For as long as I can remember, “friendship” meant “fitting in,” but not in the sense of having a place to belong. Friendship was like a crocheted afghan, with each strand and each loop perfectly aligning in the pattern to create uniformity. It was fitting in to the point of matching – conforming – sticking closely enough to the pattern that any variances were undetectable. Friendship, for me, was a kind of morphing of different people into a collective identity we could all claim as our own.
And I should say here that my perceptions of friendship were not shared by the rest of my groups of friends. No, my perception was based on my own insecurities and lack of a sense of identity. Whereas the stronger individuals in any group tend to influence the tone and overarching personality of the rest of the group, follower-type personalities (like myself) don’t have that confidence or that power. Like many others, I suspect, I became a morpher – the one who would change with the tide just to fit in.
As a little girl, the effects of that morphing was fairly superficial. It meant trying to make my reasonably-priced JCPenney jeans look like the unreasonably-priced ones from The Limited. It meant collecting Keds tags that had fallen off the backs of other girls’ shoes and gluing them to the back of my Payless knockoffs. It meant looking the part – doing what had to be done – so I could convince everyone that I fit. Match the pattern and everything will be okay.
Once I got a little older, though, simple morphing didn’t work any more. I still desperately wanted to match the pattern, but to do so I had to push down the growing sense of self I was developing. Though I was finally discovering who I was, I learned to keep pushing down things I knew to be true about myself. I had different ideas and values and goals, but showing those things and being myself had clear consequences. I wanted friends, after all, and there were rules. If you stand out from the pattern, it’s clear you don’t fit; if you don’t fit, you’re removed. Desperate for belonging, the choice was clear: match the pattern. Play the part. Fit in.
Looking back, it makes me really sad to realize what I understood friendship to be. I didn’t know anything else, though, because I had never experienced it; pointing fingers or assigning blame for that accomplishes nothing. The fact remains that I didn’t know who I was. That was both a cause and a consequence of my insecure need for belonging.
I never knew that I was created to be me. I never knew that I was created on purpose, as I am, for a reason. I never knew that my life was meant to bring honor to God – not to seek approval from other people. (1 Thessalonians 2:4) As Jennifer Lee points out in Love Idol, “Satan continually asks us to consider what others are thinking of us.” And consider that, I did. Seeking acceptance became an obsession.
As He faithfully does, though, God has been teaching me something new. I’m learning that in seeking acceptance and trying to fit in, I was really seeking approval. And in clamoring for the approval of others, I couldn’t hear the persistent whispers of God: “You have been pre-approved since the beginning of time.”
But as I’ve drawn closer to Him and leaned in to what He has been doing in me, my heart has been changed and my mind has been renewed. God has been opening my eyes, showing me what is true, what is right, and what friendship really means. It doesn’t take much for me to weep over the realization of all that He has done. He has proven so faithful.
After a very long, lonely season of having next to no one I could genuinely call a friend, I can finally say that I have found my tribe. Many things happened over the last year and a half to bring me into the first authentic community of friends I’ve ever experienced; that story is complex and for another day. The point here is this: I know what friendship is now.
Friendship isn’t “fitting in,” at least not in the sense I always thought it to be. Friendship isn’t morphing to match the pattern, or changing to make sure differences are undetectable. Friendship, instead, is a place to safely be and become the person God uniquely designed me to be.
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Friendship doesn’t discourage differences. Friendship celebrates them.
Friendship doesn’t require me to be anyone but my truest self, and when I can’t remember or simply don’t know who that is, friends won’t answer the question for me. They’ll help me find it for myself.
In all of my experiences with misconstrued friendship, I never imagined that what I am experiencing now could be true: that in real community, I am free to explore and be who I really am.
Surrounded by people who love me, I am free to morph only into the shape for which God created me. I can be unapologetically me. I can dig deep into the wellspring of my own heart and discover the gems God placed there that have hitherto remained unknown. I can spread my wings knowing I am supported if I fall…but that if I should soar, I have people cheering me on.
Friends love me as I am and will love me as I become who I was created to be, and learning that has made me brave enough to stand out. A friend asked me the other day if I’m brave enough to be misunderstood, and while I’m not sure I’ve made it there yet, I am certain of this: I can take risks and do unexpected things because in the safe context of real community, being different or misunderstood is not a death sentence. The ones who matter will try to understand, and if they can’t, will love me anyway.
Community has made me brave enough to stand out and not match the pattern perfectly. What I’m learning is that friendship isn’t about matching a single pattern. It’s about bringing my pattern together with other patterns to form a beautiful tapestry. If I bring my truest self, and everyone else brings their truest selves, the intricate blending of different patterns creates something more glorious and exquisite than any of us could have designed on our own.
It is with that new understanding that I have felt free to take risks. It is because of this work that God has done in me and in my life that I felt free enough recently to do something I always wanted to do but never imagined I actually would: I pierced my nose.
I pierced my nose, and while I still kind of can’t believe I did it, I love it. I love how it looks and I love what it represents. Getting it done wasn’t the result of a mid-30s identity crisis. It’s the result of a 35-year-old finally finding and being herself.
The tiny gemstone is, in a very real sense, my Ebenezer. The Old Testament mentions Samuel raising an Ebenezer as a commemoration of divine assistance. And, as the hymn says, I know it is by the hand of God that I have come to this place. Hither by thy help I come. Some would scoff at a body-piercing being honorable to God, but I believe – I really believe – that the heart behind it makes God happy. Because the truth is, it’s a symbol of remembrance. It’s a symbol of God’s hand at work. And it’s a symbol that one of God’s children – His uniquely precious, beautiful, forgiven, and redeemed daughter – is finally understanding and believing what He has always been trying to tell her.
He created me on purpose, the way I am, for a reason. I am accepted as I am, and no one and nothing – aside from the atoning blood of Jesus – should have any sway over who I become. And now I get it. I really get it. My pattern is beautiful the way it is, and it has a place in the beautiful picture God is weaving in the world.