“I bet you can’t dive all the way to the bottom and touch the grate,” he dared me.
I was five years old. A toe-headed, deeply tanned, tiny thing, but boy, could I swim. I wasn’t daunted by the Olympic-sized swimming pool sparkling before me.
“But I got my clothes on,” I answered, waiting to see if he’d take back the challenge.
“If you do it, I’ll buy you a pony,” he replied with a smirk.
And that was all it took. Like a bullet from a gun, I shot quickly into the water, sans swimsuit or not, pointed finger first to touch the drain at the bottom of the pool. Spoiler alert. I reached my goal easily, and broke through the surface of the water, just as quickly, sucking in air hungrily. Almost as hungrily as I ached for his response.
Here’s the thing about five-year-old me. I really wanted a pony. I asked if I could get one, more than once, not understanding the obstacles that stood in the way of my cowgirl princess dreams, such as living in an apartment, or being dirt poor. I just wanted one, and my father had agreed I could get one. Several times. The poolside promise wasn’t a new thing.
Here’s the next thing. I knew I wasn’t getting a pony. I may had only recently learned to tie my shoelaces, but I understood a thing or two about human behavior. The promise of a pony was like wishing upon a star. It worked in Disney cartoons, but not for little girls who changed schools a billion times a year, chasing dad across the country while he sowed his oats. I didn’t even want the pony. Not at that moment.
I was proud of myself, though. I tried to reel it in, but I couldn’t help it. Sure, touching the bottom of the deep end was nothing new for me, but it was for him. And mom knew I could do it, but he didn’t know. He’d been gone when I learned. Where did he go anyway? With just a backpack and the contents of our bank account, for months at a time?
Yessiree, I was proud. I was cheesing, big time, and I waited for his response with anticipation. Wouldn’t he be so proud?!
All I can remember is the chuckle. A half laugh, half “well, I’ll be damned.” He laughed at the sport of a smiling girl, and then he turned and walked away, probably afraid I’d get his smoldering, filterless Camel wet. I guess I remember something else. I remember my heart breaking. It didn’t ache for a pretty pony to keep in the nonexistent backyard, though. It ached for affection. I wanted him to be proud of me.
I can look back on the muddled years of my past, and I can see that same longing. Love me! See me! Make me feel worthwhile! I floated through friendships, relationships, and most facets of my life like a little girl kicking like crazy to reach the bottom. If I could just touch the grate, he’d be proud. Maybe he’d even stay around for a while. If I could just be skinny enough, pretty enough, smart enough. If I wore the right clothes, the other girls would accept me. If I slept with him on the first date, he’d have to like me. If I agreed to be agreeable, then my husband wouldn’t leave me. So many parts of myself I gave up or gave away, just hoping to finally feel the satisfaction of being worth something to someone. Anything to anybody.
I never got that pony, and I never found what I was looking for in the arms of mankind. Don’t get me wrong; I found love. I currently reside in the most fulfilling and joyous marriage I could fathom, but I had to come to a place in life where I realized my self-worth and personal happiness couldn’t be found in the acceptance, opinion, or affections of this world. As the years went by and I scoured the pages of my Bible, I finally understood my purpose and fullness were found therein. A Savior who called me precious, that was what mattered most. A God who became man, to give His life for me, that was what I had been longing for. An unconditional love that said, ‘you can have all of me, and you don’t have to give me a thing,’ that was what had been missing. I didn’t have to perform, fit into a box, or do anything other than just believe that love was there for me. And when I finally realized His great grace was enough, that His strength was sufficient, and that His love never failed, I stopped kicking. I stopped striving to reach the bottom, to obtain the love of the world, or to fill my cup with empty promises. Because, I never needed the promise of a pony. I only needed perfect love.