But today I learned something, and not in the way I expected.
The passage for Sunday School was John 21: 15-25. (The "feed my sheep" passage). It's one of my personal favorites, but today something new came up.
I often quote commentaries, or theology professors, or other writers who comment. One I use a lot is David Lose, who writes at "Dear Working Preacher" and "in the meantime." And I had quoted a passage from him (with attribution! Always with attribution!) but hadn't read it very closely when I was writing the lesson.
And when I read it out loud, it caught me and I had to pause a little bit. Lose is talking about how Peter is reinstated to "full status" among the Disciples (after his betrayals), and then given a job to do (the whole "feed my sheep" thing). And Lose comments:
"What strikes me, however, is how Jesus in this scene offers Peter what many modern psychologists contend every one of us needs: a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose." (And yes. I think this is true)
He goes on to add, and this is the part that hit me so hard:
First, a sense of belonging. We all need to feel accepted by a larger group in order to have a stable identity and sense of self. This goes against what may seem like common sense – after all, our culture regularly posits that identity is an individual affair, something we carve out for ourselves and by ourselves. But it turns out that the gift of identity is given to us by those around us, as we see ourselves through the eyes of those closest to us. And, just so we’re not confused, belonging is different than fitting in. Indeed, it is the exact opposite (as many of us will remember from adolescence!). Fitting in is changing yourself to be acceptable to the group, whereas belonging is being found acceptable by your group just as you are. We all need to belong.
(The full commentary is here)
But, yeah: how much have I talked about how (as a kid, especially), I longed to "fit in."
And you know what: Lose is right, here. "Fitting in" isn't what I really wanted, and my efforts to try to fit in mostly didn't work. (I've talked before how I tried to listen to "Top 40" radio - which I disliked and what I really cared about was classical music or some forms of jazz or even some of the oldies stuff, instead of the pop of the early 80s, when I was a tween/young teen). What I wanted was to belong, though I guess I called it fitting in.
(Then again: if you had told me at 13, "I can shave off all your rough edges and take away the things that make you different from others," I probably would have gone for it, because I saw "fitting in" as a path to belonging).
I also realize now - my mom has a card up on a bureau, it was a birthday card from a friend of hers - that says "Why fit in when you were born to stand out" and that always bothered me, because "what if I want to fit in?" and because really, being on the "outside' is something I've always found extremely painful.
But yes: belonging is a better word for what I want. (And fortunately, one place I do get a sense of belonging is at church, which is, again, why I give up some of my evenings off to do volunteer work there and why I donate a fair amount of money to its missions). And yes, there is truth to seeing ourselves through the eyes of others. One shallow example: because of how kids teased me as a tween, I came to think I was ugly and strange and it really affected my self image.
That has changed, recently. Partly because of positive things friends (some of whom are people at church) have said about my complexion or my coloring or the clothes I choose, and a few people even out-and-out saying I am "pretty," I've begun to accept that, while I maybe don't fit the mold of "cover girl" in the narrow definition of US beauty, neither am I hideous to look at. And while that doesn't make me vain (I don't think), it makes me self-accepting and more confident and happy. (And the fact that I bother to put on lipstick most of the time now has something to do about that.
And I've said on occasion that "people must see something in me I don't see in myself" and with good friends, that is an important thing: they shore you up with positivity when you're not feeling it and they help you remember who you are when you've forgotten. (Shades of a couple of the season finales of a couple of seasons of Pony, there)
And you know what? Fitting in, in the sense of shaving off the rough and bumpy parts of who you are, or making yourself less "unusual," is overrated. And also - isn't it really denying what is unusual and maybe therefore valuable about me, to want to change that and not be who I actually am?
(And for all I know: maybe by allowing whatever is "weird" about me out, someone else who is "weird" in the same way feels more welcome?)
But yes, I think one of the greatest gifts we can have is friends/family/a group of people around us who do accept us for who we are. (And yes, I hasten to add: people who are harmful to others or who are not being their best selves in some way, I think there are loving ways they can be guided on to another path. But I think also - not expecting people who are "different" in some harmless way to give up that "difference," is a very freeing thing and is good for those folks)