicide, and I thought about it again when I read your letter, Beast.  It would be so easy to trace Ian’s death back to that match, the one he said he would not unlight if he could.  The one that made him appear to be a monster and therefore unfit for romantic love, while also making him rich and therefore happy.  That match is so temptingly symbolic, like something hard and golden in a fairy tale that exacts a price equal to its power.  

But I don’t think his death can be traced back to that. I think it goes back to his decision to close himself off to romantic love, to refuse himself even the possibility of something so very essential because of something so superficial as the way he looked.  And your question to me—the very core of it—is circling around the same thing.  It’s not Will I ever find someone who will love me romantically?—(though in fact that question is there and it’s one I will get to)—but rather Am I capable of letting someone do so?”

Cheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things

The core of this letter isn’t about appearance at all.  It’s about vulnerability.  Is the biggest barrier between me and whatever I want, not my ugly exterior (or whatever I choose to point to) but my beautifully vulnerable interior?  Sugar explains that in “La Bell et la Bête” (the original on which “Beauty and the Beast” is based), Belle falls in love with the Beast BEFORE he is transformed into a handsome prince.  It is her love that transforms him.  “You will be likewise transformed, the same as love transforms us all.  But you have to be fearless enough to let it transform you.”   

If I’m going to be honest here, I spent a lot of years learning the opposite of this.  I learned that I must first transform to be worthy of love.  I learned that love was something that was bestowed on the compliant and capable.  My response over time was to close myself off.  I believed that if people knew the shadowy parts of me, I would be considered unlovable.  I kept secrets out of what I thought was benevolence, but each one became a bar on the cage that was ever shrinking.

Breaking the bars of that cage was terrifying.  I was sure people would, at best, worry about me and, at worst, judge, reject and ridicule me.  I can’t say it has been painless.  Quite the opposite, it’s allowed for some of the most intense pain of my existence.  But this unlearning has been incredibly liberating.   

Sugar asks, “How might you shut down your impulse to shut down?…Once you allow yourself to be psychologically ready to give and receive love, your best course is to do what everyone who is looking for love does: put your best self out there with as much transparency and sincerity and humor as possible….Inhabit the beauty that lives in your beastly body and strive to see the beauty in all the other beasts.  Walk without a stick into the darkest woods.  Believe that the fairy tale is true.”

Surly this seems applicable to people like me who are trying to find love, but what about people that have been married for years?  What about any other type of human relationship?  It seems like it comes down to the one, small, incredibly important decision—to walk without a stick into the darkest woods and to believe the fairy tale is true.

As I’m writing this, I’m looking at my ring, a gift from a particularly thoughtful friend, that reads stay open.  This is the challenge.  This is the command.  Open is where all of the healing happens.  It’s what makes possible everything I want out of life.  Open is hope.  Open is vulnerability.  

Open is walking without a stick into the darkest woods.  Open is believing the fairy tale is true.