That’s a quote from contemporary author Rita Mae Brown, and what she means, of course, is that one of the high costs of conformity is the same thing — everyone likes you except yourself.
For years, many of us tried to conform to the ways of the world so we could at least feel as if we fit in, but we our attempts only made us miserable and unsuccessful. Then those of us who became Christians discovered the faintest glimmer of hope in one of the first Bible verses we learned, Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” That sounded so wonderful at the time—our minds could be renewed, transformed. We could be conformed to the image of Christ—who wouldn’t want that?—and we could have the mind of Christ, as 1 Corinthians 2:16 tells us.
What’s more, most of us were introduced to the kingdom of God after hearing some message, in some form or other, about God’s unconditional love for us. Maybe it wasn’t phrased that way, but somehow, we all understood that God loved us, warts and all. Yes, He wanted us to clean up our act, but that would come in time. The important thing was to surrender our lives to Him and to His love. He would take care of the rest.
Except some of us never gave Him a chance to. We set about re-creating ourselves, not in God’s image, but in the image of a “good Christian,” whatever that is. And the church—which, of course, is us—began laying one condition after another on us. We did this to each other, but we hardly knew that that was what we were doing at the time. Weren’t we simply trying to help our brothers and sisters overcome temptation and avoid a life of ruin? Instead of the freedom we had been promised, and the freedom we promised others, we found ourselves trapped in a prison of our own making.
Many of us became miserable all over again.
When I first became a Christian, I had been a ’60s wild child. I had emerged from a life of debauchery, and I was determined to get this whole Christian thing right. So I changed the way I dressed and talked and partied, and I became the good little Christian girl. But I didn’t deal with the temptations that had once attracted me to the wilder side of life.
No problem. I knew how to handle at least one of those ongoing temptations. I’d get married! Now there was something I was sure I could do and do well. I wouldn’t feel like an outsider anymore, because I’d be married—which at that time was a huge prerequisite to being a good Christian woman, and still may be. But I had married a man who wasn’t saved, so I was an outsider once again: A married woman who came to church alone.
Not surprisingly, the marriage fell apart. I tried to fit in to the church once again, but now I was a divorced woman—too old for the college and career group, too divorced for the young marrieds group, too much of an oddity to fit in anywhere else. This was in the 1970s, and I don’t think things have changed much since then. Regardless of the church’s role in making me feel like some kind of alien, I hadn’t dealt with the problems that formed my contribution to the failure of my marriage, so the blame was squarely on my shoulders.
I eventually remarried. I was now married to the kindest man on the planet, and we started creating a family. Motherhood! Now that was something I knew I could be a success at! I was on the fast track toward becoming the best mother on the planet. I started homeschooling my first child when she was still in the womb—and this was in 1983, when homeschooling, at least on the East Coast, was virtually unheard of. But I had been a reporter, and I had done a story on the one homeschooling family in our area–who, by the way, were Orthodox Jews—and I knew homeschooling was legal in New Jersey.
I would not only be the best mother on the planet; I would be the best homeschooling teacher on the planet. I even had a teaching certificate to whip out if anyone ever challenged my right or my abilities to teach my own children. Just let them try! I’d start speaking to them in a dead language like Latin or Greek and show them just how smart I was. I was smart all right, but I never dealt with the perfectionism that transformed my house from a restful haven to the modern-day equivalent of the Little School on the Prairie. Most years I created my own curriculum and had enough school supplies for a classroom of thirty kids, even though I only had two little ones at the time.
Finances were not just tight, though, they were close to nonexistent. After years of sacrifice and living a barebones existence and even relying on the kindness of others for our groceries most weeks, I got an offer I couldn’t refuse: A Christian magazine offered me a job. I fully believed this was God’s will for our family. I still do. But I believe in retrospect that there were some things He wanted to accomplish in my life before I took this step. The magazine was willing to wait several months for us to sell our house and make the move from Delaware to Florida. But I was not willing. I looked at the salary they offered and left my family behind to sort things out while I got settled in Florida. But I had not dealt with my failure to trust God with our finances.
Two years later, I ended up on the floor of a hotel, about to sever my relationship with God, at least in terms of any expectations I might have from Him. Throughout my entire life as a Christian, my perfectionism had become closely intertwined with my attempts to fit in: with the church, with other mothers, with other homeschoolers, and now with my co-workers at the Christian magazine where I worked.
