From April 7-20, I’ve asked some friends whose hearts I trust to participate in The Authenticity Project. The goal? To share something true. I gave these folks very loose parameters — no word count, no guidelines, no rules to follow — and I asked them to be free with what’s real for them these days, whether that reality is thoughtful or funny or poignant or ridiculous. I hope you enjoy meeting these people as much as I enjoy counting them among my friends.
Letting Myself Go
An Authenticity Project guest post by Gregg Koskela
I’m not sure I ever allowed myself to speak the words at the time, but I was burnt out. I kept going through the motions, but my ability to feel was severely compromised. Compromised in part because there were just too many hurts I was holding with other people, and in part because when I did feel, when I did let it out, there was usually someone who told me to tuck that in and take care of it and get myself together.
Get it together.
But I couldn’t, so I asked for a sabbatical. And on the very first day of that strange release from work, I took the long way on a drive to visit my parents, out I-84 alongside the Columbia River. I drove past The Dalles Dam, reminded of the cheap hydroelectric power this seemingly still water is generating. Dam after dam along this river brings safety from flooding as well as clean electricity, and has tamed this mighty river into the placid sameness I now watched slip past my windows.
Somewhere on that road, my phone randomly spit out a song by the David Crowder Band. The lyrics did not describe who I was at that moment. No, like the river I was driving beside, I presented a monotonous flatness; whatever churning there once was had been invisibly buried by slow, creeping, engulfing waters. But the lyrics called to my deep places, reminding me who I had once been:
My sabbatical’s purpose hung in the air of my car, pulsating from the speakers, calling to me from this song. The dams, the dams on my soul that had promised to bring such good; the dams that had contained me, that had kept the flooding from washing me away, that had powered me…those dams had done damage.
It was time to let myself go.
Could I do it? Could I blow up the well-constructed dams, the ones that kept my words safe, my emotions in check? Could I really handle the chaos of my real emotions? I had gotten good at keeping things under control, like the dam on the river. I had gotten good at never losing it, at harnessing the chaos and creating power that was for the good of others. But I wanted to feel vibrancy of life again. I wanted fire and love that knew no bounds and letting myself go. Is this what this sabbatical was going to be about? Something inside me on that very first day said yes.
Pastors can be amateur psychologists, and I’m no exception. When I look at my own life and try to make sense of who I am, I see a tension at work inside me: discipline and passion are constantly at war. I usually present responsible me, the first-born, expectation-laden, conscientious side of me. But there’s another “me” buried under there, too, the me who led cheers in front of the student section at my high school’s basketball games, the me who was once called “The Silly Man” by my daughter’s preschool friends. The passionate side, the fun side, the emotional side often gets buried by living into the expectations of others.
The hard part is, I don’t always recognize when that side is getting smothered. It’s a repeating pattern in my life, this keep-it-together-don’t-mess-
Like Kindergarten. I was so excited to be there, so excited to learn. Every time Miss Teel would ask a question, my hand would be up and bouncing and my eyes dancing as I wanted to be the one to answer. When she called on someone else, and they got the answer wrong, well, I was perfectly comfortable rolling my eyes and letting a huge sigh of condescension explode from my lips. Miss Teel and my mom were right to work all year on trying to get me to not be such a butthead…yet it did squelch that excited learner a bit.
Our family moved to Oregon right before I started 8th grade. I mean right before. We left Scotts Valley, the (then) sleepy town close to Santa Cruz California, left with my surf-inspired OP beachwear and Levi’s cords lovingly brought along. On the first day of 8th grade, my dad drove me from my aunt and uncle’s house in Portland out to Dale Ickes Jr. High in the suburb of Clackamas. I took the bus at the end of the day to our new home, where the moving truck was unloading our furniture.
It had been a horrible first day. My mom says she saw it on my body from the window, saw it in the way I slowly walked up our long driveway from where the bus dropped me off. I hadn’t looked like any one else–no one wore corduroy, everyone had Lawman jeans and San Francisco Riding Gear. I talked like the guys from the movie “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”–but that movie wouldn’t come out for another two years so everybody just thought I talked weird. I stuck out like those Emperor’s Guard Stormtroopers; you know, in Star Wars, those ones in the red uniforms amid the sea of white.
I hated sticking out. I just wanted to disappear, to get swallowed up, to be normal. I didn’t like being different. I didn’t like being myself.
