Do you have one too?
I hope not.
Sadly, I’ve got a string of these – carefully preserved in a family photo album, on my parents’ end table. (Better here than on the staircase wall – where they daily tortured me as a teen.)
Among these masterpieces, this fourth grade portrait especially smarts.
I think I’ve finally figured out why:
It marks the beginning of my wildly unsuccessful quest to belong.
It was 1984 (I know, the year Taylor Swift was born . . .) when I swapped my cherished Laura Ingalls braids for short, feathered hair. Completing the look was an oversized plastic comb with which to tame it. (Unsuccessfully, for picture day at least.) It peeked out of the back pocket of my pinstriped baggy pants, because that was a thing. (Cue Footloose.)
I never once felt comfortable in this attire. I was a t-shirt and blue jeans girl (still am), but it didn’t matter. Because this disguise was for a status upgrade . . . into the “in crowd.” Surly, my brand of cool would grant me entry; and for about two minutes, it did.
This tangle with fame, like a Rick Astley song, was my one-hit-wonder. Since I didn’t have the social IQ to decipher that “cool ≠ trying to be cool,” I quickly found myself back on the outside looking in – with a really bad haircut that haunted me for years to come. I suffered, to be sure, but at least it was in comfortable clothes.
Ironically, my resemblance to Laura Ingalls is actually stronger post-haircut (8th grade):
Ms. Ingalls, rocking the 80’s hair . . . the 1880’s. Apparently, we had the same stylist. (PS: Those pearls are real.)
Long to Belong
Maybe you escaped 80’s hair, but I suspect that you can still relate. Group association and belonging is programed deep into our DNA, bursting with intensity (and impeccable timing) at the dawn of adolescence.
We’d like to think this whole belonging thing ends with the final yearbook photo, but for many of us, it doesn’t. (The mugshots keep on coming, too. It’s a never-ending string of humiliation: Driver’s licenses, Costco badges, passports, automated speeding tickets . . . Mine went on the fridge since I had to cough up 100 bucks for it.)
I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I haven’t completely shed my fourth grade skin.
Sometimes, I still catch myself chasing cool in my minivan (more irony). Sheryl Crow has replaced Rick Astley – a mark of my cultivated taste. Her voice spills through non-subwoofer speakers. But it’s me standing in the spotlight, riffing out power chords on my Fender electric. Yes, I have tattoos. Of course.
The buzz of my phone reals me back in, reminding me to ferry kids to chess club, soccer practice, and (insert random music) lessons. I sigh at the ridiculousness of it all: This never-ending quest to be in, proves just how far I am out.
Feathered hair, power chords, Rick Astley . . . and this:
Obviously. (And . . . that is NOT a soccer goal in my backdrop.)
But it doesn’t even stop there.
Outside the In, Again
This drive for belonging merges with life, purpose – even faith. Like a red light when I’m late to somewhere, Jesus’ words on the mountain (Matthew 5) bring me to an uncomfortable halt. I sit at this intersection of belonging and faith, with plenty of time to survey the scene.
Here in the first few verses, two groups emerge: A minute inner circle, and the massive crowd beyond. The first, a handful of followers sitting close to their Teacher. Theirs is a story of loss – forfeiting power, position, and life as they knew it – all to walk with Him. The second, a mass of spectators beyond, hoping for what they can gain by a brush with greatness. In Jesus they sought power, position, and life as they wanted it.
There’s a girl in this second crowd that I recognize: The one with pinstripes, polo and a plastic comb. But she’s not where she’s supposed to be, there on the outside looking in. Shouldn’t she have a front row seat, at the feet of Jesus? Those (pin)stripes were hard to come by – but she’s earned them. With years of practice behind her, she can navigate Christian culture with her eyes closed. She’s got belonging down: The walk, the talk, the look, the books . . . maybe not the hair – not yet.
But she, too, finds herself fighting her way forward for that brush with greatness. If she’s really honest, all this striving has been less about loss, and so much more about gain.
Because when the Teacher’s first words come,
“Blessed are the poor in spirit . . .” *
they just don’t ring true. Not deep down.
And she wonders if it’s all just been about a status upgrade, in disguise.
(Cue Rick Astley . . .)
* Matthew 5:3, NIV
[This is Part 7 of the On Purpose Series.]