“Later when King Xerxes’ fury had subsided, he remembered Vashti and what she had done and what he had decreed about her. Then the king’s personal attendants proposed, “Let a search be made for beautiful young virgins for the king. Let the king appoint commissioners in every province of his realm to bring all these beautiful young women into the harem at the citadel of Susa. Let them be placed under the care of Hegai, the king’s eunuch, who is in charge of the women; and let beauty treatments be given to them. Then let the young woman who pleases the king be queen instead of Vashti.” This advice appealed to the king, and he followed it…Before a young woman’s turn came to go in to King Xerxes, she had to complete twelve months of beauty treatments prescribed for the women, six months with oil of myrrh and six with perfumes and cosmetics. And this is how she would go to the king: Anything she wanted was given her to take with her from the harem to the king’s palace. In the evening she would go there and in the morning return to another part of the harem to the care of Shaashgaz, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the concubines. She would not return to the king unless he was pleased with her and summoned her by name. When the turn came for Esther (the young woman Mordecai had adopted, the daughter of his uncle Abihail) to go to the king, she asked for nothing other than what Hegai, the king’s eunuch who was in charge of the harem, suggested. And Esther won the favor of everyone who saw her. She was taken to King Xerxes in the royal residence in the tenth month, the month of Tebeth, in the seventh year of his reign. Now the king was attracted to Esther more than to any of the other women, and she won his favor and approval more than any of the other virgins. So he set a royal crown on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti. And the king gave a great banquet, Esther’s banquet, for all his nobles and officials. He proclaimed a holiday throughout the provinces and distributed gifts with royal liberality.”
- The Book of Esther Chapter 2
We love to preach and teach Esther. “For such a time as this” can make even the churchiest of Saints go up in a tongue. We skip right over the inhumane treatment Vashti faced to celebrate Esther’s selection. We want to be Esther. We want to know what it’s like to wear the crown and win the favor. Sadly, more of us know what it’s like to be the other women than we know what it’s like to be chosen. Like the sisters preparing to see the king, we do our work. We read books. We go to ALL the women’s conferences and retreats. We get our spirits and our bodies right. We know what it’s like to take everything we have into spaces and it still not be enough. The women, after the king rejected them, spent the rest of their days a part of his harem; they became his concubines and/or handmaidens of the newly crowned Esther. They weren’t good enough to be the Queen but they were good enough to serve her. The King didn’t like them enough to commit time and effort toward them but he liked them just fine to dip back in it every now and again. Can you imagine your position in life being rooted in your rejection? How are you supposed to move forward when everything about who you are is a reminder that you weren’t “the one”?
So many of us go to church…we go to work and put on the faces that mask the pain. We can’t tell anyone that sometimes we cry because it didn’t work out. We’re not given room to share that it still stings when the kids go to their dad and stepmom’s for the weekend. No one wants us to be honest about the fact that, if he said “let’s try again”, we would not hesitate to say yes. Or many of us aren’t even allowed to be honest about the fact that we’ve never been in real relationships…that partnership and intimacy have been elusive. That we get picked/looked over no matter how many times we’ve put our best foot forward. We can’t talk about these things because they tell the truth. A painful truth. And instead of sitting with someone in pain, we’d rather rush them to a false healing. But that's not how this works. I don't think that's how any of this works.
Maybe part of healing and moving forward/on is allowing for the full recovery of every part of ourselves that has been wounded. Many of us put every ounce of our selves into relationships that refused to recognize the gifts we were. We deserve the time for our full selves to heal from the trauma. While navigating my own grief journey, a counselor told me that I need to take the time to acknowledge every space in me that hurts…and why it hurts. Many of us need to do the same as we journey through heartbreak to wholeness. We need to acknowledge that our minds hurt because we didn’t think this could happen…and that our hearts hurt because there was once love there…and our bodies hurt because we miss the touch of people who mattered to us. We can’t be afraid to name pain. And, not only do we need to name how we’ve been hurt, we also need the space to grieve all that we have lost. The endings of relationship have tangible realities. Memories are just that now- memories. But, honestly, we mourn more than what we can see when the relationship is over. We cry for worlds we dreamed in that love that we will never see. Unborn hopes have died and they deserve proper bereavement.
And I hope, one day, men take seriously the ways they have hurt us and how that breeds fear, bitterness and- yes, even hatred. I hope they see how our culture demands they treat us like the king treated those women and celebrates them when they walk in that fullness. I hope they do their work to be good, ethical partners worthy of the love they’ve been given because, while we have wanted their apologies, many of us have just simply wanted them to do right by us. And I hope that the Esthers and other women in our lives (many of whom were hurt but never healed) understand that we don't need "tough love" when we are already hurting. We don’t need them telling us why we aren’t the chosen ones. The shame isn't ours. It belongs to the men who refused to love us well.
And may we as the sisters not (yet) chosen learn not to despise Esther. May we find the strength not to hate the homegirl who "wins" and gets the love we wanted. First, it never serves us well to see ourselves in competition with each other particularly when it comes to love. But, most importantly, Esther is dealing with stuff too. Be clear. While these women may be the ones men choose to love, these sisters are often making some kind of concessions to make it work. Life happens to all of us and pain is real. Esther isn’t our enemy; a system designed to allow some and not all of us to win at the game we want to play is the real foe.
I wish we could all bump into our baes tomorrow while buying 75% off Valentine's Day candy and live happily ever after. But if we don't, I sincerely pray that we give ourselves all the room to acknowledge how love has hurt us and the courage to name the ways we have been changed by the experience. Most importantly, I pray that we fight to believe in love again. I intentionally write about singleness and the longing many of us feel because it’s real. Too often, we’re dismissed or told to be quiet. But we deserve to be seen and heard with all of our complexities. And, at the same time, our histories are not the fullness of our narratives. We are so much more than what has happened to us. We are more than bearers of painful legacies. We are more than rejected concubines and consolation handmaidens. We are much, much more. I’m reminded of that every time a sister uses my inbox as safe space. Or when I get to meet someone after a talk and we begin to share with each other. There is so much power in our stories and in our ability to thrive beyond and in spite of pain.
Let us flourish.