There is a scene in the movie Dead Poets Society where Mr. Keating, played by the late great Robin Williams, takes the young men in his English class out to the courtyard to illustrate an important point. He begins by selecting three of his students and he tells them just to “take a stroll.” So they do, and the other students circle up around them to watch. Each of the three boys start off walking at their own pace, but within seconds – they were completely in sync. (I almost wrote that as “N’sync” – WOW.) They were marching in step, like an army – and the rest of the class eventually found themselves clapping to the rythym. Mr. Keating told them he did this to illustrate how incredibly difficult it is to walk at our own pace in life, to have our own unique identities and beliefs in a world that may call us odd, unpopular, or just plain wrong. And usually, because our need for acceptance is so strong – without realizing it – we start looking, acting, and living just like everybody else around us.
Brennan Manning opens his book Abba’s Child with this quote by E.E. Cummings:
“To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best day and night to make you everybody else, means to fight the hardest battle which any human can fight, and never stop fighting.”
In one of my first conversations about loneliness, I was talking my friend Laura who makes her living by creating and singing beautiful music. She was telling me how difficult it is to maintain her identity in an industry that is always telling her – subtly or blatantly – to change something, add something, or lose something in an effort to become more “marketable.” It’s a constant tension for her. She wants to be nobody but herself, but the world keeps telling her she needs to be somebody different. A lonely battle, for sure.
Don’t we all live in that tension, though? We all long for acceptance….God made us that way. But he also made us creatively unique. I mean…out of 7 billion people, you are the ONLY ONE who has THOSE eyes, THAT laugh, THOSE experiences, THAT special way of doing THAT particular thing.
My friend Jenna said it was lonely to realize that she is her daughter’s ONLY mom. I had never thought about the loneliness of that. To feed her, change her poopy diaper, hold her when she’s crying — others can help, sure — but no one else is her “Mom.” God put her in that role on purpose and no one else can do it like she can. The same is true for you, whatever spot God has you in — whatever roles or jobs or gifts He’s given to you. And it’s an awesome thing, no doubt….
…..but it can be also be a lonely thing.
It’s lonely because you are the ONLY ONE who can be exactly YOU. That won’t change. No one can take your uniqueness away. But…like my man “Double E” said, it’s CRAZY HARD to maintain it. And in an effort to reduce the pain and comfortably fit in, you can easily bury it and deny it. Being who you were meant to be doesn’t come easy. It takes time, and it starts with a step of fearless authenticity….of saying, “The world tells me I’m supposed to feel __________ right now, but I actually feel _________.” Or….”Everyone else says that being a mother/Christian/musician/sister/daughter/wife/girlfiend/manager/beautiful woman should always look like ________ — but for me, it often looks like _________.”
After Mr. Keating explains his courtyard illustration, he invites all the boys to begin walking again – but this time, in their own unique way. Some walk stately, some silly – some fast, some slow – some crooked, some straight.
That’s why these conversations about loneliness are so powerful. Because each one of these women I’ve had the opportunity to speak with has let down their guard, ripped the “I’m living the perfect life” billboard off their instagram posts and in some version said to me, “I know I may seem to be really happy right now, but I’m actually quite lonely.” Well, let me tell you this — you may feel lonely, but you darn sure aren’t alone. And admitting what feels incongruent or different about you allows God the space for Him to do something different in you. And that’s when you get to start walking your own wild and unpredictable journey with Him instead of the lifeless, shallow, store-bought version the world is selling. So….let’s start this year by getting honest. You aren’t like “them,” and that’s actually quite wonderful.
“Since this is the kind of life we have chosen, the life of the Spirit, let us make sure that we do not just hold it as an idea in our heads or a sentiment in our hearts, but work out its implications in every detail of our lives. That means we will not compare ourselves with each other as if one of us were better and another worse. We have far more interesting things to do with our lives. Each of us is an original.” — Paul, to the church in Galatia (5:25, MSG)