A New York Times Bestseller, Scary Close is Donald Miller at his best.
From the author of Blue Like Jazz comes a story about finding the keys to a healthy relationship and discovering they are also the keys to a healthy family, a healthy career, and a healthy mind. And it all feels like a conversation with the best kind of friend: smart, funny, true, important.
After decades of failed relationships and painful drama, Donald Miller decided he’d had enough. Impressing people wasn’t helping him connect with anyone. He’d built a life of public isolation, yet he dreamed of meaningful relationships. So at forty years old he made a scary decision: to be himself no matter what it cost.
Scary Close is a book about the risk involved in choosing to impress fewer people and connect with more, about the freedom that comes when we stop acting and start loving. It is a story about knocking down old walls to create a healthy mind, a strong family, and a satisfying career. And it all feels like a conversation with the best kind of friend: smart, funny, true, important.
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About the Author
Donald Miller has helped more than 3,000 businesses clarify their marketing messages so their companies grow. He's the CEO of StoryBrand, the cohost of the Building a StoryBrand Podcast, and the author of several books, including the bestsellers Blue Like Jazz and A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with his wife, Betsy, and their dogs, Lucy and June Carter.
Read an Excerpt
Dropping the Act and Finding True Intimacy
By Donald Miller
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2014 Donald Miller
All rights reserved.
The Distracting Noises of Insecurity
I DIDN' T START THINKING ABOUT MY HANG-UPS regarding intimacy until my fiancée met me in Asheville for a long weekend. I'd rented a cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains, where I was trying to finish a book before we got married. I'd spent more than a year pursuing her, even relocating to Washington, DC to date her, but once the ring was on her finger I went back into the woods. I wanted to finish the book so she wouldn't have to marry a temperamental writer. No woman should spend her first year of marriage watching her new husband pace the floor in his boxers, mumbling to himself. The writing life is only romantic on paper. The reality is, what writers write and the way they live can be as different as a lump of coal and a diamond. The written life is shined to a deceptive gloss.
That's one of the problems with the way I'm wired. I don't trust people to accept who I am in process. I'm the kind of person who wants to present my most honest, authentic self to the world—so I hide backstage and rehearse honest and authentic lines until the curtain opens.
I only say this because the same personality trait that made me a good writer also made me terrible at relationships. You can only hide backstage for so long. To have an intimate relationship, you have to show people who you really are. I'd gotten good at reeling in a woman and then bowing to say, "Thanks, you've been a great audience," right about the time I had to let her know who I really was. I hardly knew who I really was myself, much less how to be fully known.
WHEN BETSY ARRIVED IN ASHEVILLE, I 'D HARDLY talked to another human being in weeks. I felt like a scuba diver having to come to the surface when she asked a question.
We were sitting by the pond in front of the cabin when she asked how I could spend so much time alone. She said her friends admired my ability to isolate for a book's sake but wondered whether it was healthy. I don't think she was worried. She just found the ability foreign.
I thought about it and told her something I'd learned about myself in the year I spent pursuing her. I'd learned my default mode was to perform. Even in small groups I feel like I have to be "on." But when I'm alone my energy comes back. When I'm alone I don't have to perform for anybody.
She said I didn't have to perform for her. She didn't have to say that. I knew it was true. Who else do you marry but the person who pulls you off the stage?
BETSY' S EYES WERE AS GREEN AS THE REFLECTION of the trees on the pond. And as deep, I suppose. She was slow to trust, and even with a ring on her finger I knew part of her heart was being held back.
If I'm wired to impress people with an act, then Betsy is wired to withhold trust until it's been earned. She doesn't do it consciously. It's just that beneath her strong exterior there's fragility, so she doesn't offer her heart to just anybody.
Betsy told me when we met that in order to connect she needed quantity time. By that she meant we'd have to spend countless hours together doing nothing for her to feel safe. She believed anybody could come and go with a song and dance, but only the committed would last the seasons. And her community reflected this. While I'd spent my life getting people to clap for me, Betsy had laid a foundation with trusted friends, cousins, and siblings. And to those friends she was ferociously loyal.
