Monday, November 26, 2018

Anonymous Asks (15)

“How do you not focus on what people think of you?”

I was a missionary’s kid. My first few years of public school were spent in another country, with a dominant culture that was anything but North American. I missed the Beatles, Star Trek (until it was syndicated) and the Adam West Batman TV show. I missed Woodstock. I heard about the U.S. putting someone on the moon from halfway across the world and days after it happened. I didn’t play hockey or football or baseball. When I returned to North America, I didn’t know any of the bands that were popular and I had an obvious British accent. I wore the wrong clothes and had the wrong haircut. To top it off, in school I was placed with kids I was well ahead of intellectually but well behind culturally and interpersonally.

All of this created pretty much the perfect storm of Grade 5 nerd-dom. Socially speaking, I couldn’t do anything right in school. Not a thing.

Seventy Things Wrong

As a result, I became increasingly self-conscious. I could see I was doing something wrong, but I hadn’t the slightest idea what it was. (In retrospect, it was not one thing, it was about seventy.) Those were some rough years. High school was better, but I was always trying way too hard to be something I wasn’t. I hung with the misfits, got into Punk and then New Wave, skipped a lot of school while maintaining reasonable marks, but remained well on the fringes of the social hierarchy.

I never did figure out quite how to be liked, or how to stop caring about whether I was liked. I was rarely hated but mostly invisible, a feature I alternately enjoyed and loathed, depending on the circumstances. I was smart and intuitive and able to focus on any task I set my mind to and do it well, but unable to appreciate those qualities in myself or value them if I wasn’t being constantly validated by the attention of others. I didn’t trust my own assessment of myself.

You are probably wondering where Jesus Christ was in all this, and I suppose I would have to answer that he was very much in the background, at least in my thinking. As a professing Christian, I knew I owed him much more than I was giving him, but I was focused on what I thought would make me happy rather than what would please God. I cannot say I fit in with Christian teens any better than secular teens; probably worse. Church was only marginally more comfortable than school for me, but my in-church discomfort came with a strong sense that it should not be this way.

Look at Me!

After high school I did some fan journalism and drifted around the music scene working odd jobs to pay the bills. My parents had moved hundreds of miles away, and I opted for the devil I knew rather than the devil I didn’t, living with friends and moving around a lot. I did a lot of things that screamed “Look at me!” like dyeing my hair white, or skunk-striped, or shaving myself bald, or wearing a mohawk. These things got attention, but not the attention of the “right” girls or people in the “right” circles. I drank constantly to ease the pressure of social situations and probably made a giant fool of myself on multiple occasions. Fortunately memories fade.

When I finally submitted to Christ in my early twenties, I was back living with my parents, supposedly trying to figure out what to do for a living, but not trying very hard. I noticed there were an awful lot of teens at my parents’ church and no programs or interested adults to bring them together. I remarked to my dad that “Someone should do something.” Oddly, that someone ended up being me.

It sounds like a total cliché, but the moment I began to focus my attention on other people’s needs rather than my own, everything changed. I became a lot more confident. I realized that 80% of the people around me felt as awkward and self-conscious as I once had. By the time I went to college, I was (comparatively speaking, of course) a rock star. I had attractive girls asking me to lunch, something I’d never had happen in my life. And why not? I was a couple of years older than all the boys they knew, had experience on the road and in the working world, had lived in the big city, knew what I wanted and most importantly, I didn’t care what they thought of me because I saw them not as potential partners or steps in climbing some kind of pecking order, but as people whose defining feature was their need for a relationship with Jesus Christ.

Cleaning the House

What had changed? It wasn’t a calculated thing. I could no more have consciously made myself stop worrying about other people’s opinions than I could have grown a second or third head. When it happened, it was several months before I even noticed the change. One day I suddenly realized I hadn’t had a drink in ages. I didn’t need it anymore. I had things that mattered to me more than how I felt about myself.

There is only so much ‘worry time’ available in your head. It is not infinite. If you fill your daily life and your prayer time with Christ and with the needs of other people and finding ways to meet them, I suspect you will quickly discover the same unexpected relief from self-occupation that I did.

Jesus once told a parable about a man who was set free from the control of an unclean spirit. The man cleaned up his life but did not fill it with anything else, so the unclean spirit was able to return with seven of his friends and “repossessed” him. Self-occupation is not demon possession — not by a long shot — but I think the same principle applies. To get rid of something that controls your thinking, you need to replace it with something better.

The best way to deal with unwanted thoughts is not to try to un-think them, but to think better ones.

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