Did you ever watch Bob Ross back in the day? You know, The Joy of Painting, Burnt Sienna, White Ochre, and oh the happy little trees…
My brother and I watched him, transfixed, every weekend. Even more than his happy little trees – or THAT HAIR – I remember watching him paint something awesome.
And then paint a huge ugly stroke across the canvas.
Every single time, we gasped, “WHAT IS HE DOING!? HE RUINED IT!”
And every single time, he turned that mess into a crazy awesome tree or some other unexpectedly brilliant thing – the showpiece of the entire landscape.
We stared at the screen, awestruck. “I thought for sure it was wrecked. HOW DOES HE DO THAT!?”
As a child of about five years old, I had a sexual encounter with a girl in my neighborhood. Because she was also a child (about five years older than I) and was, well, a girl, the situation didn’t match my understanding of sexual abuse. So, I never called it that. I didn’t tell my parents. I didn’t tell anyone. It never occurred to me that I should.
This encounter prematurely awakened my sexuality, my sensuality. But, I never processed this as something introduced to me by another. Instead, I owned it. As a 5-year-old, I wasn’t capable of handling this awareness, this awake-ness. I became fixated on sexual, sensual thoughts and play. Over time, I developed a notion of “that kind of girl.” Over more time, I believed I was that kind of girl, and believed my memories were proof I’d been that kind of girl even as a small child.
The shame weighed heavy.
I secretly carried and grew that mass of shame, alone, for many years. Then one day I found myself as a college student in a small Bible study where this challenge was issued: share with the group – bring into the light – that deep, dark thing that holds you captive with shame. I had no idea what to share – not for lack of examples, but more like, “Where do I even begin?” I wrestled through my long, shameful list and landed on what I believed was the pinnacle of my shame: I’d had sex with my boyfriend. As a Christian, I thought it was the most sinful thing I’d ever done and the glaring proof I was “that kind of girl.”
Our intimate circle gathered close, and a friend named Kate bravely shared her story first. She had been sexually abused as a child, she said. By a girl just a few years older, she said.
As Kate continued to pour out her story, nineteen-year-old me flashed back to five-year-old me. My world went off-kilter a bit and tears ran down my face as shame and regret and long-held beliefs about myself began to crumble beneath my feet. Until that moment, it had never once occurred to me that my childhood encounter was abuse. That it wasn’t my fault. That it wasn’t proof of my brokenness, but rather the brokenness of this world. That perhaps I wasn’t “that kind of girl.”
That perhaps NO ONE IS.
You see, I know something important now: there is no such thing as “that kind of girl.” That kind of girl is a lie we put on ourselves or others that shames and isolates. You know that thing you are owning as proof of your shamefulness? “That thing” isn’t the whole picture.
Kate’s mess, what felt to her like a huge stain across her life’s canvas, became a tree of hope to me. It meant I wasn’t alone. It meant that all these dark stirrings I’d carried alone for over a decade could be brought into the light.
Here’s the big thing about Bob Ross (well, the biggest thing after THAT HAIR): He didn’t redeem his masterpiece by covering up that bold stroke of paint. He didn’t hide it; he finished it.
If Kate had kept her story hidden in shame, I would still be locked up by mine. Her vulnerability unlocked my door to freedom. I am fiercely committed to telling the truth about our stuff because maybe I can be someone else’s Kate. As we tell the truth about our stuff – the good, the bad, the messy, the beautiful – instead of hiding it, we’ll see it finished. We’ll see God, who loves us so, turn what we thought had ruined us into the miracle that frees us – by freeing others. IT’S A FRONT ROW SEAT TO THE REDEMPTION OF OUR BROKEN PLACES.
What’s your story? Maybe it’s like mine, maybe not. What stuff do you own, hold onto in the dark, use as ammunition against yourself?
My story is messy. And my story is beautiful. It’s the messy that makes it beautiful. It’s the messy that makes it spill onto someone else’s page. As my bold, ruinous stain becomes finished, it spreads into a tree of hope whose branches reach another canvas.
Stop hiding. Be brave, come into the light, and paint the bold strokes of a messy, beautiful life.
*Kate’s name was shared with permission. I encourage you to click here to visit her at The Accidental Traveler. She writes wonderful things when she finds time amid her FIVE messy, beautiful children!
I was honored to write and share this post as part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project — to learn more and join us, CLICK HERE! And to learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, CLICK HERE!