In our year of dating, we'd only had one argument that was truly frightening. It happened after I insulted one of her friends. Actually, I rather objectively pointed out that one of her friends could be rude and might have a better chance with men if she'd stop emasculating them. I said I'd rather not spend any more time with that one, if she didn't mind. It turns out she did.
That single comment almost cost me our relationship. Betsy folded the napkin in her lap and set it on the table. She sat silently with murder in her eyes. When the waiter came to fill our glasses with water, I swear he backed away from the table without turning around.
And it wasn't even my comment that did it. It was the idea I could see a person as disposable. To Betsy, relationships were a life's work, the sum of countless conversations and shared experiences. She'd no sooner end a relationship than she'd cut down an old-growth tree. In the heat of that argument I realized I was only a sapling in the forest of this woman's life. I never spoke an ill word about one of her friends again. If I was going to win her heart, I'd have to plant myself in the forest and slowly grow the rings that earn loyalty, just as she and her friends had done with each other.
I knew then, this relationship would have to be different. I knew I'd have to know myself and be known. These weren't only terrifying prospects, they were foreign. I didn't know how to do either. And the stakes were high. I was going to have to either learn to be healthy or I'd spend the rest of my life pretending. It was either intimacy or public isolation.
ONE OF THE MANY GOOD THINGS GOD GAVE ME IN Betsy was the motivation to change. I'd spent years isolated and alone, working up words to tell people who I was—or more accurately, who I wanted to be. But in many ways that was a dark and lonely life. I'm not saying it didn't have its perks, because people clapping for you will always be a nice thing. But it's better when you have somebody to go home to and talk about it with, somebody who is more in love with you than impressed by you.
THAT'S THE GIST OF THIS STORY, I SUPPOSE. THESE are snapshots of the year I spent learning to perform less, be myself more, and overcome a complicated fear of being known. This book is about how I realized I could have a happy life without splitting an atom or making a splash. It's true our lives can pass small and unnoticed by the masses, and we are no less dignified for having lived quietly. In fact, I've come to believe there's something noble about doing little with your life save offering love to a person who is offering it back.
Here's a thought that haunts me: What if we are designed as sensitive antennas, receptors to receive love, a longing we often mistake as a need to be impressive? What if some of the most successful people in the world got that way because their success was fueled by a misappropriated need for love? What if the people we consider to be great are actually the most broken? And what if the whole time they're seeking applause they are missing out on true intimacy because they've never learned how to receive it?
Years ago, I remember seeing an interview with the son of a former president, who, after a sigh and a long silence admitted he'd spent countless hours with the most powerful man in the world but had no idea who he really was. "I never knew my father," the son said. "Nobody knew my father."
ONLY A FEW TIMES IN OUR LIVES DO WE GET TO know, in the moment, the impact of the moment itself. Robert Frost didn't tell us the fork in the road is easier seen in hindsight. But sitting there by the pond with Betsy I knew I could either let her really get to know me, or I could dance a jig and burn out like so much false love. And the decision would affect not only our relationship, but our future children's mental health, the lives of our friends, and perhaps, in some mysterious way, all of eternity.
I don't mean to overstate what is yet unknown, but part of me believes when the story of earth is told, all that will be remembered is the truth we exchanged. The vulnerable moments. The terrifying risk of love and the care we took to cultivate it. And all the rest, the distracting noises of insecurity and the flattery and the flashbulbs will flicker out like a turned-off television.CHAPTER 2
You Are Good at Relationships
THE FACT BETSY AND I WERE ENGAGED AT ALL WAS a miracle. Only a couple of years before we started dating I was convinced the only thing I had to offer in a relationship was pain. I'd broken off an engagement. I caused an enormous amount of damage, and the only positive was that the pain, both hers and mine, finally disrupted my pattern. I couldn't live this way anymore.