And I felt I had failed. I had failed at every last thing and every last opportunity God had given me in my life. And I blamed it on Him: Why couldn’t He have made me normal? How could I have failed so miserably at everything I tried my hand at? And why, if He loved me so much, did He allow so many people to stare at me and look at me funny and treat me as if I was some sort of freak?
I could only come to one conclusion: I was this major disappointment to God, and that’s why all the other women at the Christian conference I was attending were getting their socks blessed off while I was sitting on the floor of my hotel room in a nearly catatonic state.
I could have used a bit of Luis Palau’s wisdom at that point. “God is not disillusioned with you,” Palau once said. “He never had any illusions to begin with.”
But I may not have believed that at the time. I got off the hotel floor. I had decided that God and I would go our separate ways until I finally came face to face with Him in heaven, which I knew was still part of the deal. I would still be a good little Christian girl—I just wouldn’t expect anything more from Him for the rest of my life.
And that proved to be the pivotal point in my life with God. Because eventually—a significant time later—it led me to realize that I could never live apart from Him again.
Within a month of that night, I came to one of the most startling discoveries of my life. Here I was, a bona fide, card-carrying Christian, working for a Christian company, involved in a joy-filled church, married to the kindest man on the planet, the mother of two of the most wonderful girls on the planet…and I was suffering from a severe case of chronic depression.
How could I ever admit this to anyone? But how could I ever get help if I didn’t admit this to someone?
When I couldn’t take it any longer, when I knew I was going to shatter to a million pieces if I didn’t do something now, I called my pastor. At least, I think I did. I ended up on the phone with him somehow and, for the first time in my life, uttered the word “depression” as a description of the condition I was in.
I will forever be grateful to him for the first piece of advice he gave me: Get to a doctor immediately. He knew—he knew—that I was so far gone that I could not hear any spiritual advice whatsoever, and that I probably couldn’t even hear the voice of God anymore. He was right.
Antidepressants brought me to a place where I could hear both my pastor and God again. For most Christians, I suspect, that would be the end of the story, because most Christians would follow through with what their pastor and God told them to do. I did, of course, to a point. But I was still working in this high-pressured magazine environment, working impossibly long hours and trying to be the best editor on the planet.
And once again, God said Enough. Only this time, He stopped my heart.
OK, so it wasn’t literally Him that stopped it. It was the paramedics who had to reboot me after my heart had been racing at 200 beats per minute for almost two hours. Now that got my attention…for a while. A day or two, I’d say.
Then I was back to work, and for the next eight months my life gradually became a living nightmare—a nightmare that ended only when I made a second trip to the emergency room, this time for what appeared to be a stroke. It turned out not to be, but still, the effects of a lifetime of trying to fit in by trying to be the perfect … whatever … had taken their toll. I was suffering from a stress-related neurological disorder. I will probably be on medication to alleviate the symptoms for the rest of my life. Apart from a miracle of God, there seems to be no cure.
Since Memoir of a Misfit released I’ve heard countless stories from women—and men—who have similar stories to tell. [Tell me your story!] The details are obviously different, sometimes significantly so. One woman I heard from is a model and successful TV actress, and yet she feels like a misfit.
The one thing we all have in common is that each one of us has paid a high price for trying to fit it – trying to meet other people’s expectations and trying to become something God never intended us to be.
My message to other misfits goes far beyond the usual “just be yourself” message that we so often hear. How can you “just be yourself” when doing that means subjecting yourself to ridicule? How can you “just be yourself” when you don’t even know what your real self is, because you’ve piled on so many layers of confused identity in your attempts to fit in?
E.E. Cummings had this piece of wisdom and advice, and I think it’s a good one: “To be nobody but yourself in a world that is doing its best night and day to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle that any human being can fight. But never stop fighting it.”
With God, of course, that fight turns into a certain victory. When we stop trying to be everybody else, and we finally surrender and say, “OK, God, You made me this way. Do with me what You will. Use me and my royal weirdness in any way You can to bring about Your purposes on earth. And I will stop fighting the nature You placed within me when You so lovingly created me”—when we do that and say that, we have finally reached a point where we can embrace and befriend our misfit nature and give up all our pointless attempts to conform to some manmade or womanmade or churchmade standard for what is normal and acceptable.
Carl Bard once said this: “Though no one can go back and make a brand-new start, anyone can start from now and make a brand-new ending.”
And that’s my hope and prayer for you—that if you are a misfit or if you at least sometimes feel like a misfit—that you can start from now, thank God for the way He made you, learn to love your quirky nature, and go on to make a brand-new and wonderful ending for your life’s story.