High school. For most, it is a difficult time when we are consumed by our desire for belonging and identity among our peers and the often conflict-ridden struggle to separate and individuate from our parents and siblings. The halls of every high school are full of invisible lines that divide students from one another due to the stereotypes that are created to separate the in-crowd from the nerds, brains and druggies. Individuals are placed in boxes that are painful and frustrating, and the desire to escape the confines of categories is usually only satisfied by the diploma that allows new adults to move onward into college, the Armed Forces or the work force. Is it any wonder that graduates are reluctant to attend their class reunions?
I just attended my own 40-year reunion (a fact I am more than a little reluctant to share)! And I must confess that even though I have grown leaps and bounds in terms of self-esteem over the years, I did approach this event with a touch of anxiety. I was looking forward to seeing old friends, but I wasn’t sure how I would be received by the school “elite” who had largely ignored me during high school. Imagine my surprise when a number of home-town classmates approached me to express their condolences on the loss of my father this past spring. Somewhere along our paths to maturity and adulthood, it seemed, the boundaries had fallen away and been replaced by an understanding that life happens to all of us, the struggles and the joys, and that life is truly the great leveler.
One particular encounter brought this home to me and challenged me to look at my own biases in a new way. On Saturday afternoon, I went to a friend’s lake cabin to go kayaking. Another of her friends, a former cheerleader, was there as well. I was greeted warmly, and the three of us paddled off together down the lake. Our conversation ranged from news about other classmates to where life had taken us to light-hearted complaints about our husbands to matters of faith and politics. Like most relationships, there were times when we bumped into one another (literally!) and times when we rowed in unison, gliding across the lake in perfect harmony. It was a time out of time, as though we were in a bubble, cocooned apart from the world for a few hours. Over lunch, the talking continued—memories of our parents now gone, the challenges of family, the pain of strained relationships. I discovered that the cheerleader had father issues like mine that were now being replicated between her husband and daughter. And then she changed everything by confessing that her senior year was one of the most painful and isolating times of her life. One of the other popular girls had turned on her, because my friend had called her out on inappropriate behavior that was hurting another person. Other friends turned against her, unkind names were thrown like arrows, and she was left virtually friendless. Thankfully, there was one friend who stood by her and is still a blessing in her life.
Suddenly, I was face to face with my own reverse bias. I had perceived a bias on the part of the “popular” kids while ignoring my own negative bias towards them. I had believed them to be shallow, narcissistic and uncaring, but my friend put me to shame with her integrity despite negative consequences. She had suffered a great deal in order to stand up for what she believed in. I had also thought that the in-crowd led a charmed life, absent any of the angst the rest of us outsiders experienced. Clearly, I was wrong.
I have thought a lot about that experience in the past few days. I have become more aware than ever that labels harm us all in ways we cannot even begin to comprehend. In a polarized society where labels are the primary weapon, we become more and more hopelessly divided. When the lines are so tightly drawn between left and right or conservative and liberal, how can we even begin to have the kinds of conversations that might heal our relationships, our nation and our churches? Until we are ready to let go of our own judgments, we will not be open to hearing what those who are different from us have to say. I am reminded of Paul’s statement to the churches in Galatia who were experiencing a bitter dispute, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” To paraphrase, there is neither jock nor geek, brain nor Goth, Republican nor Democrat, Muslim nor Christian, for we are all one in the God of creation who loves us all. God calls for us to erase all harmful division and remember that our primary belonging is found in our universal humanity. And as old labels fall away, just as my experience with my classmate has planted seeds of a growing friendship, I pray that others might experience the blessing of new relationships that lead to greater unity and understanding. May it be so.