Rejection and Redemption
“Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things - and the things that are not - to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” - 1 Corinthians 1:26-28
“So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old is gone, the new has come!” - 2 Corinthians 5:16-17
“Blessed are the sat upon, spat upon, ratted on.” - Simon and Garfunkel
He literally couldn’t wait. As soon as I put the car in park, he was gone, leaving the car door open and forgetting to look both ways across the (blessedly small) parking lot in his haste to get inside. “C’mon, mom!” he yelled as he held the door open and waved frantically to his sister and I. As he weaved through the tables, holding his Pokemon card binder excitedly, his eyes searching for an opening, I watched anxiously, wondering if he’d find a spot. His eyes were so eager, his posture so unjaded and hopeful, his zeal palpable and undimmed by any desire to be ‘cool’ and indifferent. I knew I should just go sit down like the other parents who had sunk comfortably into the leather couches or milled around the library with smaller children, but it was difficult to look away. Even though he obviously wasn’t nervous, I was. And I realized deeper questions troubled my heart than whether he’d successfully trade a basic Vullaby for an evolved one*.
No, the real question that lurked beneath as the subtext, the ground of all the others, was this: will he be accepted, or will he be rejected? Can his inherent sense of worth as God’s beloved withstand the gauntlet of social negotiations that is childhood and adolescence? Will his innocence be crushed? Or, if I’m being honest, the real question that I harbor, the one that fills me with dread, is this: when will his innocence be crushed?
I think of Severus Snape and the mosaic of memories contained in his dying tear, the ones that formed and shaped him - particularly the bitter formative ones, the ones of rejection and teasing and relegation to the outer darkness of the social hierarchy, where the pariahs and misfits and not-good-enoughs languish. I was lucky - if it can be called that - to fly under the radar most of my school life. I avoided decampment in that outer ring, but deep down I knew it was where I’d end up were I to actually be myself, let my vulnerabilities show, stop tailoring and censoring my every word and action according to the very avoidance of that rejection. By high school I’d decided to forgo any efforts to fit in and instead intentionally cultivated weirdness and a foreboding reticence to speak, both of which conspired to exude an air of alleged intimidation that was totally incongruent with my inner life and rampant insecurity but hey, I took it happily so long as it pre-emptively staved off the beasts of rejection.
My own agonizing memories of the times I was singled out rise and float like a black miasma on the surface of my own personal Pensieve. Although when I’ve recounted them as an adult I’ve always made a joke of them, the truth is that they still carry an acute sting, a cutting and acid reminder of just how lonesome and desolate rejection feels.
The three worst ones that have stubbornly rooted themselves in my psyche are all from middle school. Ah, the miserable crucible of middle school - when the desperate need for peer affirmation and the scarcity and volatility thereof both peak, it seems. The first: In social studies I was sitting next to my friend, Lauren, who was being badgered as usual by a boy named Cole who had a crush on her and thought the fastest inroad to her heart was relentless pestering and coercion. Today, she’d had enough. “Cole, why do you even like me?” she asked exasperately. “Because you’re cute,” he answered. “If you looked like her” - he pointed to me - “ I wouldn’t bother.” Ouch.
The second: in the same class, but later in the year, if memory serves me right. I was fervently hoping to be accepted within a group of kids who were slightly bad and totally rad. I sat directly behind them and laughed at their jokes and said stuff like “totally, me too” and periodically interjected asides into their conversations. Half the time I wasn’t sure I was even heard, but undeterred, I kept trying and eventually mistook their lack of response or paying attention to me for provisional acceptance. Until one day, when the ringleader turned around abruptly in his seat and half-yelled at me “why are you always trying to talk to us and act like you’re one of us? YOU’RE NOT!” Message received, most pointedly. I slunk down in my seat in horror and made sure never to besmirch their ears with my speech again.
And, the third, the real coup de gras: I spent all of my eighth grade year pining after a boy in gifted class (see how I did that? Subtly made sure you knew I was in gifted class? See?! I am special!). I was obsessed. When he invited me to his birthday party I nearly had an aneurysm from joy but sabotaged my appearance by vomiting from nervousness before my mom even pulled me up to the entrance in our minivan. Anyway, on the last day of school I was feeling bold, feeling like playing fast and loose with my dignity, feeling uncharacteristically courageous, the middle school caste system be damned! So, naturally, I did what any self-respecting 14-year-old would do and I asked my friend Emily to call him and ask him out for me. I gripped the phone in her kitchen, one hand clamped over the receiver, while she dialed him from the upstairs phone. The question was asked… and he laughed. And said no. But let me tell you, it’s really the laughter that sticks with you.
How painful it is to be assessed with a passing glance and found wanting. Perhaps even more painful, for the question of your worthiness to be laughed off as totally ludicrous after a year of pining, a year of fluttering pulse rates whenever he was near, a year of interactions endlessly parsed and analyzed and scoured for any iota of reciprocity. I watch my son’s easy sense of worthiness, his unquestioned belief that he is welcome in the world. He hasn’t learned to hesitate and wonder if acceptance or rejection is coming, and I mourn for the loss of that restful way of being as though it’s inevitable. But what if it’s not? Is there a way to form a child in knowledge of his or her belovedness, to form them in Jesus Christ, so the stings - which perhaps are inevitable - are not as penetrating, not as piquant, not as scarring?
My story is a redemption story and, of course, Snape’s was, too, in the end. I met a man who was the sum of all my crushes over the formative years and who, wonder of all wonders, loved me back. Then I met Jesus and learned I was loved from the start and loved all the more miraculously and steadfastly where human love failed, or, worse, marred. Truly, he heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. And I learned that to be sat upon, spat upon, ratted on, to be a lowly thing of the world, is blessed, perhaps because it puts you in a place where you can no longer deny your own weakness and the utter inadequacy of your efforts to earn love. Yet I can’t help but wonder, watching my son’s (usually) easy way of moving through the world, his acceptance of God’s enveloping love as a foregone conclusion, is a taste of what Edenic Kingdom Life is like. And I don’t want it to fade or, worse, be broken by the fickle vicissitudes of human popularity.
Jesus was clear, though, that the kingdom has no exclusivity except repentance and faith in the One He sent. The homecoming court, the socially anointed, the luminous popular, the glitteratti and literati and even the Illuminati are all welcome. But I think inherent in repentance is the ceding of whatever worldly power we hold, the recognition that His power is made perfect only in our weakness. And power is easier to surrender if you don’t really have any. Still, it’s not like being a dork made me sinless in this way. We humans have ingenious ways of inventing our own power where the world gives us none. And maybe in some cases, being powerless in the world makes us grasp more desperately for whatever small tyrannies we can create. But if we allow it, there is truly something blessed in persecution, however mild.
I tend to covet popularity for my children, if subconsciously, the way I also covet a trouble-free, pain-free life for them. I should spend more time praying that the love of Christ takes root in them, that they don’t fall away, that their love endures for the One with whom and through whom they can endure anything. That, like Jesus, they’ll move toward the wounded, the strange, the ugly, the things which are not, in the service of helping the kingdom burst forth. That they’ll be able to say to all forms of death - physical decay, rejection, failure, ‘loserdom’ - where is thy sting?
* Please don’t think my Pokemon vocab is this advanced, or that I am fluent at all - I am not. I had to go look at his cards so my reference would sound more realistic. Pokemon is by far the most difficult thing I’ve had to pretend to be interested in as a parent.