Embracing Your Misfit Nature
“I call myself the misfit because I can’t make all I done wrong fit with all I gone through in the punishment.”
Those words are spoken by a character called The Misfit in a short story by Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” This guy was a lowdown dirty dog, a cold-blooded killer, your regulation Ted Kaczinski-Unabomber-Jeffrey Dahmer type of misfit. Just so you know, this is not the type of misfit I write about, identify with, or knowingly hang out with.
Misfits like me, and maybe you, are what I like to think of as productive misfits. We can hold down a job…if we want to. We live within the law…pretty much. And we generally look enough like other people so that we don’t stand out in a crowd…all that often.
But we’re slightly off kilter. Productive misfits definitely march to the beat of that different drummer and stay permanently out of step with the dominant culture–whether that means the dominant American culture or the dominant church culture or the dominant female culture. We are woefully out of sync with a whole lot of people.
And even though O’Connor’s reprehensible character is not like us, the words she put in his mouth ring true with regard to those of us who feel like misfits: “We can’t make all we done wrong fit with all we gone through in the punishment.”
Now, before someone goes and gets all bent out of shape over this, I want to clarify that when I speak of “all we done wrong” I’m not talking about sin. That’s another topic altogether. I am not talking about those behaviors and habits that we know we need to change. I’m talking about our authentic, God-given nature, our true selves.
SO WHAT IS IT that we misfits have done wrong?
We’ve simply been true to the kind of person God intended us to be.
And what have we gone through in the punishment?
We’ve been teased and mocked and stared at and left out and made to feel foolish and on and on and on. What all that adds up to is rejection.
Finally, what makes me such an authority on being a misfit?
Well, people have looked at me funny my entire life. As a child, I thought it was because I belonged to a decidedly eccentric family. We were such a ragtag group of cartoon characters that even the genuine nut cases in town looked at us funny.
And then came the summer I turned 10. My parents shipped me off to camp, but within a few days all of us happy campers had to go home because of a measles outbreak. I couldn’t call my parents, because of course we didn’t have a phone, so I got a ride home with a stranger, because of course we didn’t have a car. And then I went bounding through the front door of my house only to discover it wasn’t my house any more. My family had moved without telling me.
You want to know what a misfit feels like? Imagine standing amid a room full of strangers in what you think is your living room. And then you look up and see the woman who drove you home, standing at the door with your stuff, wondering who on earth you are and how could you not know that your family had moved. That, believe me, is a defining moment in your life, and the next thing you know Webster places your photo next to the dictionary definition of misfit.
I WON’T RECOUNT the horrors my misfittedness caused throughout my adolescence and college years. But I will say this: All those experiences brought me to the end of myself and the beginning of a life with God when I was just shy of my 22ndbirthday.
After years of feeling as if I didn’t belong, I was thrilled to become a part of the family of God. At first I was mercifully blind to everything but the love of God. Pretty soon, though, I became like the blind man in Mark 8. When Jesus first touched his eyes, the blind man saw everything in a kind of fuzzy haze: People looked like trees walking around.
That was me in my honeymoon phase with Christ. But then, like the blind man, my vision cleared completely, and I realized that now, even my new family—my brothers and sisters in Christ, the kindred spirits I had waited all my life to meet—well, they were all looking at me funny.
That was 30 years ago, and I spent many of the intervening years trying to fit in with the dominant church culture. Little by little, I sacrificed pieces of myself in a completely misguided attempt to be something I could never be, someone God never intended me to be. But the pressure to conform to some ideal Christian standard was greater than any pressure the world ever exerted on me to conform to its ways.
The pressure is all around us. I have this cover from a Christian magazine that I’ve saved for about six years now. At the time that the magazine crossed my desk, I was working overtime and then some at another Christian magazine. My daughters considered me their absentee mother, and I don’t want to think what my husband considered me to be.
On this cover, a perfect woman—perfect hair, perfect clothes, all that—arrives home to a perfectly furnished living room just as the perfect grandfather clock is striking 9:30. She’s carrying a briefcase, a Bible, and a grocery bag with perfect greens peeking out from the top. Her teenage daughter is asleep on the sofa with her schoolbooks on her lap. The working Christian mother is clearly sighing, even though you can’t hear it. She’s distraught—so much to do, so little time.
Me, I would have danced. It’s only 9:30, and I’m already home! The house is immaculate! My daughter is asleep! The schoolbooks are decoys—I know she was really watching television—but who cares? I found perfect greens at the market! And I’ve got real wood furniture! Even if it’s only for a photograph!
WE ALL KNOW that images like that are unreal. But what we may not realize is the subtle cumulative effect those images have on us. As Christians, we talk so much about the devastating effects of the ideal female image that Hollywood portrays: a slightly anorexic, skimpily clad perfect woman. Our models, the ones that grace the covers of Christian magazines, may have more skin on their bones and more clothes on their bodies, but they are no less perfect.
