Donald Miller dropping the act, finding true intimacy and the work of getting Scary Close with the people in our lives

Americans are a little more confident in sharing the details of their lives then us British. This is a bit of a generalisation but if there is anything to go by on the books I've been reading of late, all of which have American authors, we've got some catching up to do. And yet we will always be a reticent nation - we of the "stiff upper lip," may come to learn that it's okay if that lip trembles occasionally, but oh please not all the time. So maybe it's this cultural difference that took me a while to warm to Scary Close: dropping the act and finding true intimacy - "intimacy" replacing "sustainability" as the new buzz word that everyone is using, but maybe few really practicing. Scary Close is Miller's chronicle of practicing intimacy and how he went from well-known oh Christ do I have to commit to a relationship best-selling author to a married man finding fulfilment from connecting to others. Consequently Miller starts asking some provocative questions of himself: what if the things that drove him to success (recognition and acceptance from others) were the very things that the perpetuation of his success is keeping from him?

And so Miller explains how in order to get the praise he so craved, he would seclude himself in 'splendid isolation' each winter in a remote cabin far away from everyone he cared about so that he could write another best selling book. And then he meets Betsy a woman who because she is unimpressed by his success and money forces him to take a closer look at himself. If she is not interested in his wit and brilliance – what will it take for him to connect to her? As their relationship progresses, in a completely different fashion to his previous ones, i.e. it takes time for them to fall in love and come together, he finds himself looking at his life anew: what logic is there in taking himself so far away from the woman he loves in order to write a book whose success he believes will be the only “reason” she has to love him.

And so he decamps to Onsite a place that “provides therapeutic and personal growth workshops and intensives that address core, underlying issues, that keep individuals, couples and families stuck in dysfunctional patterns.”As well as snap shots of his time there the book is filled with encounters with some of Miller’s friends who show up along the way offering him guidance and wisdom which lends a parabalesque feeling to Scary Close. For Miller is a Christian and his faith is big and active and informs his every move and as a result the G word is mentioned liberally.

Americans wear their faith loudly and proudly. In the UK people are much more resitent about sharing their religion; religion being an awfully private subject. But there is something interesting about the unabashed way that Miller talks about Jesus and God. The image conjured of Miller's God is of the all American hero - no task is too small, if it means it'll make a difference to another person's life. Support each other. Believe in each other. To this end there is a  All characters mentioned have wisdom to impart and Miller is the lone hero wondering through looking for redemption and finding it in Betsy. Or rather in her refusal to be swept away by everything that he has invested himself in believing counts.

Money... is it cut out to be all that we think?

Miller writes with honesty about the pressure of making money, quoting a Billy Joel song that resonates with him:

“Making money isn’t easy

And it sure won’t make you happy

So I think it’s funny

We’re so concerned with making money.”

And yet he can't quite come to believe, a belief that he probably has a fair bit of company in the rest of us, that those that love him, love him for more then his success. Which is a question we can all relate to perhaps: why is it so hard for to believe that when we take away the job titles and houses, and roles and success that we, naked and vulnerable, hearts beating are enough?  

The beauties...

Miller writes that the world of emotions is not a comfortable place for him to hang out and goes as far to say that he’s not sure it’s a place where men really should be hanging out and yet he writes with growing assurance and confidence about what he wants to share. Which is perhaps why I am more partial to the later part of the book, because it is where Miller gets more specific. He also gets braver.

Because despite the fact that throughout the book morals seem to be a dish best served up straight, Miller comes across as someone you’d like to meet and sit and chat with. There is something of the Kerouac spirit in him: an American writer marveling at the miracle of being, in all her glorious simplicity. But it is the final pages of the book where Miller emphasizes his most compelling points: 

1.   Our partners are not here to “complete” us

&

2.   We need to stop attempting “to squeeze the Jesus out of each other” and recognize that that longing that we all carry within ourselves can only be fulfilled through our relationship to God.

Miller’s final point is a powerful and rare one: we cannot and should not demand that our partner fill this God hole. According to Miller it is only when we die and are reunited with God that this wholeness happens. But if we look past the religious language used, he’s saying something that each of us can understand: our partners are not meant to fill our holes. Nor we theirs. (check out Jungian author Robert Johnson’s writing on this). The only person that can really take care of ourselves is ourselves. And if we can commit to the work, because it is damn hard work, of becoming whole ourselves, rather then seeking it through our relationships or careers, the fulfiment that we long for, may materialize more swiftly then we dreamed possible.  

Miller ends the book with a scene from the rehearsal dinner the night before his wedding to Betsy. He tells the crowd that he and his wife do not “believe that they complete each other.” He describes the confusion that is evident on their friends faces when they hear these words: are the couple breaking up? (Miller concedes that it had sounded better in his head). But he goes on to explain to their friends what he means. Which is something precious and not often talked about in our world: us humans are not meant to be completing each other. Nor sorting out each other’s pains. This task is ours and ours alone. All we can do in our partnerships is stand side by side as we offer “comfort” to our partners as they experience the full tilt of their “longings.” And we stand beside them “side by side.” This is intimacy Miller argues. Learning to give space to, without trampling on or prying into the inner world of our partners in order to find peace of mind for ourselves. It’s also freakin’ hard.

 If you are specific on style then maybe this book won’t be your thing - Miller's style is conversationally confessional. He is more interested, I'm guessing, in the content, the story, the message then getting lost on matters of style which makes the chapters of Scary Close read more like a series of blog excerpts. Which is not uncommon in our post ‘God is dead world,’ where in absence of a local priest to run to to confess our sins, we type them out to the world instead: Dear readers, forgive me for I have sinned….

Scary Close is Miller up close and personal, sharing his sins – his trampling and using of girlfriends along with his empty mentions of the M word even though he had no intention to marry them but just wanted to see where they were with him and so on. But there is something inspiring about the content. It’s a book I’ve been affected and no doubt influenced by. Reading the stories Miller shares makes me want to be a better person… And such is the way that he and his friends interpret the word of God that church increasingly doesn't seem like such a bad place after all. 

Is it for you?

There will be some who won’t like this book but then is there a book that everyone does agree on? Is there a human? But it’s the content – that we must find our wholeness within ourselves, rather then seek it through our relationships or work – that needs championing in our society. After all we mammals are not too dissimilar to one another: we all hold the same hopes to be loved and the same fears of being rejected. And as such it is so easy to shoot down someone who wears his heart on his sleeve and though there be other ways to expose the vision of your heart whether through a painting, sculptor, your family or small acts of kindness there’s something potent about a book served up straight and simple. As the father of a friend said whilst giving the eulogy at her funeral last week: “if we are not living on the edge, we are taking up too much space.” Maybe learning to share our hearts more with others may just be that edge…