In June 1967, my family had to leave our home in Beirut because of the Six-day War. While other expats waited it out in Cyprus, the Waring family soaked up the sun on the Island of Skiathos. After about a week on the Greek isle, we returned to the small college compound that held all my before-evacuation-vacation life experiences.
For a long time I thought evacuation was the way to vacation.
For even longer I thought right behavior was the way to belonging.
On the small island of my experience, most every person I met — from earliest memory until I entered college — belonged to the same group. Everyone I knew studied at the group’s schools, worked at one of the group’s hospital, or, most important, attended the group’s churches. These people all knew the same Truth with a capital T — so they all behaved in certain ways. And I learned early that good behavior meant approval and belonging.
Imagine my surprise when I found out about life beyond my island of experience; not everyone on earth was part of the group!! My illustrated story book showed dark-skinned women with huge gold hoops in their ears. I prayed that they would stop wearing jewelry because it meant they didn’t know in Jesus. But if they stopped wearing earrings, they could go to heaven.
As I grew older, belonging became super important. I might live in a man’s world and feel like an unfriendable freak, but I was part of my group. I knew almost everything about good behavior and bad behavior.
|Pray||Listen to Rock music|
|Stay home and study for school and memorize Bible verses||Eat meat, drink beer, smoke, use drugs, go to movie theatres, dance, wear jewelry|
|Make parents proud: get good grades, keep room tidy, practice piano||Disappoint parents: get bad grades, talk back, or do the above bad things|
You either stand inside your story and own it or you stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness.” ~ Brené Brown.
Without a thought, I hunkered down to hustle and behave. I needed to say I am fine. I am fine. I am fine, Fine, FINE! Behavior was a stellar way to smother all that was not fine and numb the pain that was below the surface of my story.
Behave (get busy!)
I found heaps of acceptable ways to live on the surface, to ignore the inner ache. In high school: sing in the chorale, work on the yearbook, take violin lessons, work part-time as a hospital messenger, join the drama club, play summer softball, learn racquetball, and shadow the hospital chaplain on visitation. In college: sing, run, swim, jazzersize or play more racquetball, join & then lead a student volunteer organization, work part-time on the paint crew, join a national honor society, and become student body religious vice president.
Looking at my day planner with every slot filled made me smile. An empty hour slot made me anxious. Was I slacking?
The beauty of busy was that when I kept moving and I could mostly rush past the moment in front of me. The busy bonus: I proved over and over and over that I was worthy of belonging to the group. I might even score points in the game How Will You Make Us Proud?
It’s so easy to figure out who belongs by watching how they behave. And boy, did we group members watch. We watched each other and wondered, Is that right? Do I do it as well as that? We watched ourselves and wondered, What will other people think? Between looking at other group members and worrying about how our own behavior measured up, it’s amazing that we had any energy to look around us. But we did!
We had the truth. And the MOST important behavior was to spread it!
Spreading the truth made me queasy. I lived in fear of meeting someone outside a story book illustration. Someone real who wore earrings, ate meat, danced, said Jesus as a curse word, prayed to the Pope, or smoked pot. In short, behaved badly.
The non-believer’s agenda frightened me: she wanted to tempt me to smoke, drink, dance, eat lard, say sh*t, and deny Jesus. My own agenda was just as scary: I must fix the person. Explain the Truth, give her the list of right behaviors, and convince her to fix her behavior. This would prove that I was a worthy sharer of the truth. That I belonged. Oh, and I that really loved Jesus.
Honestly, I didn’t care enough for anyone’s eternal salvation — mine or a stranger’s — to resist temptation, explain truth, and fix behavior. I loved Jesus, but couldn’t I love him with the people who already knew how to behave the right way?
Right behavior & belonging
Without question I saw myself as broken and in need of fixing through right behavior. (In college there was still the small matter of waves of wonderful to confess and stop.) I saw other people as broken and thought it my job to fix them by fixing their behavior. If I could fix my behavior, I would belong. If I could fix others’ behavior, they would belong.
Belonging never came with right, approved, or perfect behavior. It never does.
I am angry that I believed behavior was the way to belonging. For. So. Long.
But now I am here
How has belonging bloomed for me? I’m still a bit puzzled on that one. I do not have a full day planner. I don’t own a day planner. This makes me so happy. On good days, I have nothing to prove. Zip. Zero. And there are fewer and fewer bad, prove-your-worth days. It is a privilege, a small victory, to show up as myself and believe that is enough. Honest about pain, joy, loneliness, and confusion as I pay attention to the difficult and delicious moment that is right now.
I never expected to have this life of connection, hope and wonder. But I’ve decided to stand inside my story, and that has brought me here.
Over to you
What have you mistaken for ways of belonging? Do you feel angry about it? You can’t change the past, but you can change how you see it and choose how your story ends.
When we deny our stories, they define us. When we own our stories, we get to write a brave new ending.” ~ Brené Brown
It’s time to step inside your story, sit with personal anger, and start healing.