Updated: Mar 19
Shells are most beautiful when they're empty.
I know that the creatures that live inside the shells are precious to their Creator, but honestly, the word "beautiful" is not one I would choose when describing the visceral mass that resides within.
Because they're so vulnerable, most mollusks cannot survive without the protective layer of calcium they build around themselves. They're tender and edible, which is why so many creatures enjoy eating them. And so they live within a protective coating that makes it more difficult to be devoured.
They remind me of myself. We all come into the world in an extremely vulnerable state. Unlike other mammals, we can't stand up or move on our own for months. We are at the mercy of imperfect caregivers to guard and protect us, but who cannot keep us from becoming wounded by the world.
And so we build up layers of fortification as we become more aware of the dangers that surround us. We develop strategies to get our needs met. We cover our tenderness and build hard shells around our softness so that we can survive. We protect and defend, seeking shelter within our homemade fortress.
And we don't even realize we've walled ourselves off. But there always comes a day when we feel cramped, stuck, imprisoned. We blame it on circumstances, on people, on God... but it's not the water I swim in or the people who love me or the One who made me this way... it's me. I did this to myself... because I am wise.
"Excuse me," you say. "Because you are wise?"
Yes. And so are you. Without that calciferous mass you constructed around your soul, you might not be here today. You might have been eaten, consumed, masticated by the dangers you survived. But because you were wise enough to spin a protective shell, you are here.
AND you are confined, constricted, cramped. As long as you stay within your shell, you cannot expand and grow and know the freedom of floating without constraints. Your shell will keep you weighted at the bottom, in the dark.
I'll give you an example from my own life.
I have lived with a lot of loss. My father died in a car accident when I was fifteen months old, my mother died suddenly when I was in my 20s, with a few other significant losses sprinkled into the in-between. I am well aware that "everything is going to be OK" is not a promise anyone can make in this life. When people leave, "I'll be back soon" isn't a guarantee.
And so, early on, I constructed a shell to keep me slightly separated from anyone who claimed to care about me. And so I kept everyone at arm's length, often testing by asking myself a question, "if this person died today, would I be OK?"
Even when my husband vowed to be faithful to me, no matter what came, I knew that the last part "til death do us part" could be that very day. So it's safer to stay within that shell and not open my fleshy heart to him... just in case. And it worked...
Until it didn't.
Shells are beautiful because they are empty.
A few years in, I started to recognize that I was lonely by choice. Life within a shell is safe, but solitary. I had protected myself against pain and loss, but also against joy and abundance. And it wasn't just my husband I was keeping out... Jesus wasn't invited into my shell either.
My wise walls had become my protective prison. And my growth was stunted. And so is yours.
I started to realize that it wasn't just personality type or Enneagram number or strengths finder traits that made me who I am... these were just descriptions of my wise coping strategies that I used to shore up my insecure attachments... but they don't define me. And they are not static.
"I am not my own, but belong, in body and soul, to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ." These words that I memorized in my catechism class (Heidelberg) in 5th grade remind me that I do not need to be my own guard.
Through a slow process of gargantuan grace, I have become convinced that I do not need to stand in the gap and be God for myself. God leaves no gaps. And in his gentle hands, I can melt beyond my edges and take on the shape of the security that only God can guarantee.
And I can hold my empty shells in my hand and I can marvel at their beauty. They are gifts that are available to me to access, but I no longer live bound by their constraints. Instead, I choose to use them when they can be offered in love and kindness, and generosity.
What about You?
Once you've recognized that you're living within a shell, you can begin to wriggle out of it. Your shell is a gift once you no longer live inside of it, but can hold it in your hand and choose how you will honor it and offer it as a gift.
An empty shell is a beautiful remnant... but it is not a life.
If you're ready to do the brave work of crawling out of your calcified castle, let's talk about how you might develop new strategies to honor and offer the beauty of those empty shells as a gift to the world.