When I was a teenager, I yearned to be different. I heard the quote, “Different isn’t always better, but better is always different,” but for a span of years, I believed being different WAS always better. White canvas Keds tennis shoes were popular during my middle school years. I swore I’d never wear them–instead, I bought a pair of white canvas shoes of a different brand, with no rubbery blue label on the back of the shoe. Once on a church youth group outing, I persuaded my friend Lori to switch one of her shoes with one of mine–we each wore a mismatched pair for the entire day. We surely didn’t see anybody else at the event doing this–we were different!
I read about a model in Seventeen magazine who called her fashion sense “quirky” and wore suspenders backwards. Eureka! I would do the same and further my goal of being different. The (only) day I wore backwards suspenders to school, a friend asked with incredulity, “Am I dreaming, or are your suspenders backwards?” One day, I wore long john leggings under a denim mini-skirt. I heard a pair of girls giggling about me as I walked to class that morning, but I remained committed to my aspiration of being different–their laughter at my expense told me I must have gotten it right that day.
For a number of years–before, during, and after that season of longing to be different–I was zealous about making good grades. I was–as a friend once commented–a “fruitcake” about grades. I entered freshman year at my university intending to graduate with a perfect 4.0 grade point average. At the end of my first semester–during which I’d earned a 3.69–I felt I’d ruined that plan in a matter of months. Not until my early 20’s did I understand that grades were a means to an end–not an end unto themselves. I actually believed that the point of school was to make good grades, y’all. Now, what to DO with all those good grades?
I was zealous in my young life. I’ve always been a whole-hearted kind of person; I’m either all in or not in at all. All that zeal, that striving to be an individual, to achieve scholarly greatness, was wrapped up in my need to feel worth, to earn the right to feel good about myself. I passionately pursued what would satisfy that need.
But I haven’t taken classes in which grades were assigned in years. And none of my friends today seems game for switching shoes with me. So…Where do I direct my passion? How do I live my whole-hearted life? What feeds my need for worth?
I’m currently reading the book of Galatians, aiming to read it 20 times before moving onto another part of the Bible. In Galatians 4:18, we read, “It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good…” I ask myself: Am I zealous for what matters? Am I succeeding at the RIGHT things?
Henry David Thoreau wrote, “It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?” Am I busying myself, spending myself, on emptiness–and am I doing that to try and shore up a sense of self-worth?
So now: I invest myself in the good and the important, even if it’s not big. Not the work that garners applause, but the small (sometimes invisible), the vital, the lasting. I invest myself in what’s eternal: the lives of others, the life of faith. I lay my life down for that. It is messy. I believe what God says about me, not working at self-acceptance but at God-trust. If I rest in what He declares is true of me, self-acceptance becomes a non-issue. The God of the universe proclaims that I am His workmanship. That I am lavishly loved, delighted in, created on purpose. That trumps my wavering self-esteem. Every time.
This IS different than how I lived decades ago, and it IS better. Even without backwards suspenders.