34 And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life[a]will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37 For what can a man give in return for his soul? 38 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” -Mark 8:34-38 (ESV)
There are some lessons that we learn as human beings that only adolescence can teach.
There is something about the outpost we call middle school… some supplies for human flourishing are always in short supply there. Something about the chemicals coursing through the bodies of the just-barely-a-teenager causes the supply never to equal the demand for things like compassion and caring. Hope doesn’t thrive in that environment.
Today, I’d like to talk about one lesson I learned in this forsaken outpost of sort-of-humanity,and how I am still trying to unlearn it.
I could dramatize the story and tell all the gory details, but if I’m being honest, many of the details are getting a bit fuzzy to me more than twenty years later. Here’s the short version. I was part of a Gifted & Talented program for kids in my town when I was in 4th and 5th grade. We worked a year ahead of the curriculum. After two years in that program, I elected to leave it and return to “normal” middle school. Where they were doing the same work I’d just done. At the same time it was uncool to be smart. I don’t remember exactly all the components in the equation, but bullying and abuse figured prominently. I spent a harrowing year in 6th grade trying to survive, wiping spit off my face and trying to hide in the library during lunch. I developed an excellent radar for bullies.
I suppose I am lucky to say that it was the first time in my charmed life (and I say that without an ounce of sarcasm) that I really had to look the ugliness of humanity in the face. I had probably been exposed before–like kids being invited to play at a house where chicken pox had been diagnosed–but somehow the disease had never afflicted me. That made the awakening that took place during that period doubly cruel. It was like going to bed in a fantasy and waking up in a nightmare, and wondering which one was real–had I been dreaming the entire time? My suspicion is that it isn’t much less cruel for those who sample the brokenness of our world sooner than I did.
The essence of my pain was that one thing about me, one aspect of my being, became the only pertinent thing about me. I was a smart kid. That’s all I was. A brain in a jar. Helpful when the teacher makes you do group work, and not good for much else, unless it is as a recipient for the garden variety torture that middle schoolers subject each other to. But when you’re on the bottom rung of the social ladder and the tortures start to be poured out, they all seem to find you on the way down. I instinctively rebelled against the idea that I was only one thing. But I couldn’t find a way out where it felt like anyone believed me. The box around me grew ever smaller. I grew to hate the word ‘smart.’ As I tried to understand, it became clear to me that I had always been the smart kid–it was just that the value my peers put in that particular commodity had crashed nearly overnight.
So that we’re clear, I don’t believe that this experience of mine was unique. And I don’t think the abuse I endured was reserved for smart kids. I would be willing to stake my present existence that it was just as horrible and soul rending for the “dumb” kids and the “tall” kids and the “short” kids and every other kind of kid you can think of. The essence of middle school is reduction: a bunch of almost-adults looking at each other and identifying one another by one or more things they are. The call comes from central casting, and someone gets shoved out the door by the crowd for the part and the door is locked behind them. They are stuck with the part they’ve just been assigned, at least for a time. At the moment when young people are trying to discover their identity, they are put in the exact position where everyone else tells them what they think the person is. It’s a truly cruel consequence of growing up, and I’m pretty sure that no one is immune.
To say it another way, middle school teaches us how to commodify each other–how to see other people as a sum of traits and abilities they do or do not possess. We spend those painful years learning to evaluate people so that we can keep running balance sheets of what they are, or rather, what they do, how they look, etc. We take whole human beings and break them down so they are far less than the sum of their parts. During those early years, the markets for those commodities are volatile and inverted–they do not reflect the values of the real world.
Sadly, your local middle school may not be the only place where the commodities market is active and behaving strangely. I’ve been asked many times about how my training as a teacher (my undergrad degree was in secondary education) has informed my work as a youth worker, sometimes pastoral figure, and denominational worker. The answer is simple: we all have a lot more in common with middle schoolers than we think. There may not be any better preparation for life working in a church than spending time inside the fractured experiment we call “Junior High.”
To put a finer point on it: there is much we do as Christians that reduces us and the people around us to walking balance sheets of positive and negative traits. This behavior is camouflaged with words like “spiritual gifts.” To be clear, I am not denying that God gives all people talents and abilities, and I am not denying that God gives believers additional gifts which he intends to be used through the promptings of the Holy Spirit. What I am saying is that God does not give these gifts, talents, and abilities so that we can look at one another and determine our relative worth to Him by them.
Think about how you describe the people you know. Don’t you unconsciously default to describing people by their traits/behaviors/abilities?
“She’s a great singer.”
“He’s really wise.”
“They are a good looking couple.”
“She’s so smart!”
“He would be a much more influential pastor (bless his heart!) if he was a better public speaker!”
“She’s a lesbian.”
To the extent that this behavior represents us valuing people according to what they do, it is wrong, and one of the most unChristian viewpoints we can hold. People are not commodities to be traded in God’s economy. They have value and worth far beyond any trait or skill they possess. They are not the sum of their decisions. They cannot be reduced to what they’ve done on their worst day.
I want to bring you back to where I started, and ask you an important question.
I have spent much of the last twenty years of my life responding to that first market valuation of me. For most of my high school life, I fought and lost the battle to be seen as more than one thing, my successful efforts to procure an athletic letter notwithstanding. In college, I had well meaning friends tell me that I had to dumb myself down if I wanted to ever have relationships with normal people. I followed their advice and completed my break with that hateful word, “smart.” Though I’m sure they didn’t mean it this way, I interpreted their words to mean that even the one thing I had (and hated) was also not enough. In Seminary, as the walls fell down around me emotionally and spiritually, the only thing I retained that was still working correctly–my intellect, was the thing I hated most about myself. I have spent large parts of the past two decades alternately artfully dodging some labels and doggedly pursuing others. Every complement was a finger shoved in a bruise. Every criticism was a syringe that extracted joy. Until the moment when I found the right valuation.
Which leads to my question. If I am right and we all learn to commodify each other early on, and our culture continues to promote it, are you a commodities trader? Even more–do you view yourself as a commodity? Do you see yourself and the people around you as properties to be collected and traded when they appreciate in value? Do you collect friendships so that your own value increases? Have you ever taken stock of your own life solely by the skills you possess or the results to a Myers-Briggs personality test? Was there ever a “spiritual gifts inventory” that provided an adequate valuation of your soul?
You are more than what you can do. You are more than what you have done. You are more than every achievement you could possibly accomplish. In case of life, value yourself and others based on what Jesus Christ paid to save you. Give up on the commodities trading, and see yourself and the people around as God does–as whole beings who He died to bring into relationship with himself.
16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.[a] The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18 All this is from God,who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling[b] the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. - 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 (ESV)