And then there’s the whole problem of fitting in as women in general, not just Christian women. There’s a commercial for Office Depot that shows what an impossible achievement that is. In it, two friends are walking down a busy city street and notice a woman in white walking toward them.
One friend turns to the other and says, “Who wears white after Labor Day?” The friend shrugs as if to say, “No one I know!”
Next thing you know, model and fashion expert Kathy Ireland appears before the two friends and says, “Well, that used to be a fashion faux pas, but now you can wear white any time!” And then the Office Depot guy comes on, making you wish you had an expert by your side whenever you needed one and telling you that of course, you can always find one at Office Depot.
What I take away from this commercial is not what Office Depot intended. I see the two friends as representing the dominant culture, people who think they know the rules and are determined to make you conform to them. The woman in white is the misfit—even though she shouldn’t be.
But the dominant culture stares at her and talks about her—and by the way, the misfit is well aware of that, even though in this commercial you never see her viewpoint. Believe me, she knows those two friends are talking about her, because a woman always knows when other women are talking about her. In true misfit fashion, the woman in white has no idea what she’s done wrong, and my guess is that she’s going to spend the rest of her day trying to figure out why people stare at her and talk about her so often.
The irony, of course, is that the dominant culture has got it all wrong. The mythical ideal woman—Kathy Ireland, in this case—notifies them that the rules have changed.
How on earth can we ever hope to fit in with other women if the rules keep changing? It’s totally disorienting if you’re one of those who don’t even know the old rules, let alone the new ones. That would be me and women like me.
ANYWAY, BACK to the church. I tried to fit in, I really did. But I’m just all wrapped up in a different package, as one of my Texas friends once told me. And “different” was a word that didn’t sit well with the church, it seemed.
But I really didn’t blame the church; I blamed God. I’d start moaning and groaning and whining to God and asking, “Why did you make me this way?” And then I’d read a verse like Romans 9:20, which reads, in Paul’s distinctive—ahem—thunderous style, “Who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to Him who formed it, ‘Why have you made me like this?’”
My habit of overthinking—a common trait among misfits—led me to this conclusion: If God made me like this, and I’m not supposed to challenge Him on that, then He must not like me very much.
And then, finally, mercifully, God said Enough.
Enough of you trying to be someone I never made you to be.
Enough of you projecting on to Me the rejection you’ve experienced from other Christians.
Enough of you failing to recognize the love I put in to making you the way you are.
And I finally began to realize that my attempts at changing my true nature amounted to one great big insult to God.
When the thought first occurred to me that maybe I needed to accept my misfittedness as my true God-given nature, I began to stop seeing myself in this fuzzy haze. My vision started to clear, and for the first time in my life I saw my authentic self—the real me, warts and all, quirks and all, strange ways of thinking and all—as exactly the person God made me to be.
Scriptures like Galatians 5:1 took on a new and highly personal meaning for me: “It was for freedom that Christ set you free; why would you take on the yoke of slavery once again?” Why would I? Why would I ever allow myself to become enslaved to someone else’s idea of who I should be?
AND I STARTED going before God and asking questions like: Does this mean I should accept my misfit nature, to the point of embracing it and befriending it?
Yes, that’s what it means. Psalm 139:14: “I will praise you, because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, and my soul knows that very well.”
Does this mean that it doesn’t matter to You, God, that I don’t look and act and think like the Christians who seem to populate all the Christian magazines and the TV shows and the megachurches and the major ministries?
Yes, it doesn’t matter. Romans 12:6: “We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.”
Does this mean I really can be me?
Yes, you can. 1 Corinthians 15:10: “By the grace of God, I am what I am.”
OK, God, I get it. But still, You know how people are going to treat me if I expose the real me.
Yes, I know. Matthew 5:11: “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you on account of Me.”
I HAVE COME OUT of the closet as a misfit to give hope to those who have been made to feel as if they don’t fit in. I have exposed my life in print to release people from the prison of other people’s expectations. And even though I’m very much a homebody who would rather go through another 45 hours of labor than speak in public, I’ve done just that—in person, on the radio, and on television—because I am determined to allow God to use the experiences I’ve had to bring hope to other people.
You can live as a productive misfit in society and in the church. You can see the love God had for you when He made you the way you are. You can embrace and enjoy who you are, with all your eccentricities and quirkiness and oddities that make people look at you funny.
To paraphrase John Newton: You are not what you ought to be. You are not what you want to be. You are not what you hope to be. But still, you are not what you used to be. And by the grace of God, you are what you are.
That is the perfect description of your reality—as well as your hope.