The first time that any difference of mine from other human beings was brought to my attention as “bad” occurred on the first day of kindergarten.
We were each supposed to pick a sticker to put on something we’d have for the rest of the year (a name tag of sorts, I think, but we couldn’t read yet, so I’m not entirely sure what it really was). I spotted one that was a light pink. As soon as I looked at it, I could feel it beneath my fingers soft, cool, and exquisite, just like I always thought velvet should feel like. That colour so enamoured me that I picked the sticker at once and affixed it to my tag. It was beautiful.
Susan*, a friend I had just made that day, saw the sticker and said:
“A pig? You put a pig on your name tag?”
I looked back at the sticker. Sure enough, it was a pig. But, even with that new piece of information, I didn’t understand the mocking in her tone. I was indifferent to pigs.
“I like it,” I said, meaning the colour, or at least the sticker.
“You like pigs?” Susan laughed.
I was four. When you’re four, you don’t understand that, where you see beauty, others could easily see ugliness. When you’re four, you don’t realize that what you see first and what others see first are, 99.99% of the time, two completely different things. It didn’t ever occur to me to explain how the colour of that sticker had affected me. I simply couldn’t understand why Susan didn’t seem to notice it.
And, there I was, being teased for a reason I didn’t understand. Why were pigs bad? Why was it bad to like pigs? Was I bad for acting like I was someone who liked pigs?
Again, I was four. My repository of connotation consisted only of “truth”, “good”, and “bad”. “Bullshit” hadn’t yet entered my realm of thought.
By the time I was about to turn thirteen, different had become “essential”.
When my family and I moved to Alabama not too long after my tenth birthday, I knew three things about our stay there:
- I would be the only Canadian among my friends
- If I wasn’t careful, I would pick up their accent
- We would be returning to Canada in either two or three years
If I was going to be returning to my home country, then that meant I had to stay Canadian. That way, I decided, I would be able to continue my friendships where they had left off without anything getting in the way. Which meant I had to be different. I had to be Canadian. Always. Without ever losing my vigilance.
It was meant to be a temporary posture. Once I got back, I wouldn’t need it anymore. I would be back with my friends again.
Life had different ideas.
When we returned to Canada, just before my thirteenth birthday, my parents informed us that we would be going to a different school than we had before. We couldn’t go to the old one, they explained, because we wouldn’t be living in the country again. It was too expensive to get a house there. We would be living in the city, just like we had had to in Alabama, and would be too far away from our old school to ever be able to return.
Ok, I thought, I can still play with my old friends.
And I tried. I really did.
But they were different.
They treated me differently. Acted differently. Spoke differently.
All I could sense was this divide between us, between me wanting things to be the way they used to and things not being the way they used to.
It all came to a head sometime in high school, when I tried hanging out with one of my old friends again, the one who I had considered to be my best friend before I’d moved. During our conversation, she said:
“It’s interesting how we look for different things in friends when we’re in high school than we did when we were elementary.”
I didn’t know what she meant by that; what she was trying to say with it. But I assumed there was something more to those words than just themselves, and this is what I heard:
“Thea, you were a good friend in elementary, but not in high school. Things are different.”
Here I am now, in my twenties, and a part of me still hasn’t grown up past nine.
She uses the adult faculties around her to justify never changing, saying that I stay different because I’m looking for Truth, because being part of this group or that means changing in ways that go against my conscience, because the world needs people who are different no matter how much it may dislike them, because I refuse to give up on my friends.
But the truth that I haven’t been able to see through years of fine-tuning my layers of bullshit is simply this:
I haven’t let go of that fantasy future where my old friends and I finally come back together and everything is just like it was, just like all the years between haven’t happened and we’re all nine again and I’m never going to move.
And now I have to give that up.
The longest time I’ve ever stayed connected and relating with a friend is five years. Usually, it only lasts for three.
Right now, I have a friend who’s been absolutely brilliant and, now that I’m really beginning to appreciate just how brilliant she is, I’ve realized that we’ve been friends for almost five years. The cutoff point. And it frightens me to no end, because I don’t want our friendship to end because I distance myself from people over stupid reasons.
Throughout our friendship, I’ve kept up an internal litany of how we’re different. How I am different, only reinforcing that different is bad and essential at the same time. We can’t stay friends for too long because of my difference, and I can’t just not be different because being different is important.
It’s probably not shown that much on the surface, I’ll admit. But it’s there, active and imprisoning on the inside, and I hate it. So, I went to figure out why it was that my friendships always seem to fade after three or four years, why I can’t seem to feel comfortable being part of a group, and why I keep distant from the friends I care about.
I never expected to go back to that sticker.
I never expected to see the nine year old who’d just learned she’d be leaving her friends.
Or that both of them would have any kind of connection.
So, hello nine-year-old me (and to you, if you’re in the same place right now). I see that you’re scared. Your friends changed, became different, and that was bad. That freaked you out, so you pretended it hadn’t happened, and you’re waiting for them to come back and realize that.
They changed because they got older. You did, too, even if you don’t believe me. And that’s a good thing. You and them have so much more to offer each other now. You could even be friends again, better friends than before, if you came into each others’ lives again.
But that doesn’t have to happen for you to have a good life. For you to have deep, meaningful friendships, or a fulfilling job. You don’t need them for you to grow up.
Look at you. You’re an intelligent, loving, skilled woman, respected by those who know you, and loved by your God who sees your every detail. Right now, your life as it is, is overflowing with opportunity for joy.
You don’t have to be afraid of new friendships making the return of old ones impossible. You’ve already seen that such a thought isn’t true.
Here, take my hand. How about we let go of calling the present bad because isn’t the future we had decided it should be? How about, instead, we become brave explorers, searching the present for all the treasure it has just waiting for us to discover?
I’ll bring the telescope.
It’s pink. :)
*name has been changed