So began, “Operation: Meet Expectations”. My first thought was to use my brain to impress people and win friends. If I succeeded academically, if I played that role to perfection, maybe then people would like me. But instead I got called nerd, and the new glasses I had to wear for the first time reinforced that image.
The next attempt was to throw myself into the sport I loved, baseball. In California, I’d been a Little League All Star and successful, known for my ability to field a ground ball well in the infield. But in Oregon I was a pudgy late-comer to puberty, and besides, everybody knew Bo Venerdi was the All Star shortstop, so why don’t you just go try center field for awhile? Academics, failure one. Athletics, failure two. What part should I try out for next?
Maybe if I had a girlfriend. Maybe that would make people accept me. I remember being so petrified to be honest, so afraid that if I showed who I was, no girl would want me. Eighth grade life was telling me at every turn that who I was wasn’t accepted, so I just kept trying new things, new roles, new masks to see if I could fit in.
There was that awkward first kiss after school by the lockers. I could see it was coming, and I was scared out of my mind. “Uh, I guess, huh, I guess wow? We haven’t even kissed yet?” I tried to make it seem like I was used to this, like I’d kissed people dozens of times and how weird it was that we hadn’t kissed yet, when on the inside I didn’t even know what in the world I was supposed to do. You should know that I didn’t even know what a french kiss was, so, uhh, that was a shocker.
It wasn’t that having a girlfriend “worked”, as in, that was the “in” that finally gave me friends. If I would have realized it, I would have seen that friendships take time and by the end of that year, enough time and experience had forged some. But I didn’t realize it. Instead, I took home the lesson that you have to keep trying on roles, you have to keep doing the expected thing to get by in life. You can’t break from the mold, you can’t be honest, you can’t be yourself. If you do that, you’ll be the guy saying “gnarly” in a little, pre-MTV town in Oregon where they’ve never heard the word and will look at you like you are a freak.
I’ve had so many epiphanies, so many moments of clarity where I have seen through all that. High school friends who told me they had freedom to be themselves because they didn’t build their self-image on achievements or what others thought of them, but rather that their value as a person rested on the unchanging truth that God created them. The solo time during college, sitting in silence on a mountainside, journalling eloquently about the masks I had worn in life and how I wanted to set them aside and be the real me. A retreat during grad school, reading a history of the year 1968 (the year I was born), and being caught up with the passion and turmoil and idealism of that time, and wanting our class, our group to “rise, like a phoenix from the ashes of the 60’s, to change the world!” (I actually wrote that in my journal. With the exclamation point! No lie.)
I’ve had these moments of wisdom where I have seen through the pressure of expectation and how it squelches life. Trying to please others looks so calm and right on the surface, and it gains such approval from others; but it comes with a price. At times I’ve seen the damage done from stuffing what I really feel, who I really am, to take up a role that others would like me to play. But I’ve also sometimes lost myself. I’ve just sort of glazed over, become a walking automaton expertly achieving what’s expected of me.
Oh, the damage. The passion lost and buried. The nagging voice that says, “If they really knew who you were, they wouldn’t accept you.” The secrets. The shame. The hiding. The image management.
I see it all again now as I write, see it in hi-definition 4K clarity. Do you see it? Do you see the benefits that come from building dams, the illusion of safety it brings? The way it stops the torrents and floods, the way it contains, the way it smoothes the relentless force of a mighty river into a smooth lake, always the same, never changing, making its predictable way. The way it channels and harnesses power for others. Our culture loves a dam, loves how it siphons power from the world and tames it for our use, how it calms the unpredictability of drought and flood, feast and famine.
My family and Ickes Junior High and American Culture all taught me dam building. Don’t step out of line, don’t risk, don’t stand out.
Part of my sabbatical was researching my grandpa’s life. He spent a lifetime trying to build dams that would contain the chaos in his life, and at the end, that illusion of control broke. The cracks in the dam, the symptoms were the alcoholism and the Alzheimers. It’s a cautionary tale for my buttoned-up, first-born, mask-wearing self. Yes, the uncertainty of the raw river of emotions is scary.
But the honesty and community and interdependence found with living in that reality is far healthier and longer lasting than building the dams of expectation and control.
I’m Gregg Koskela. I’ve been married to Elaine for almost 26 years, and we share the roller coaster journey of parenting three girls: Aubrey (13), Hayley (19) and Natalie (21). Stories and words fascinate me, in person and on a page. I serve as pastor of Newberg Friends Church, a community that has shaped me for almost 30 years.