My niece posted a meme a day or so ago that really made me think. It was about separating from people that hold us “back,” or something to that effect. I stared at it for a moment or two, and the next thing I thought of was that it wasn’t necessarily people that held me back at one time or another. It was the things they said about me that I believed.
They were not always true, or perhaps based in truth but executed in cruelty.
I don’t think many people would disagree our preteen and teen years truly are formative. That time is our proving ground for adulthood. We learn how to treat people. For all intents and purposes, we form ourselves from the looseness and carefree time of childhood into what we will become.
We form our self-images.
In some cases, this is a good thing—maybe in many cases. But I believe for every kid that comes out of their childhood thinking positive things about themselves, there is probably another who struggles—sometimes a great deal.
We hear the things people say about us, and probably more often than we should, we believe them. Sometimes even our friends can inadvertently say things that we wish we could forget.
I think it would be fair to say there are always “those kids” at the teenage level, who make it their mission to dismantle the self-image of kids who do not conform to their normality. That was me. Those kids let me know who I was in their eyes, and who I was not. At the same time, my brother had already got started on turning me into a bit of a mess.
For as long as I could remember, I heard things—these Iago-like whispers—that made it oh so clear I was not supposed to be here. I was an accident. They only pretended to love me. Things like that, and worse. And because I was young, I believed that shit for most of my adolescence.
Then I had the kids in my junior high who seemed to focus on my size. I had always been tall for my age, and became broad as well once I got through puberty. All my “classmates” could focus on was my extra “padding” in the midsection.
They said things like “fat,” “fat cow,” and one time the extremely eloquent “fat p.o.s.” It slowly dawned on me they were right, too. I knew it was possible to change that, but it seemed pointless. I wasn’t ever going to amount to anything anyway.
I was carrying that when I started High School. It would not be an understatement to say I was not one of the cool kids. We were not well off at all, and my clothes were never designer, and sometimes not even new. It shouldn’t have mattered, but kids can be more cruel than the Marquis de Sade so it ended up kind of making things harder.
I was bussed from Santee to Grossmont high school, and I remember how crappy the kids from that neighborhood were to those of us who could not afford the trappings of wealth many of them could, and who didn’t look the way cool or attractive people were supposed to.
That was me for sure. Overweight by the in-crowd’s standards. Average-looking at best. Generic or used clothing, for the most part. The “fortunate” kids were always kind enough to let me know where I fit in the scheme of things.
There was one time in particular that stuck with me–well, two. The first was one day early in the school year. I remember getting on the bus and feeling like the clothes my sister had purchased me looked pretty good for a change, and my new Payless shoes looked just like Adidas. I thought it might make a difference.
I remember one kid when I got off deliberately stepping on my shoes and making them dirty, while another berated the “Kmart specials” I was wearing. I was utterly humiliated.
The other time I was getting out of my car at the Parkway Bowl theater about a year after my mom died and I was wearing this rugby shirt I liked a lot and a pair of actual Levi’s I’d purchased myself. A carload of high school boys (football players, by their jackets) drove up and yelled “egg the fat kid,” which they proceeded to do. Thankfully, their aim was much worse than their probably beer-impaired judgment, and they only hit me once, right on the chest of my rugby shirt.
Egg the fat kid, indeed.
I’m not sure why, but when I saw my niece’s meme today, it made me think of the careless cruelty of my peers when I was the age we care about what people think the most. I so wanted what they had, because I thought I’d fit in. Maybe even get popular friends.
Instead I got labeled.
I went against everything most guys my age were into.
I read—books and comics.
I didn’t watch sports (though we did play a lot of pickup basketball and football).
I was poor, and out of shape.
I was into drama, and men’s chorus (glee?).
The friends I did have cared not at all what kind of jeans I wore, how I dressed, or how much weight I carried.
They still don’t. Maybe that’s why I never really cared much for brand clothes as an adult.
And then there came a point where I stopped caring about my labels, and began to realize the person I was had little to do with them.
A couple of years ago, some executive at Abercrombie and Fitch made some comments about “fat chicks” patronizing his stores. He created a pretty big stink, and it goes without saying a lot of people were angry. It also made a lot of women (and men) reject their labels, and that is a very good thing. It might be worth adding that by all accounts, the A and F CEO is supposedly a bit of a troll in addition to his PhD in douchebaggery. It seems evident he is attempting to make up for whatever he feels he missed out on in his youth.
He’s going to fail, and no matter how expensive the clothes are he wears, in his heart he will always be the fat kid, or the poor kid, or the kid with buck teeth. There is only one way to find healing for those kind of wounds, and it is not through wanton buying sprees and callow and superficial attitudes toward people who don’t meet some arbitrary fashion standard.
If it weren’t for Jesus, I would still be trying to meet those standards and trying to please people who didn’t like me for who I was, and would never love me for who I wasn’t. It was and remains ridiculous.
Let me say to you now, if you live your life trying to please people by being cool, you’re going to fail.
It’s human nature to try and conform to what “everyone” is doing. We have an inherent need to fit in somewhere.
Unless the people you’re trying to fit in with know the real you—know your true self—than whatever it is you’re trying to do, or whoever you’re trying not to be, will amount to a handful of smoke.
Maybe you were once the fat kid.
The ugly girl, or geek boy.
Or maybe you were poor.
The stupid retard.
The bible thumper.
The whore, or the worthless junkie.
Don’t try to live down any of that stuff. Don’t let what people have said in the past—or are saying now—define you.
Don’t be subject to a label.
Don’t label anyone else.
Labels are false.
While you may even be some of those things, you are not defined by that. It isn’t you. What you do (or have done) and who you are don’t have to be the same thing.
Let me tell you a little about the people I spend most of my leisure time with now. We’re a bunch of different folks. Stay at home moms. Property managers. Children’s ministers. Sound engineers and musicians. My closest friend is a pastor who doesn’t get to preach that often, but still helps change lives, mine included.
These people know the truth of me and love me in the purest sense—as friends.
That label I accept.
Friend. Along with husband, father, brother.
Lastly, consider there was a person designed for you to be before you got here. Your path to becoming that person is not always easy.
But I believe you get there not just by rejecting people who are holding you back, but by rejecting the many, many labels we are given who do not define who we are.
We are not:
Our true identity lies within, given to us by our maker. We are his children above all other things—sons and daughters. He does not make mistakes. Whether or not you believe that does not make it any less true.
Once you accept that label, everything changes.