I will never forget my first day of university. “O-day,” as we called it. A friend of mine and I were the only two from my small Ontario Christian school to make the trip out to the west coast for University. We got lanyards and swag bags and met our orientation groups. There was a DJ on the lawn playing “Harder Better Faster Stronger” by Daft Punk. I was going to become a Theatre teacher in a high school. I was going to get a girlfriend and become a vegetarian. My mentality was something along the lines of the classic song from the hit musical Annie “I think I’m gonna like it here.”
It didn’t take long, however, for my starry-eyes to become disillusioned. It rains 179 of the 365 days of the year in the Fraser Valley, and most of those rain days happen during the school year. Things fell apart with my long-time high school friend. I didn’t feel like I fit in with the Theatre department. I had to withdraw from my first Education class for fear of failing. I got my first girlfriend, but then I got mono, and then I broke up with that girlfriend (not because of the mono)—all in one semester.
Second semester wasn’t much better. I was tossed on the waves of anxiety. I was lonely. I abandoned the Education program and soon after I was thinking of abandoning Theatre. I wanted everyone to like me but I didn’t really like myself. Only by looking back can I see what was truly happening in my life—I was grasping for an identity and a place of belonging. It was a painful journey with many detours along the way.
Detour #1: Making other people happy is not the same as loving them.
My first big mistake in search of a place to belong is that I spent a lot of time and made a lot of decisions based on the fear of people. I lived out of a constant desire for the approval of my Theatre professors and had a persistent need to be well-liked by all of my friends. I felt like if I wasn’t perfect I would be disqualified from relationship, so I spent a lot of time trying to be the perfect friend. Living life based on a desperate need to make other people happy felt a lot like the humble servitude of the Bible, but it was all an idol because I was serving humans rather than God. I often left feeling frustrated when my acts of “selfless love” were not being recognized.
I see now that I was doing all this in order to find a place of belonging, a community of people who loved me. But the ironic thing is, in my attempts at being the perfect friend or student, I wasn’t being honest about who I truly was. I was hiding parts of myself, and trying to project a false perfection instead. The problem with projecting perfection is that even when you finally succeed in achieving an outward “perfection” in your relationships, you still feel alone because you haven’t shown people the real you.
Detour #2: Being a vegetarian doesn’t automatically make you a good person
We live in a world of social causes and for the most part that’s a very good thing. People are waking up to the damaging effects of greenhouse gasses and pollution on the planet, the unethical treatment of animals, the danger of giving our privacy up to megacorporations and the government, and the systematic injustices with regard to race and gender. University provided the perfect environment to discuss hot button issues with friends, join clubs, and rally behind causes.
One of the best ways I found to protest all the evil in the world was to boycott. I boycotted meat, I boycotted sweatshops, and I switched from Microsoft to Linux. I felt awakened to the injustices in the world—they gave me a cause and a circle of likeminded people to protest with. Being a part of these activist communities brought me a sense of identity. No longer was I just another average guy, I was Erik deLange: Vegetarian, Eco-activist, and Social Justice Warrior.
But no matter what I did, the voices in my head that I am not doing enough, that I am not good enough, vegan enough, carbon neutral enough, green enough, tolerant enough, or just nice enough did not stop. In the same way that my pursuit of belonging turned people into my idol, my pursuit of social causes had the same result. It was a problem not unlike that of the Pharisees: paying attention to the outward works of doing right rather than my inner relationship to God. These identities were not truly transforming me, but instead they were “layered on” externally. This discovery led to some hard but rewarding self-knowledge.
My false identities began to disintegrate while simultaneously relationships fell apart due to my inability to keep up my perfect friend persona. I began to see that brokenness and corruption was not just in the institutions around me, but also in myself. My fierce need to fix the world’s problems actually stemmed from an inability to examine my own. But here was the good news from Jesus’s own lips: “It’s not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick, I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners”.
I discovered that in Jesus I don’t have to please everyone, navigating my relationships with perfectionism in order to belong. I discovered in Jesus that I don’t have to layer on pretentious identities in order to have an identity.
I found Jesus to be the only one who can put and end to my sin and–not only mine–also the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2). Trusting in Christ and not my own efforts for this salvation not only freed me from sin and perfectionism but provided me with what I’ve been looking for this whole time: a true identity and place of belonging as a beloved child of God.
Of course once this Gospel began to ring true in my life I did not automatically give up pursuing false identities and trying to get people to like me. When I began to take my faith more seriously I found myself tempted to please my pastor or find identity in my particular denomination. Purging my life of these idols has been a slow and arduous journey. Here are some of the steps I’ve taken to navigate this journey toward an authentic self.
Path #1: Accept Who You Are
“A [person] is never so proud as when striking an attitude of humility” wrote C.S. Lewis. The same stands for any sin. The more we try to dig ourselves out of it in our own strength, the more entrenched we become. The first step in accepting our own brokenness is coming face to face with the one who loves us as we are, before we change. But that can be a really hard thing to accept. As psychologist Carl Jung noted, “The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely.” University provides an opportunity to learn about the world and about God, but it is also a time when you will discover a lot about yourself. Some of the things that you’ll learn about yourself won’t feel very nice.
As you begin the process of letting God and others see you and love you in your imperfections, you’ll begin to love others in theirs as well. This process leads to real and honest relationships. Slowly, a sense of true belonging rooted in the knowledge of God and of each other emerges. In Christian communities, you can leave behind your false identities and people pleasing and instead enter into connections with other human beings—with fellow students whose identity is first and foremost as children of belonging, made for relationship with God.
Path #2: Accept Who God Is
I remember Christmas break in my fifth year of university. Because of my Christmas plans I remained on campus long after all of my classes were done and my friends had left for home. With no assignments to do and no friends around to impress, I felt like my hands were outstretched grasping in vain for some kind of identity and belonging. It was at that moment, when I felt most lost and alone, that God spoke to me. I realized that all my attempts at grasping for identity and a sense of belonging were worth absolutely nothing compared to this reality: that I was grasped by God.
Realizing this truth is not going to happen immediately. At this very moment you might feel bogged down by the weight of the world, your unknown future, and your own personal shortcomings. But we must be reminded often that we are accepted, loved, and held by God just as we are right now. And God promises us that he will see us through the valleys of deep darkness—He who began a work will bring it to completion (Phil 1:6). You can count on God to bring you to where you belong in order to be who you truly are. This is because it is his work from start to finish.