On being a mountain goat

My co-workers like to joke that I’m the resident witch doctor. If you have an illness, injury, or other physical ailment, I probably have a remedy for you. I may even have it in my purse. But my ability to offer solutions extends beyond bodily care. If you’re looking for something, I likely know where to find it. If you’ve broken something, I’m often the first to say, “Give it to me. I’ll fix it.” My father was this person, my mother the one who had whatever we might need during the course of a day’s outing (again, probably in her purse). This practical upbringing managed to stick amidst all my ambitious wanderings. So while it’s no secret among those who know me that I’m greatly annoyed by the minutiae of daily life—I would rather run three miles than spend three minutes sweeping my deck—I can banish colds, unclog sinks, and locate the nearest vegan restaurant with the best of them.

So, there’s self-sufficient, and then there’s me. I once heard a fellow Capricorn explain why a goat was the perfect symbol for us: “A Capricorn could be climbing a mountain in the heat of the day,” she said, ” exhausted, sweating, dehydrated, and a group of people could drive up in an SUV packed with food, water, and air conditioning and say, ‘Hey, would you like a ride?’ And the Capricorn would wave them off and say, ‘No, thanks. I’m good,’ and keep climbing.” This rings entirely too true for me. Like most toddlers, one of the first things I learned to say was, “Me do it myself.” I don’t know at what age that mentality typically burns out of a person, but it never left me (though fortunately, I did acquire better grammar). I have been a fearsome, determined, strong-willed creature from the moment I refused to participate in “tummy time” in Gymboree class.

I don’t believe that needing others is a sign of weakness. But I like to help people, and I don’t like to bother them, and the best way to achieve both of these goals is to be able to know and do as much as possible on my own. The only person I’ve ever habitually relied on was my father, and while what he supplied me with was entirely pragmatic and left something to be desired in other arenas of life, it filled what I discovered upon his death to be a massive void. I had no idea who, if anyone else in my life had knowledge of things like banking, car maintenance, health insurance, ant trapping, pipe clearing, appliance purchasing, super gluing, tax filing, and the list goes on and on. Why should I have? He was always in the next room, or if not, just a phone call away, ready and waiting to dispense advice, whether I asked for it or not.

But because I had been brought up beneath the sturdy wing of this eminently practical man—and because I am in possession of his same willful temperament—I was not very worried about how to plug the gaps in my knowledge. I didn’t want to, and for a long while, I resisted learning—not because I couldn’t, but because I wanted him, and making a decision to switch health insurance plans or to get my brake pads replaced without consulting him felt like betrayal. Like I wasn’t letting him do the only thing he ever wanted to do, the only thing—I am becoming increasingly convinced—that allowed him to demonstrate how much he loved me. I remember, when he was in the hospital and the prospect of waking from his coma with brain damage seemed more likely than not, how each of us recoiled at the thought. If he woke unable to care for us, it would be better if he didn’t wake at all. For him, it would’ve been a fate worse than death, and there isn’t a doubt in my mind it would’ve killed him just the same.

The other morning, I reread C.S. Lewis’s introduction to The Four Loves, in which he begins to open up the differences between what he calls Need-love and Gift-love. How we tend, at first, to think of the former as bad and the latter as good, but how, upon inspection, it becomes far more complex than that. “No one calls a child selfish because it turns for comfort to its mother; nor an adult who turns to his fellow ‘for company,'” he writes. He goes on to show how God Himself “addresses our Need-love: ‘Come unto me all ye that travail and are heavy-laden,’ or, in the Old Testament, ‘Open your mouth wide and I will fill it.'” I told someone the other day that I have an innate need to help the people I care about, that I am happiest when I’ve discovered what will make someone feel better, happier still when it’s something I am capable of doing. And as I’ve said already, I can do much.

Where I don’t excel, however, is letting people do things for me. I’m the goat stubbornly huffing up the mountain, the woman pumping her own tires full of air or hauling a fifty-pound suitcase up nine flights of stairs. I take pride in being this woman, and I have no intention of flopping down on a chaise lounge, waiting for someone else to clear the cobwebs from my vaulted ceilings (though, man, that would be nice). But lately, I’ve been considering the fact that, just as it was for my father—and let’s face it, just as it is for me—helping people might be how others demonstrate their love, too, and by refusing to let them, I am stifling that expression. Giving love is only half of the equation. It also has to be received. The Need-love and the Gift-love are incomplete without each other, or to look at it another way, they are made for each other.

In that same introduction, Lewis writes, “Our whole being by its very nature is one vast need; incomplete, preparatory, empty yet cluttered, crying out for Him who can untie things that are now knotted together and tie up things that are still dangling loose.” I believe there are rifts in our beings that only God can fill, and while there is always the danger of placing human loves too high in the hierarchy of our devotion, I also believe one of the ways God mends us is through the love of others. I’ve always liked what Jesus says in John 13:35: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Am I so proud that I can let Christ love someone through me, but not the other way around? Those of us who excel at climbing mountains might never accept the ride to the top, but we might do well to accept the food and water, or even to let someone else climb alongside us.

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