Wednesday, May 1, 2013

On Being an Outsider: A Memoir

One theme that has been prominent in my life is that of being on "the outside." As early as age 7, I remember my older brother and his friends not wanting to play with me and feeling so left out (a crash course in developmental psychology may have come in handy there, but alas, my elementary school didn't offer that). Vignettes like this are, of course, a normal part of growing up; but the dynamics surrounding my father's death when I was a teenager intensified those already-tender feelings, and in some ways cemented the lie on my heart: "I'm on the outside." 

The transition to fatherlessness was slow and painful. He was sick for four years, which dispersed our family of eight across the country for numerous seasons while my father was hospitalized. My first Thanksgiving away from Mom and Dad at age 11, I remember searching for words to describe the strangeness I felt being in someone else's home, eating someone else's turkey, watching someone else's family. The words didn't come, of course. Only awkward 11-year-old tears on my aunt's shoulder in her bedroom after dinner. 

In our hometown, the feelings persisted. I remember driving to school with my brother in silence, listening to a song about another father's death. At least there in the car filled with sadness, we had a community. My brother, I and the unknown musician understood each others' pain and could be at home together. But when we arrived at school, we dried our faces and walked into a crowded hallway filled with oblivious peers, most of whose greatest suffering consisted of a broken arm from a ski vacation or not making the Varsity basketball team. I searched for words to describe the strangeness I felt in that hallway day after day; I, whose world was so heavy, whose every moment hung on the chance of my father's last breath, was supposed to have something funny to say in gym class. 

In the wake of his passing and the fracturing of my family, I felt totally estranged from the squeaky clean (read: fully present) families surrounding me. Suddenly, homecoming dances, church pot-lucks, and Christmas cards made my insides turn from the painful sense of otherness I felt in their presence. Finally, the words did come, confirming my suspicions about being on the outside in one definitive title: "Orphan."  

In my pain, I desperately sought a community to be "inside," to belong to. Given some other dynamics at work in my life, I found this most accessible through boyfriends. My willingness to do anything in order to feel spoken for, to feel close, to feel safe-- not to mention my willingness to try anything to feel escape and release from the pain-- made what seemed like front-page-news at my small Christian school. Suddenly, gym class was a lot more awkward than it was before, if that's possible. In other words, my sinful response to the evil dealt to me made me both victim and culprit, and the suffering that ensued was a cocktail of grief-- due to living in a broken world, but also due to my own brokenness. High school was a season of life where pain and shame flowed together, and it was hard to separate one from the other.

Recently, these memories-- and this theme of feeling on the outside-- reappeared. One nonchalant comment from the wrong person had me internally re-living an old narrative: orphan; outsider; alone. I shared these feelings with a trusted mentor and she encouraged me to re-interpret my story by meditating on the truth that I belong to Christ, and am "on the inside" with Him: as a Christian, I am no longer an orphan, but a beloved daughter; no longer alone, but Christ's friend and sister. I contemplated this advice, and realized my reluctance to accept it. "But, so much of my feelings of isolation in high school were the result of my own sin," I said, "If I go back to those memories with God, maybe He'll validate the words of all those who looked down their noses at me; maybe He'll say I deserved to feel the way I felt." 

It was in that moment that I thought, of all things, of a school assignment of mine-- a paper I wrote on Genesis 16: an obscure text about Hagar, a foreign slave woman who ran away because her haughty attitude got her in trouble with her mistress. Alone in the desert, God came to her and blessed her. He told her, "Return to your mistress and submit to her...I will surely multiply your will name your child Ishmael, which means 'God has heard you' in your affliction." I realized in that moment that God cared about Hagar's suffering even though He knew her sin was part of its cause. He exposed the sin of her haughtiness and commanded her to live differently, but in the same sentence He promised that He would bless her, for He heard her affliction. 

I initially chose to write on that passage because I was interested in God's loving treatment of "outsiders" from the perspective of salvation history: my thesis was that here, at the beginning of the Bible, God displays His care for the outcasts by going after them and offering them new life. As a Christian, this good news is what I want to spend my life sharing with others. But yesterday as I was reflecting on my own story, I realized that this passage shows His love for outsiders in another sense as well; the sense that has been a major theme in my life. I realized that God invites me in even when I'm to blame. Yes, my sin has a part to play in my suffering. But even that is not enough to keep God from pursuing me, hearing my affliction, and extending His blessing to me. 

At the end of the Genesis 16 passage, Hagar says, "You are the God who sees." Today, I'm realizing that is a good thing; that I can go with Him to those painful memories-- where my own rebellion was such a factor-- and not fear His rejection or condemnation. Rather, through His incredible love in taking that rebellion upon Himself in the shape of the cross-- I can know that even my sin can't keep me from being safe with Him, "inside" with Him, belonging to Him.

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