Excerpted with permission from "What Matters Most: Ten Lessons in Living Passionately From the Song of Solomon."

Ed. Note: The unnamed woman whose love affair is celebrated in "Song of Solomon" is referred to several times as "the Shulammite," probably from her native town of Shulem. Ridiculed and outcast by her family, the Shulammite pursues her elusive lover and appears to flout the role traditionally assigned to women in the Bible. "Song of Solomon" is usually interpreted as an allegory of God's love for his people or Christ's love for the church. But author Renita Weems reads the verses literally, as the story of a strong, passionate woman with much to teach today's women.

Your desire for a full and fulfilling life will remain at the level of desire and will never become a reality until you begin to live your life as a choicemaker. Waiting your whole life to be chosen, rescued, loved, noticed, offered a chance, picked for the part, and singled out for love is a sure way to sit by and watch life pass you by. It's also a sure way to spend a great deal of your life feeling like a victim instead of a heroine.

The Shulammite could have resigned herself to waiting for love to find her, to remaining a victim of her brothers' bullying, to living in fear. God knows she endures enough in the eight chapters she left us to justify her staying put and giving up on taking chances. But she did not, and neither should we. The Shulammite risked ridicule, criticism, challenge, failure, and embarrassment for the possibility of living a bigger life than the one society assigned to her as a woman. Romance was her chance for escape from her brothers' rule because that was the era in which she lived.

Centuries later, women with far more options available to them than the Shulammite ever had still expect romance to save them from a dull life. But it rarely does. It didn't back then. The black-skinned maiden took a risk and followed her passions. What you risk reveals what you value. That's the real point of her story. Romance doesn't save you; being unafraid to choose, to take risks, to make a decision is what makes it possible for things to turn around in your life.

Who knows? Had the chance to travel as a diplomat to exotic regions like the Queen of Sheba, or to study law as a student of Scripture like the prophet Hulda, or to become a disciple like Mary Magdalene to a charismatic teacher been options for the Shulammite, she may have chosen any of these over love. But those weren't her options. Our heroine chose building a life for herself over slaving away in someone else's vineyard. Even if romance failed, there was always the chance that something else would come along. And when and if it did, fortunately she was in the habit of weighing her options and stepping out.

Women who have something of the Shulammite in them are choicemakers. They know how to dive deep within and tap into the inner resources God has given them to help them plot out some strategies for changing their circumstances. Following one's passions doesn't mean haphazardly chasing after every whim that strikes you nor accepting every offer extended you. Being passionate means living your life fearlessly. What if I make a mistake? What if something goes horribly wrong? What if I lose more than I gain? What if I make a fool of myself? After all, choices have consequences.

The Shulammite endured ridicule, she was assaulted by the powers that be, she met indecisiveness from the shepherd once she let him in her heart, and she met skepticism from her close friends, the daughters of Jerusalem. Who wouldn't think twice about their decision-making power after putting up with these things? But you either grow or allow yourself to be diminished by the choices you make or choose not to make. Messing up is the risk you take for stepping out. But it's also the feedback we need for how to take pain and use it for growth.

But what if the path you're about to take leads you off the beaten path and falls outside the norm of what others deem acceptable? Didn't the Shulammite deserve the beating she got from the city guards (SS 5:7)? After all, what business did she have roaming the streets at night in search of some man? Women don't pursue men; they sit back and wait to be pursued. Then there's the matter of her initiating intimacy, taking off in the middle of day to romp with her sweetheart, and openly sharing her fantasies with the public? Isn't such frankness and aggressiveness in women unfeminine? Isn't she guilty of acting the harlot? Isn't that what religion is for, to set up some guidelines for helping to protect us from ourselves?

Here is where we come to one of those pivotal forks in the road. We find ourselves having to decide on the norms, values, and attitudes that have been handed down to us for centuries-norms, values, and attitudes that probably reflect more our culture's views toward women than they do God's expectations of the female sex.

The fact is that there have always been women and men who have refused to live their lives according to conventional norms. But the punishments for not doing so have not been meted out equally. While audiences are apt to respond with surprise, curiosity, and even a bit of admiration when men challenge the status quo, the same behavior in a women is likely to evoke horror, revulsion, and ready indignation. How dare she? Who does she think she is? Get back in line.

Lessons of our 20s, 30s, and Beyond
On the basis of who you are and what you know, you must make a decision about which path to take. When a women is young, say in her twenties, she's apt to minimize and renounce her strength because she fears that she'll miss out on finding a mate and starting a family if she exhibits all of her strength and intelligence. Minimizing your strength is easy when you are, like most, clueless about who you are and what you're capable of.

A woman in her thirties, on the other hand, has had an opportunity to learn a few things about herself and is less likely to renounce her strength, though she stands ready to tell herself many times that she's perfectly willing (and able) to fold it up and tuck it away if Mr. Right comes along, offering his arm, thereby making it unnecessary for her to flex her muscles. "When Sleeping Beauty wakes up," writes the poet Maxine Kumin, "she's likely to be 50 years old." That's just about the time when a woman cares little about what others think and becomes almost obsessed with exercising more control over her own life.

Finally, God offers every one of us choices, decisions, the opportunity to learn and grow from our experiences, and the invitation to work with God in shaping who we will become. Your life will have its share of failures and unchosen circumstances, but it is not just what happens to us that shapes us, but what happens inside us that makes all the difference. We can and do survive deprivation, loss, a broken heart, assault, illness, and having to start over because we learn how to separate what's happening to us from the essence of who we are. "I made a bad decision by allowing my last boyfriend into my life. But that doesn't make me a stupid woman. I just made a bad decision." "I have breast cancer, but that doesn't mean I'm being punished by God for something from my past." "I am divorced, not unlovable."

There is in every woman the potential to be the heroine, not the victim, in her own journey. You become a heroine by refusing to beat up on yourself for mistakes you made in the past and by refusing to see choices as an ambush and opportunity for failure. Distinguishing real love from the fantasy of being rescued, learning how to choose a course of action for yourself and seeing it out to its end, is what gets easier as you begin to accept that you are a choicemaker.

It's one of those lessons many of us didn't learn until we were well into our forties because it took that long to unlearn old lessons, although it needn't take our daughters and their friends that long to learn now that they have us to tell them the truth. I wish there had been someone in my life when I was in my twenties honest enough to tell me the truth. Someone who might have prodded me to ask myself, "What if I, and I alone, am responsible for my happiness, my success, and my overall well-being?" I might have made some different choices sooner instead of later. How about you?

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