“Have you been crying, Luke?” my classmate asked, “because your eyes are all red.” I froze, a wave of shame flashing over me. “Umm, no, I haven’t,” I lied. “My contacts are just bothering my eyes.” Whew, that was close.
Middle school was hard. Elementary school lets you be yourself, and you don’t know to hide your tears from the people around you. But in middle school you learn to split your personality, developing a public persona that people see, and a private one that you don’t dare share. The outer persona becomes a mask, letting you fake your way to fitting in, while also hiding your fear and insecurities far away from public sight. Middle school teaches you to act tough when you’re scared, to look happy when you feel sad, and to act confident when you hurt. You don’t like having a mask, but you rationalize that it’s worth it if it helps you be liked.
Like many, I went through middle school feeling like I didn’t fit in. Actually, it wasn’t a feeling, I didn’t. Physically, I was short, slow, and chunky, and my hand-me-down clothes, and mom-given buzzcut did nothing to help. I bounced around on the fringes in middle school, before settling into an outsider identity. My more athletic and popular classmates sometimes teased me, but usually I got something even worse: ignored.
As I entered high school and the pressure to be athletic and attractive heightened, I felt more and more like an outsider, even as I conformed my outer persona more and more to try to fit in. These feelings of being an outsider reached a high point at the high school dances. True to my feelings, I mingled around the edges, talking with the other fringe guys while the girls in my class danced with the junior and senior guys. High school dances felt like this giant status competition, which made me feel like a leftover. And so as I sat on the sides, I resolved to myself: someday I’m going to be one of the insiders.
So I got to work. I’d stay up late shooting baskets and then get up early to work at the gas station across the street, so that I could buy nicer clothes than my family could afford. I noticed what people thought was funny, and figured out how humor could cut down the other guys while impressing girls. I studied and studied, thinking a little letter at the top of the paper would prove I was a somebody. I slowly started to achieve more, lured on by the attention and respect I started to get. And by graduation, while outwardly I got what I wanted, inwardly, I still hadn’t found the peace that I thought would come.
I moved on to college, where I felt like even more of an outsider than ever before. I was out of my small town high school, so the popular kids were all from well-off families and big suburban high schools that taught them how to navigate the college social scene. I resorted to my “achievement will lead to acceptance” strategy, and threw myself back into using grades, clothes, and personality to make it happen. If I could get the perfect career, and be the perfect guy, and marry the perfect girl, I’d feel accepted, right?
As my 20s have passed, this cycle has repeated itself over and over. Even now, I still feel like an outsider more often than not, sabotaging any evidence of insider status in order to motivate myself to work harder. Those moments still make me feel like that 15-year-old boy sitting on the edge of the dance, thinking that if I just achieved a little more then the pretty girls would notice me. And so you work and work for that elusive feeling of acceptance, but only find exhaustion in its place. It’s easy to get older, but harder to grow up and let go of the identities you developed when you were young.
In the last year, I’ve finally realized that my real problem, even in middle school, was never that other people didn’t love and accept me, but rather that I don’t love and accept myself. I manipulated my memories to fit my narrative, that I was rejected and disliked. I kept trying to prove myself to other people, thinking that if they liked me, then maybe that would convince me to like myself.
I’ve been wrestling with this for years, and while I see the isolating exhaustion this causes in my life, I still struggle to believe that I have value if I don’t achieve. Your idol comes to you in your lowest moments to whisper, “You are such a failure…nobody actually likes you, and if you stop worshiping me they’ll abandon you.” That’s why idols are so powerful, since you’re enslaved to it when you’re doing well and rejected by it when you’re not.
As I’ve been writing this, I’ve thought of one of the songs that twelve-year-old Luke downloaded from Napster (don’t tell anyone), Blessid Union of Souls’ “Hey Leonardo (She Likes Me for Me).” It was a fringe hit, but I loved it, since the song was about how the lead singer’s girlfriend likes him for him, not because he’s rich or handsome or talented. The chorus states over and over this key point, that “she likes me for me.” That seemed like such a dream to me back then, that someone could accept you not for your accomplishments, but just because you’re you. I’m struck how this mirrors the radical claim of the gospel that we all so struggle to believe: that God loves me for me.
Is that true? Could God really love me just for being me, and not because of any other thing? It’s so contrary from the world’s message that gets fed to us from everywhere, that God doesn’t love you for you, but instead for what you do. And so we’re caught in this war between grace and works, yearning for grace to let us put down the masks we developed in middle school and reject the need to perform. Grace is the truth we need every day, that no matter what you do, God loves you for you.
Photo by Drew Hall