I grew up in a large homeschooling family. We went to Primitive Baptist churches and stood out among the older congregants. Other than my siblings, I didn’t have a real-life friend until I was fifteen. I had a Mormon pen-pal for a few years and somehow made diverse friendships on message boards as the designated fundamentalist. After a devastating week at Boy Scout camp, I really didn’t know if I could do real-life friendships. Maybe I was just too sheltered and too different.
It didn’t stop me from trying.
When I became a teenager, my family joined a new church and suddenly I had connections to people in my age range. I loved to write, so I decided to create a newsletter for other Primitive Baptist youth, especially those who felt isolated like me without friends their own age. The newsletter gave me a voice and purpose; I could present myself as confident, intelligent, and maybe just a little bit cool.
Unfortunately, my social deprivation quickly revealed itself in church camps and out-of-town church meetings. I talked way too fast, stuttered, or just didn’t know what to say to other teenagers. I cried myself asleep many of those nights away from home, embarrassed because I felt like such a freak. I didn’t realize the only way to overcome awkwardness was to work through it, and as Elizabeth Bennett advised the reticent Mr. Darcy, “Practice.” But there weren’t a lot of opportunities to learn when most of the teenagers were hours away from home. Every time I went to a church meeting or camp, I swore I’d never go back. …And then somehow I’d find myself back again a year later.
In junior college, I fell in love with stories, partly because I had an amazing English Literature instructor who would let me hang out in her office and talk about characters, symbolism, and religion. I particularly loved gritty stories with redemptive endings or the sad ones that kicked me in the gut and left me depressed and haunted for days. I majored in psychology so I could hear real-life stories and take part in people’s journeys. I had two dreams: become a psychologist and an author.
Blogging sorta accomplished one of my goals, but it also forced me to face my deepest insecurities. It honestly didn’t matter how much progress I made, I still felt like that awkward, stammering teenager with nothing interesting to say. Worst of all was getting to know some of the writers I’d read for years. I really wanted to belong in their cliques; I hoped they would like me. But the writing community is a fickle, forgetful place. Often you have to do your time before you fit in. The disappointments often hit me hard.
My life has a pretty consistent theme: I depend on others to validate me. I expect to embarrass myself and prove to you how socially incompetent I am. I just know people will inevitably lose interest and concern and I’ll be right back where I started. Alone. Surely I missed out on some vital social script to maneuver through life. How can I convince cool people to teach me? What can I do to attract their attention? I’m ambitious. I work pretty hard to hide my insecurities behind my successes and I’m constantly doing something to feel worthy of your attention: create a newsletter for Primitive Baptist teenagers, start a psychology club in college, publish a blog about being gay and Christian, get accepted into a doctoral program… But success doesn’t guarantee belonging. I still have to do the vulnerable, delicate work of interacting and developing friendships. I can’t run and hide in my room whenever relationships get a little messy and complicated or when it looks like another person has ignored me or doesn’t reciprocate my interest.
I need another perspective.
Marlena Graves wrote a beautiful blend of spiritual memoir and theology last year in her book A Beautiful Disaster: Finding Hope in the Midst of Brokenness. Marlena spoke of our suffering as a wilderness, a place to practice spiritual disciplines to deepen and mature our relationship with Christ. The wilderness is a place to face our insecurities and even has things to teach us about our desire for attention:
“We all, every one of us, want our God-given dignity affirmed by others. We want to receive attention. We want to be valued, appreciated, admired and sought after. We want to feel cherished and adored—to be ‘in’ with others. We want to know our lives matter. We want to be loved. That’s why some of us so desperately want to be famous. It’s why we are overly concerned with our reputations, why we loathe obscurity, and why our confidence hangs on the opinions of others. When it comes right down to it, some of us believe that we matter if and only if hordes of people are fawning over us.”1
Blogging quickly revealed I had some unhealthy motives for writing. Sure, I wanted to help people, but I didn’t feel like I was making much of an impact if the established writing community didn’t notice my posts. Rather than staying faithful to what I loved, I allowed certain people’s lack of enthusiasm to crush my love for the craft of writing and my hopes of becoming writer—a profession that a requires a ridiculous amount of failure and disappointment and honestly never guarantees anything. And when I actually had a viral post, I felt like a deer in front of headlights. I had no idea what to do with the attention.
Marlena offers incredibly helpful insight:
“Pursuing fame and prestige will corrupt my soul and in all probability prove elusive. An out-of-control need to be seen is an addiction that will drive us to compromise the Jesus life. In the kingdom of God, being seen and pursuing fame and prestige are not to be our motivations. That’s why Jesus told us to seek first the kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33). Perhaps our endeavors will lead to fame, but that’s not what we should aim for or why we do what we do.”2
I’m slowly learning not to care what others think of me; i’s not my responsibility to know. All I’m expected to do is live transparently and honestly. Maybe I’m just meant to be the guy in the background. If I can be completely open with just a few close friends, that’s more than enough. Maybe I have a place in the broader discussion of LGBTQs and the church, maybe I don’t. There are already great spokespeople leading the conversation, so I don’t have to strive to be something I’m not. The word is slowly getting out there. Whatever platform God gives me will suffice.
My recent graduate school interview was an incredible experience. It revealed a different paradigm than the one I’d imagined. I’ve spent my life trying to win over people I found interesting, but never really believing I had anything to offer. During my interview I openly shared how my story as a sexual minority deepened my empathy and compassion for the marginalized and the suffering. I spoke up in a student panel and asked a question on the treatment of minorities on campus, revealing I was a gay applicant. In one day I had accomplished what I never would have dared do before I published my blog. My approach during the interview was completely “take me or leave me,” a perspective I’m not normally brave enough to feel. And yet, people would stop and ask me questions about my experience. They told me about gay people they knew. I was shown kindness, respect, and surprisingly, interest. Huh. Who knew?
I’ve built all my dreams on some fairly weighty expectations. Do more, be more and then you will be loved. But all along God has been calling me to minimalism. Do less. Just be you. I have made you enough as you are.
Write and become a clinical psychologist because you want to, Seth.
Pursue your passions because you can’t imagine doing anything else with your life.
Follow your dreams because they still matter even if no one knows your name or thinks you’re worth knowing.
The best friends you’ll have in this life are the ones you don’t have to impress, convince, or win over. They don’t care about your popularity or influence. They don’t want anything from you except your love and friendship. They like your personality, your interests, and your story.
My journey has been long and weighed down with baggage and insecurity. I’ve lingered far too long in the desert. But Marlena reminds me that God hasn’t left me in the wilderness without a purpose. Rather, she writes, “I experience the greatest divine growth spurts deep in the wilderness, in the midst of wild and unwelcomed pain. God uses the suffering I experience in the desert wilderness to show me who I am without him, to drive me to repentance, and to make me holy and wholly alive.”3 For all the insecurity I’ve experienced throughout life, I’ve also found resiliency and optimism to keep giving intimacy another shot. The blog has shown me my fears, but also my courage.
Intimacy scares the heck out of us because we aren’t perfect; we screw up and reveal our selfishness, pride, and yes, our insecurities. But you have to let people show you grace rather than run. The friends worth keeping will stick around. Just love people and let them be. Lose the expectations and live. Embrace the wilderness.
- Marlena Graves, A Beautiful Disaster: Finding Hope in the Midst of Brokenness. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2014, 131.
- Ibid, page 132.
- Ibid, page 195.