It Wasn’t My Life She Was After (Denis Johnson)

There’s a Denis Johnson quote from Jesus’ Son I think of a lot. Maybe not that much, it’s too dark for even my daily thoughts. But I think of it often enough I wanted to archive it here. 

It’s about how scary it is to be vulnerable. How delicate giving someone space for vulnerability is. How facing and facilitating safe space comes with danger. Literally and metaphorically. Inescapably – so it must be faced, acknowledged, and remembered. 

When we were arguing on my twenty-fourth birthday, she left the kitchen, came back with a pistol, and fired it at me five times from right across the table. But she missed. It wasn’t my life she was after. It was more. She wanted to eat my heart and be lost in the desert with what she’d done, she wanted to fall on her knees and give birth from it, she wanted to hurt me as only a child can be hurt by its mother. 

When Michael Bungay Stanier talks about fostering a Best Possible Relationship (BPR) he’s not talking about this scene. He says a BPR is safe, vital, and repairable. Johnson is not describing any of those things. 

But, Johnson is laying the groundwork for how deep, scary, and unpredictable safety can be. 

How life itself comes with beginnings, middles, and ends. How repair is a function of celebrations, sitting across tables, and familial relationships. Just how vulnerable vulnerability actually is.  

There’s a poetic depth required to understand how to help others. It includes learning how to be kind to ourselves too. It ain’t easy, but it sure is essential. 

Ps. We have a Breaking News (YouTube/Podcast) episode on “Optimism” – this Johnson quote didn’t come up, but the BPR sure did.

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