I’ve felt like an outsider my whole life. Sometimes more than others, sometimes a vague sense of not fitting right, and other times a serious wedge I’ve felt between me and others. Mostly, I have perceived myself an outsider when others would likely not have thought me a real outsider. But whether my outsider status was “real” or just “perceived,” the perception of being an outsider is, in my opinion, real enough of a qualifier.
My earliest memories include feeling like an outsider in my enormous, Italian Catholic family. My mom was the oldest in the second generation of Americans in her family and, after marrying my dad, the first to leave Pennsylvania to live out of state. I spent the first several years of my life on the west coast. Each summer, my mom and I would fly back east to visit. She, of course, fell right into the routine of her large family. I peered at my 30+ cousins and wondered where I fit. They pointed out that the way I talked and dressed and acted were different. And they pointed out that I was an only child, the child of parents who had climbed up from their blue collar background to a white collar, upper middle class status, accusing me of being “spoiled” because I enjoyed privilege they didn’t have. They needn’t have pointed it out, of course. It was glaringly obvious I wasn’t one of “them.” Once we moved back east, though, I assimilated into the family and found my way, but that first developmental stage of my life perhaps set me up to feel different for the rest of my life, and to be ok with that.
The next time I felt like an outsider was at 16 when I was raped by my first ever boyfriend. At the time I didn’t even know there was such a thing as date rape, and I definitely didn’t tell anyone what happened. I felt dirty and damaged. Any sense of sameness that I felt with my girlfriends and my cousins vanished. Because of my Catholic upbringing, purity and virginity were highly valued. My hopes for a white wedding hung in the balance, in my mind, so I did my best to distance myself from both the boyfriend and the memory of what happened. As long as no one found out, I’d be fine and my life would look normal. Meanwhile, inside, I took it on as my own and told myself I must have wanted it; I must have somehow given him permission.
For the next several years, I looked at other young women and wondered how it was that no one seemed to notice I was different, that I was damaged. It never occurred to me that I wasn’t the only one something like that had happened to, nor did it occur to me how good I had become at hiding my outsider status. I became the life of every party, the center of all social gatherings, in order to blend in and to hide my pain.
When I went away to college, I began to test my limits with substances and decided “purity” was a waste of time. Jesus became nothing more than an above average teacher and God was an antiquated, out of touch grandfatherly idea someone made up because humans crave an explanation for the unexplainable. Because neither of them could have been the Good Shepherd or my Redeemer while I was busy beating myself up for having failed to live up to the faulty standards my flawed faith had placed on me (or I had placed on myself). I started criticizing the institution of the Catholic Church and all “organized religion” and claimed to believe that the Church was evil, all because it failed to catch me when I fell. It took nearly a decade to get to a place where I understood what happened was not my fault and that I did not need to abuse myself trying to atone for it. It took much longer than that to forgive the Church for not being perfect. I’m still working on that.
Well on the other side of that experience, in my early 30s, I got a call from a high school friend. “Charlie died,” she told me. Charlie was my first boyfriend. “He hanged himself in a swing in front of his dad’s house.” I purposely use his name at this point in the story because it was at that point when God worked on me in an amazing way that I hadn’t expected. I had spent almost 15 years hating Charlie and at that moment he became a real person to me again. I felt a profound sense of sadness for him, and I found myself praying for him. I wasn’t even a Christian, I was a fake Catholic, and yet I felt compelled to pray. I didn’t understand it, and the only way I can describe it is that I lamented his life and had a sense that there really wasn’t anyone else to do that for him, so I did it for him.
Charlie’s parents were both abusive, neglectful alcoholics. After their divorce when we were in middle school, his mom spiraled out of control and eventually died several years later. His dad married immediately after the divorce, got sober and had more children. Unfortunately, he left Charlie behind and refused to play an active role in Charlie’s upbringing. They never made amends that I know of, and I can only imagine that Charlie’s suicide in his dad’s front yard was one last message to his dad about the damage that was done. As I sat with the news, all I could think of was how desperately painful Charlie’s life must have been and I grieved for him, lamenting the circumstances that made him who he was. And I forgave him.
As I’ve gotten older, I continue to experience being an outsider in some significant ways, not the least of which are my biracial marriage and a chronic pain condition. Those two things set me apart from most people in my community. But what I’m realizing is that my outsider status is perhaps one of my best assets, something I now get to watch as God puts it to good use. Because who better to represent the outsider to those on the inside than someone who has spent time on the outside looking in? Who better to speak for those on the fringe, those who are invisible, those who feel unworthy, than one who has felt apart, unseen and undeserving? Who better to welcome outsiders and proclaim to them that they are in fact worthy and welcome, that they have a place at the table on the inside of God’s own heart than one who felt unwelcome? An outsider on the inside.