My pattern was this: I'd meet a girl who seemed out of my league. I'd ask her out, spend time with her, start dating her, and then become obsessive. I needed her approval. It's not that I wanted it, I needed it. I'd wonder why she hadn't responded to my texts or my calls or why she didn't seem to like me the way I liked her. In my younger days, this killed any chance at a relationship, but as I got older I learned to hide it. I'd mark how many days on a calendar it had been since I made contact. I'd wait as many as ten before contacting her again so as not to look needy. I had a system and the system worked.
That's when phase two would kick in. Suddenly, after all that obsessing, I'd lose interest. I was drawn to girls who played the victim because girls who play the victim make you feel like a hero. Until you resent them. And after I couldn't stand them, I'd get mean. I'd say mean things. Then I'd feel bad and make up and then resent them again. My dating life was a death spiral of codependency and resentment.
And the last relationship was the most painful.
It was my friend Bob who finally convinced me to end it. Bob is a high-powered lawyer in San Diego, and he's skilled in mediating conflict. He sensed there was trouble from the beginning. He'd call every week or so to check in, to see how the engagement was going. And it was never going well. We'd be fighting again. Or I hadn't slept in days. She'd taken off the ring and stored it in a box. We'd canceled the wedding invitations.
"Don," Bob said, "I think this is over."
I had an office above a Thai restaurant on 23rd at the time. I leaned back in my chair with my feet on the windowsill. I thumbed through a pile of mail I hadn't looked at in weeks. He said it again. He said he thought the relationship was over and I needed to acknowledge the fact. I knew he was right. It had been over for months.
"Do you want me to get on a plane and help you tell her?" he asked sadly.
"No," I said. "I can do it."
So I did. It sounds trivial now. Millions of couples break off engagements and nearly all of them are better off because of it. But when you're in it, when you say all those words and don't mean them a couple months later, you feel like a fool. You wonder if your words have power anymore, and what is a man if his words are weakened?
Add to this the sadness, the confusing grief involved in hurting somebody and the forced realization there's something in you so unhealthy and careless it could level a heart.
My season of sadness lasted nearly a year. And once again, it was Bob who helped me through it. One afternoon when I was back in my office, trying to write, Bob called again. He asked how I was and I told him I would be fine. He asked how I was healing and I told him I was healing fine. Of course none of that was true. I wasn't fine at all. I was numb. I kept a bottle of whiskey behind a Bible on the bookshelf and when everybody went home I'd have three drinks and listen to music as a way of trying to feel something.
"You don't sound fine," Bob said.
I'd have argued with him, but I was afraid he'd notice I was slurring my words.
"You know what I've noticed about you, Don?" Bob said.
"What's that, Bob?"
"I've noticed you're good at relationships."
I said nothing. I wasn't sure I understood him correctly. Then he said it again, right into the silence of the phone.
"You're good at relationships, Don," he repeated.
The truth is I hadn't cried since I'd broken off the engagement. Like I said, I'd gone numb. But as he said those absurd words, something in me began to feel again and all the pain of the season swelled up. I pulled the phone from my ear, dropped my head on the desk, and wept. And as I cried, Bob kept repeating, "Don, you're good at relationships. You're still good at them. You've always been good at them."
For the next few months there was a yawning chasm between Bob's affirmation and the way I felt about myself. But he kept calling, and every time he'd call he'd say it again. "You know, Don, you're terrific at relationships. Remember that time you encouraged me? Remember that kid you and I met in Uganda and how much he loved you? Remember that girl you dated years ago who still thinks of you as a brother? We can't let our failures define us, Don. You're good at relationships, and you're only getting better." Like a trial lawyer he argued his case into my soul, week after week, until the chasm began to close and I started thinking about dating again.
