You know that little girl who is everyone’s favorite? She’s bursting with character, charisma, and confidence. She never meets a stranger and shows no sign of fear. She willingly builds friendships with her peers and just as enthusiastically climbs trees and soars from their branches. Though I certainly just described my own four-year-old daughter, that bold little socialite is the opposite of who I was as a child. I clung to my daddy’s leg in public and shirked away from greetings of both strangers and acquaintances. If I did engage in words with a kind neighbor, it was likely to mock her baby-talk (my mother claims I came out of the womb sarcastic-ergo, it’s not my fault, right?). In elementary school, I struggled socially. Maybe my social lacking is the byproduct of only child quirks (I wasn’t a true only child, but because my sister is nearly a decade my elder, I consider myself developmentally only child-ish). An imaginary friend is a common concept for only children (or in my case, only child-ish types-and let’s be honest, I’m basically just admitting I was lonely). I was so quirky, I didn’t settle for an imaginary friend, I had an imaginary posse (there were five of us, and I recall all their names-I cannot make this stuff up). While I admit I was a strange child with a vivid imagination, my social struggles were more likely the result of my crippling anxiety, particularly when I was noticed or addressed in a huge, suffocating crowd larger than three people. At an early age, I started a losing battle for control in my life. Isn’t control really all any powerless, mediocre individual hopes for? This is the tale of a power-hungry woman falling into freedom from herself.
My adolescence can be best described as a balance of meticulously tip-toeing across the straight and narrow and a double-dose of angst. Honestly, I don’t know what was darker: my hair and thick black eye liner or my view of self. As racing thoughts and panic attacks grew more consuming over the years, my desire for control and perfection multiplied. It didn’t matter if my focus was faith, family, or friends, I was careful to remain guarded, poised, and cold. My fear of vulnerability morphed into a full-on fight against that ugly little monster who consumed my thoughts and made every achievement taste a little bitter. Though I cautiously kept people at a distance, I always believed in love. I never questioned that though the world around me was filled with injustice and pain, its people were beautiful and created to reflect a beauty and strength beyond human comprehension. Though I believed in and had received the depth of that love, I was too controlled to flourish in it. The more I cautiously calculated plans and decisions for my life, the more my life seemed to spiral out of control (at least cognitively- I am admittedly no stranger to hyperbole).
Living in the shackles of racing thoughts limited my ability to build relationships beyond acquaintances for far too long. I only dated two lucky fellas before meeting my husband (apparently angst and suspicion aren’t exactly traits bringing the boys to the yard). I only had a hand-full of friends who knew the real me. Honestly, all I knew about myself was no matter how hard I tried, I rarely felt I even achieved mediocrity. As my freshman year of college rounded to an end, I found myself unattached, uncertain, and underwhelmed by my future. Persons have always fascinated me. I’ve loved the way the brain responds to human interactions. I’ve loved that behaviors and interactions have the power to alter one’s mood as swiftly as the flip of a light switch. My problem was never persons; my problem was people. General human behaviors and being forced to face, join, or expose myself to a crowd left me feeling so mediocre. Naturally, my initial career decision was research and writing in the field of psychology. That was the plan. It made sense to study people rather than invest time and emotion in them… until it started sounding more empty than exciting. At this fractured time in my young adulthood, a lifelong mentor of mine called me and asked if I would “lead a group of students at a camp.” I wasn’t really doing anything else, and after chatting with him on the details, it sounded at least slightly less painful than dental work (just kidding, Brian). I wouldn’t really be singlehandedly in charge of anyone. I just had to kind of be a mediocre adult and pray with and for teenagers while they played with and built relationships with children from a different walk of life than theirs.
I walked into a novel situation to act as a leader, and the result of my first night meeting everyone was a panic attack in my car. I actually left the camp (which in my defense involved sleeping in the same huge room as roughly one hundred other females-have I mentioned I don’t do well with crowds?) because the mob of strangers was too paralyzing. I had this extraordinary feeling that I was supposed to be there despite my neurosis, so I went back to the camp the next morning. I had always made the thoughtful decision, but as my thoughts told me, “this isn’t your thing,” my heart told me, “step out of your comfort zone.” Apparently hearing and trusting your heart and allowing yourself to feel something deeper than nervousness is a more powerful move than creating a pros and cons list because that was the day I met a boy who forever changed the trajectory of my life. (Now you’re expecting me to begin this sappy unraveling of a love story, right?) Friends, that was the day that a four-year-old, rowdy, messy little boy taught an angsty, guarded college girl how to love. This rowdy boy was my exact opposite; he did everything wide-open and fearlessly. While his tenacity no doubt resulted in optimum fun, such nerve also landed him in trouble a lot of times. He and I spent hours in one-on-one conversation (I didn’t exactly exude “kid person” at that time so naturally I was assumed to be more of the disciplinarian) where he talked so openly about his feelings and the “hard stuff.” Before I knew it, I was opening my heart to this little feelings ninja. And just like that, I experienced the power of the gospel and began to see my future more clearly. I wasn’t missing out on fulfillment because of mediocrity or missteps. I was experiencing emptiness because I refused to feel. My fear of vulnerability had been blinding me from understanding what it meant to live and love in freedom.
If you feel like you’re wandering aimlessly as an extra in the film of your life, you are. We’re all just extras in the story of unconditional love. If you’re not allowing yourself to feel, love, or trust the persons around you (I specify persons because though I’ve been transformed in many ways through love and grace, I still don’t do crowds of people well), you’re missing out on just how exceptional your mediocre existence can be. If a four-year-old trouble-maker (who I remained friends with for several years until he moved away) can turn a bitter, detached perfectionist into a child and family mental health therapist (specifically a play therapist who opens her heart to small children and their mommies) and adoptive mother of three (facing the challenges of the foster system heart-first), imagine how you can impact those you encounter day to day. I still battle with anxiety and those racing thoughts, but it’s not so lonely anymore as I am surrounded by people who genuinely care to know me (regardless how mediocre I think I am). Friends, if you’re living a life dictated by your desire for control, let go and feel something other than the weight of your mediocrity. Just paint the room black. There is a loud beauty within the mediocrity. Find it. Bust the speakers. Never turn it off.