Love and fear

Rodney Moore, one of my subjects for the story I'm writing.

Rodney Moore, one of my subjects for the story I’m writing.

I’m spending my Good Friday transcribing interviews and finishing a story.

The story I’m writing is on race, class and education in Durham, and it’s complicated. I’ve been working on it all semester, and I have a semester’s worth of lessons to boil down into a couple thousand words. And most of those words are spent on narrative storytelling – on engaging readers and helping them understand. But although I find the individual stories engaging, I’m most engaged by the lessons I’m learning.

These lessons have layers. There are some cut-and-dry, surface-level lessons: minority students are disciplined more frequently than white students, poverty intersects with color more often than not and has disastrous results, and it’s incredibly difficult to live life with a felony record and without a high school diploma.

Then there’s the next level: that our society is still plagued by racism, although this racism is much more intrinsic than intentional. That actions have long-lasting consequences, and some people are forgiven by society more easily than others. That school and home life cannot be separated, and that students don’t check their lives at the door when they walk into the institution that’s supposed to enable them to make something of themselves.

But it keeps getting deeper, especially when you delve into the baggage that students bring to school. There’s the baggage of feeling the need to fit in, but never quite being able to do so. There’s mental illness and disabilities and varying levels of intelligence. There are feelings of inadequacy, patterns of failure and unmet physical needs – food, clothing and shelter.

And if you keep digging as I have, you find a truth that should be disturbing. Underneath it all, there is the simple fact that feeling unloved and unworthy has devastating consequences.

I have seen a lot of poverty for being only 21 years old. I grew up the daughter of veterinarians who worked at a horse racetrack, so right away I was exposed to illegal immigrants living in feed rooms – the equivalent of shacks. In high school, I went on mission trips to Mexico and then began feeding the homeless every Monday night, forging relationships that still exist today.

And then right before I left for college, I became involved with a public housing community in the inner city – widely known as the worst place in Tampa, Florida. I spent a week with those kids for a camp and I never stopped going back.

I went to Kenya my first two summers of college and I watched people starve to death. I walked through one of the largest slums in the world and smelt the raw sewage as it flowed in streams a few inches from my feet. I spent weeks with refugees who ran for their lives in the face of a massacre and then started over with absolutely nothing.

I know poverty, and knowing it has lit a fire in me that I don’t think will ever burn out. But I also can rank that poverty, and as the years have gone on, I’ve learned there’s one kind that is worst of all.

Emotional poverty – the state of lacking love – starves the soul, and without our souls, we are reduced to absolute emptiness. Food, water, shelter, clothing, money or success mean absolutely nothing in comparison. Emotional poverty is, in my opinion, the world’s greatest crisis.

As a Christian, I’ve always said that, but as a journalist, I’ve now seen it. I hear it again and again in interviews – that people do things to find love, to find acceptance, to find meaning and identity. Sometimes they do good, honest things, but sometimes they do terrible things because love isn’t offered to them in good places, or they just don’t know how to find it.

I’ve experienced this in the public housing community I mentioned before. There’s one example that stands out vividly in my mind of a kid who was 10 or 11 when I met him. He was chronically behind in school, not very fortunate-looking and lived in a single-parent home with multiple of his older siblings.

As the years passed, he didn’t get much better in school, and he started hanging out with the wrong crowd in the neighborhood. He’d give me a quick hug when no one was looking, but otherwise, I saw him less and less.

One day, he was being exceptionally moody and was clearly angry about something. When our morning activity was over, I followed him to the playground and found him crying alone near the monkey bars. He wouldn’t look at me at first when I asked what was wrong, but finally, he told me: His mom had left the house without telling him, and he didn’t know how he was going to get to football practice.

He had been left. He was 11 or 12 at the time, and his mom left while he was outside playing.

Clearly, this isolated event was laced with underlying meaning and has a lot of background to it. But for a kid who has grown up feeling inadequate, unimportant and unloved, it only makes sense to cling to the first place he finds acceptance, even if it’s wrong. It’s for this reason that kids join gangs, that racism and tribalism exist and that wars over unresolvable differences happen.

I don’t see Nehemiah anymore, but I see plenty of other kids who are just like him. And they’re not all poor in a material sense. Some are my Young Life kids, who have everything they could possibly want, but feel no love and struggle to push away the fear that they are, in fact, worthless. Some aren’t kids at all – they’re young adults who are sprinting away from whatever might tell them that they are inadequate. And some are adults who never stopped running.

I’m writing this on the day that should prove to us all that we are, in fact, more than adequate: we are loved more than we could ever possibly imagine. We were made in love, with love in mind, and with the assurance that we would never stop receiving love. We are loved enough to deserve desperate measures, specifically one desperate measure that’s meaning has carried through 2,000 years until now. We are loved in the details, in the big picture, in the day-to-day and eternally.

