I was a very esteemed member of the small private school I graduated from. Most people might have considered me to have been lucky, been jealous of my “status.” My peers looked up to me. My teachers applauded me. I was valedictorian of my class and won the “Student of the Year” award numerous times. I was told I was very gifted and would do “great things” for God. I was chosen to go to Leadership Retreats. I seemed happy and confident, was attractive and intelligent. I was a “shining example”… But inside, my own light was so dim.
I was heralded as a leader at my school. In reality, I was a teenager who was starving for validation (of my true self, though I didn’t know it then) and acceptance. It is easy to look at teenagers who are “trouble-makers”, who break the rules and rebel, and think “Wow, they have issues.” But my experience was exactly the opposite. I had some serious issues, painful doubts about my value and very little sense of my identity. But I just chose a different way of trying to mend those issues. I chose to mend them by excelling and being the “Golden Girl.” I found myself in a system with rules that I found easy to follow. Because I followed them so well, I was heralded as a leader.
The rules in the religious system of my school were: you have to know the right answers about God and Christianity; you shouldn’t trust your own humanity or desires; you must be well behaved good people who don’t swear, smoke, dress promiscuously, have sex, watch bad movies, or listen to bad music; you must sacrifice your life for God and find his will for you (which, to my young mind, meant I might have to do something I hated for the rest of my life… but God would be pleased); you must be an example to the WORLD of how great God is (by being academically superior, by being good kids, by making a difference). We were under eighteen years old!! Speakers came and told us how the world needed us to be heroic Christians so we could make a difference for God. We were taught about other religions and how they were wrong in what they believed- we were taught how to “defend our faith.” We were taught to be good examples when we played sports with “non-Christians” (don’t lose your temper, be nice, be positive). We were told (in a nutshell), “You are free to pursue any kind of life you want, even outside of Christianity- BUT, wait and see how unhappy you will be if you do…” We did performances at other churches and schools to show how amazing we were as a school and as students. The more “godly” we were, the more applause we got. I excelled at doing all these things.
I learned to gain my value from “system pleasing” at school. The better I became at “system pleasing,” the more I was applauded as a leader by the bigger leaders and the more I gained my sense of value from THAT as well. PLUS a huge feeling of responsibility that other people’s spiritual growth depended on ME… PLUS the pressure of having to keep up the “perfection” facade so I could keep getting the approval I thirsted for so I could maintain my threadbare, patched together self-esteem. The sad truth was, I was not a leader. I was actually a supreme follower who had found a powerful way to gain approval. A system that is concerned primarily with its own survival more than it is concerned about the people in it easily takes advantage of that kind of a “leader.” I was taken advantage of in being valued more for what I could offer the system than for just being me.
A healthy system would have encouraged me to cut myself some slack; it would have nurtured me to become my own individual beyond exalted, “Christian” achievement; it would have offered their version of the truth, but also welcomed opposing ideas and “outside the box” thinking. It would NOT have applauded me for being a copy cat or a puppet. A healthy system would have helped me learn that how I really felt or thought was GOOD enough and that I was accepted for more than just my accomplishments and good behavior. A healthy system wouldn’t have put so much pressure on kids to be heroes for God (heroes as defined within its own rules). A healthy system would have said, “You can bring God glory by being YOURSELF. Not by squashing your own desires to death under the microscope of ‘is this God’s will’?” A healthy system wouldn’t have propped a girl up as an example only because she mirrored everything the system was teaching her.
In this religious system I blindly followed the lie that I was valuable for serving a system outside myself, not valuable for being me. I walked a tightrope of good behavior and spiritual achievement which ultimately left me hollow and disconnected, anxious with so much responsibility and the need to be “right and good” to help someone else’s cause rather than for my own benefit.