Being Who You Are … Forging Your Own Path
The most common form of despair is not being who you are…
When I (Michael) was in eighth grade, my English class was given the assignment of writing a special book report. The book could be any, of each student’s choosing, as it related to the various other subjects we had been studying in school. Since I loved history and we had recently been studying the Holocaust and World War II, I chose to read The Diary of Anne Frank. In learning about Anne Frank’s experiences hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam, I was very eager to understand this teenager’s thoughts, feelings and fears as she and her family and friends were subject to the profound indignities thrust on them because of their Jewish faith.
One day in the midst of reading her story, another classmate of mine – a another boy – walked by my desk and looked at the title of the book in my hands.
The Diary of Anne Frank? he ridiculed. You’re reading a book for girls.
I was stunned at his judgment. For a 13-year old trying to find his way and who he was as a male, I was embarrassed and humiliated by his scorn and mocking tone.
I don’t remember today whether I actually finished that book or I chose another more acceptable one to other 13-year old guys. But I do remember the disdain hurled upon me and the insecurity it helped to cause me for years.
Midway through graduate school – seminary – several of my (Tom’s) closest friends, asked me,
Why don’t major in counseling?
They saw something in me that I was also feeling within myself. Instead of being a traditional church pastor – preaching, administrating, being an out-front leader – I was feeling an especially strong calling to concentrate on the gifts of listening actively, forming relationships, walking with others through their struggles, creating a safe place in which they could share and unburden themselves.
I listened to my friends and also sought the counsel of other significant people in my life whom I trusted, valued and respected. But several of those respected people encouraged me not to change to a counseling major. Instead, they urged me to stay on the course I was already on – to be a parish pastor. They told me that it would be a terrible idea to pursue counseling. Their urging prevailed and I continued on the parish path.
But deep down, I knew that path wasn’t really for me. It didn’t use my best gifts. It didn’t give me joy. It didn’t stir in me a passion to do all the things the courses I was taking were preparing me to do. Yet, I followed the admonitions of those who wanted me to go in that direction – and I was unhappy for it.
For me (Michael), the mocking of my reading choice back in eighth grade was emblematic of many instances in which, over the years, I felt that I had to hide my more sensitive, compassionate, caring side – because boys aren’t necessarily raised to value those traits. I chose to read a story about Anne Frank because, not only was I interested in the facts about the Holocaust and World War II, but I was also interested in how those horrendous events affected the personal lives of those who were directly involved. I cared about their internal lives, what the war did to their hearts, their minds, their souls – as well as what happened to them physically and politically. The seeds of my own calling to counsel others, to help them develop deeper relationships, to be an empathetic listener, were evident when I was growing up. But boys weren’t steered in that direction and so I spent a significant portion of my life downplaying that calling.
It was a significant and defining moment in my (Tom’s) life when a few key figures in my life said “no” to what I thought I needed to do. They thought they knew what was best for me. I know they were trying to help. They meant the best. But in pushing and prodding me to follow someone else’s path for me, I had to deal with a lot of pain, anguish and suffering over the years. It caused a lot of insecurity.
Our experiences caused insecurity for both of us. It has caused us to question just who we are and who we really need to be. When others try to mold us into their images or into images of who they think we should be, if those images are not who we know we are, the seeds of lingering insecurity and confusion are sown.
Yet we have grown to overcome those restrictions that others attempted to put upon us. And the reason we have shared these stories are because a major part of our call together is to help others find that same freedom, the same permission, to be the people they’ve been created to be. And not someone else’s version of it.
We want to give permission to for others to know that it is vital – and necessary – to be strong enough to stand up to say: No. I’m not going to be something that’s not me any longer. It’s not about making irrational decisions to never listen to other’s wisdom or guidance. But it is about being true to what we know will help us to live a fulfilled and complete life. To be fully who we are.