But some people don’t know that. Some people haven’t heard, some don’t understand, some don’t believe it and some just can’t accept it. A lot of days, I don’t understand, I don’t believe it and I can’t accept it.

In an interview, a massive man – a lieutenant in the sheriff’s office – with the voice and demeanor of a grizzly bear told me to read a poem. And so I did, because if a man like that tells you to read a poem, you’re going to do it because he told you to and because you want to know what could touch a man like that so deeply.

Here it is. I understand why he told me to read it.

Our Deepest Fear
By Marianne Williamson 

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.


Last year, I conveniently was running late for my flight home after a long semester. I threw my things in the car and drove to the airport; I didn’t have time to say any goodbyes.

And it was wonderful. I didn’t have to think of the right words to say that would conclude a chapter of college, I didn’t have to fabricate the appropriate emotion for the situation and I didn’t have to deal with any real emotion that might make me uncomfortable. I left and trusted that when I came back, whenever that was, things would pick up where they left off.


They did. Everyone came back to school this year and, for the most part, we picked up where we left off. The only consequence of my abrupt departure was that some of my friends were a little caught off-guard by it.

This year, I can’t do that. The certainty that things won’t pick up where they left off means that I have to figure out how to create a conclusion, or a bookmark, or a transition, or, in some cases, a goodbye. And I don’t know how to do that.

Young Life new leader placement day

Young Life new leader placement day

This is starting to hit home now that graduation is less than a month away. Everything seems to have greater weight and an underlying importance that it never had before. It’s not just a concert; it’s one of the last. It’s not just a Friday night; it’s one of only four left. And it’s not just breakfast with a friend; it’s a meal with someone I really care about that I might have very limited time left with before the unknown sets in.

I know that in reality, it’s just a concert, it’s just a Friday night and it’s just breakfast. I’ve completely made up the underlying meanings and importance, but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel real. For some reason, it feels like there’s a right and a wrong way to conclude my time as a college student, but I can’t quite figure out which is which.


I like change and I don’t like change; I embrace it and abhor it, sometimes at the same time. I like lingering and I like ending things quickly; I like making new friends, but also I really like keeping my old friends. Some days I know what I want, and some days I have absolutely no clue.

I’m trying to figure out how to graduate with grace. I’m trying to figure out how to take things in stride and be confident that what has happened over the past four years makes the next four weeks irrelevant in terms of validating or invalidating my relationships, and that what I do or don’t do really doesn’t matter.


Our last pancake dinner at the McMansion

But also, I’m trying to give myself grace. When I think about it, I’m so glad that this is so hard, because if it wasn’t, maybe it would mean that my life here was too easy and I flitted through it without appreciating it enough. I’m grateful that I have something to be sad about as it’s coming to an end.

It’s like an amplification of finishing a good book. I remember when I finished the seventh and final Harry Potter. It was sad because it was the end of something I had really loved, but also I was mostly wrapped up in how good it had been. I appreciated the years of anticipating when the next novel would come out, the plot-guessing and speculation, the nerdy conversations with friends about Harry Potter trivia, and, most of all, I appreciated the books themselves. I had known all along they would come to an end at some point, and when some point was upon me, I really loved the conclusion and was confident that I would always love Harry Potter for what it was and what it had been to me throughout my childhood.


Snow day!

We would never truly engage in anything if we lived in fear of it ending. The only thing guaranteed in life is that it will end, and this manifests itself in aspects of our lives as well. But at the end of my life, I want to know that I lived with everything I had and that I’m leaving something really great – for something better.

If the next phase of my life is as great as this one has been, I will consider myself a very lucky person. As hard as moving forward is, it makes it easier knowing that I worked hard, I played hard, I loved hard and I lived hard. I’m leaving Chapel Hill with some skin still left in the game, but really, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

So as embarrassing as having a teary meltdown in a coffee shop is, I’ll take it. I’ll take that along with the breakdowns in my best friends’ bedrooms and the emotional freakouts when I have too many social obligations in one weekend. I’ll take the confusion, and I’ll even take the goodbyes – those that are temporary and, yes, those that are permanent. And then I guess I’ll write about them all because I can’t figure it out, but I know these things matter. I’ll take them because I want to have them; I want to have it all. I want to have the memories, I want to have the long-distance relationships and I want to have the impact that these things have made on me.

I’m leaving college different than I came in, but it’s for the better. While four weeks is a conclusion, four years is also only a chapter. And I’m so grateful to say that’s it has been a beautiful one.

My house and I with our good friend Taylor, who got engaged a few weeks ago.

My friends and I with our good friend Taylor, who got engaged a few weeks ago.