Tuesday, April 21, 2009

My teenage identity as "the spiritual one"

I am home sick today - I woke up this morning and when I was getting ready I almost passed out, and when I went and laid down I was hit with nausea and a headache. No, I am not pregnant. It hit me really fast, though, and I am glad to be able to sit in my pjs and have the chance to write about a few things that have been on my mind.

A couple of weeks ago Isaac and I presented our "life maps" to our community group. A life map is basically just a run through your life - the highs, lows, heroes, major influences, and basic time line of your past. Doing them as a community group has been really interesting because while we had known each other for a full year, there's SO MUCH about our lives that just doesn't come out in normal day-to-day conversation. Seeing each others' history really helps to understand what has formed each person and their marriages.

In any case, one of the things that I tried to emphasize as I presented my life map was how I saw myself once I developed the self-perception of a teenager - how I defined my identity. This is a big topic because teens tend to pigeon-hole themselves. They decide, "I am _____" (fill in the blank with rebel, good kid, artist, athlete, smart kid, emo, goth, bubbly, social), and then they proceed to act in accordance with how they see themselves. When you're transitioning between cultures all of this becomes exacerbated because your identity in one place and culture is erased when you move into a new culture and place and you have to define who you are in the new place. You see definite trends among third-culture kids, particularly because of the expectations of their unique expat community. Usually they either run from those expectations or put themselves fully within them. I was a conformer.

Whenever we went back to the states I flailed around, trying to figure out who I was. I felt secure in Indonesia, but in the US everything that defined me was gone and I was unable to participate in the culture with confidence. Who was I? Since I was unfamiliar with the culture of American teens, the only place that I "fit" was in church, because I read my Bible and I was more familiar with theology and spirituality than just about anyone else my age. Plus, because no one in my community overseas smoked or swore or wore bikinis... I didn't either. To people in the US, that appeared to be a sign of deep piety. Adults lauded my maturity and told me I was wise beyond my years. My friends told me I was deep and that they wanted to follow my example.

So.... starting in 8th grade, I was defined as "the spiritual kid", and I quickly placed my identity there. That's who I thought I was. Looking back now I can see that this was negative at times. I placed such a high value on being that kind of person that at times it was more important to me than actually knowing God, though my faith really was heart-felt. Still, I think the pressure I put on myself to be a good, mature spiritual leader led me to judge others and almost manufacture a fake faith. I don't want to say it was all manufactured - it wasn't. But part of the reason I was the way I was is because I THOUGHT that's who I was, so I continued down that path. I was just fitting into the box because it was safe and I was valued there.

I didn't rebel as a teen, though I certainly argued with my parents. I think this was because I was too busy trying to fit the mold, and I wasn't able to question the mold itself. I think I went through was Ruth Van Reken (author of the book Third Culture Kids, which is excellent and my copy is totally marked up) calls a "delayed adolescence". Towards the end of college I was able to look back at how I perceived myself as a teenager and really critique the world I lived in. I got angry at the missions school, at the particular culture of the American church, at the rules of American fundamentalism, at the Religious Right - everything that I thought had told me what I was supposed to be like. I struggled with who I was as I questioned the very things that I had been valued for as a teen.

I am through that, and my anger has passed. I feel like I can look back and identify what was good and what wasn't helpful, and understand that this wasn't just my life or the life of third-culture kids, it is what ALL kids go through as they begin to form their own identity with the heavy influences of their family and their community. I am thankful that while I may have had a reputation for being a "spiritual kid", I was and am loved and valued by my family and friends simply as ME, and that provided a safe place to fall as I cleared out the baggage of expectations and identity.


Kaycee said...

It's funny how teenagers think they have to completely compartmentalize themselves. I was the "rebel".

I guess it's a coming of age thing.

I remember in my late teens someone told me that it was ok to change my mind about my convictions when presented with new information. It was such a relief to not have to try to fit into a stereotype anymore.

Since then I've definitely been more humble and open to new ideas.

Jaimie said...

I was "the good kid" so I was spiritual when I needed to be, and then in high school I hated being "the good kid" and had sort of fake rebellions for the sake of it. Doing mostly still-good bad things. I guess I still wanted to be good, just not perceived as such.