When I say I started to think about dating again, I'm not saying I was ready for a serious relationship. Betsy didn't come around for another year, and God knows she'd have smelled my issues anyway. I only mean the pain subsided enough that I began to obsess again about girls. It was my same old pattern. But this time I recognized something was wrong. And I decided to get help.CHAPTER 3
Everybody's Got a Story and It's Not The One They're Telling
FOR YEARS I 'D BEEN HEARING ABOUT THI S PLACE outside Nashville called Onsite. I'd heard it described as therapy camp for adults. I'd had several singer/songwriter friends who'd been stuck in their creative work and attended one of Onsite's programs and came back ready to write again. One friend, Jake, told me the program helped him figure out why he had so many screwed-up relationships. He said their workshops dealt a great deal with codependency and shame.
I signed up, but I really didn't want to go. I was mostly going because the breakup had been a bit public and I wanted people to know I was working on my issues. It's that old performer side of me, you know. Part of me believed that with time I could solve my own problems. I'd written best-selling books helping people resolve their issues, after all. Why couldn't I solve my own?
At the time, I was doing research on story structure, on the kinds of plots that make movies compelling. One day I realized something obvious: In all these movies, there was a similar plot. The hero is always weak at the beginning and strong at the end, or a jerk at the beginning and kind at the end, or cowardly at the beginning and brave at the end. In other words, heroes are almost always screwups. But it hardly mattered. All the hero has to do to make the story great is struggle with doubt, face their demons, and muster enough strength to destroy the Death Star.
That said, I noticed another thing. The strongest character in a story isn't the hero, it's the guide. Yoda. Haymitch. It's the guide who gets the hero back on track. The guide gives the hero a plan and enough confidence to enter the fight. The guide has walked the path of the hero and has the advice and wisdom to get the hero through their troubles so they can beat the resistance.
The more I studied story, the more I realized I needed a guide.
THE BUS RIDE FROM THE AIRPORT TO ONSITE WAS terrible. We'd flown in from all over, about forty of us, and we sat uncomfortably close to each other without talking. Even in my late thirties I felt like a teenager being sent to rehab. I looked around, wondering what the other inmates were in for. I tried to categorize them: pervs, cling-ons, pill poppers, conspiracy theorists. SkyMall must have made a fortune off these people during their flights.
When we arrived, I was surprised at the serenity of the place. Onsite is housed in an old mansion on a hill. Almost no other houses or farms are visible from the large front porch. Horses roam behind the mansion and a creek runs between the pasture and the neighboring hill. The staff is friendly, as though pretending they don't have a closet somewhere filled with tranquilizer guns.
Some of us had roommates at Onsite. When I asked the guy on the bed next to me what he was in for, he told me he came to Onsite because he'd destroyed his marriage and his company by telling lies. He said he didn't know why he lied, except he wanted to impress people. But he lied his way into bankruptcy and signed up for Onsite when his ex-wife told him about the place. Interestingly, I found the guy trustworthy after that. I felt like I could tell him anything. I didn't, but I felt like I could.
Excerpted from Scary Close by Donald Miller. Copyright © 2014 Donald Miller. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword by Bob Goff, xi,
Author's Note, xv,
1. The Distracting Noises of Insecurity, 1,
2. You Are Good at Relationships, 9,
3. Everybody's Got a Story and It's Not the One They're Telling, 15,
4. Why Some Animals Make Themselves Look Bigger Than They Are, 23,
5. Three Things I Learned About Relationships From Swimming in a Pond, 37,
6. Performance Anxiety in Real Life, 53,
7. The People We Choose to Love, 69,
8. Control Freak, 81,
9. Five Kinds of Manipulators, 99,
10. Lucy in the Kitchen, 115,
11. The Risk of Being Careful, 133,
12. Great Parents Do This Well, 155,
13. The Stuff of a Meaningful Life, 173,
14. Do Men Do Intimacy Differently?, 187,
15. You Will Not Complete Me, 205,
16. The Place We Left Our Ghosts, 217,
About the Author, 231,