Monday, July 30, 2012

Charis: Four Years

I have observed increasingly over the past few months that a lot of my friends are confused about a sudden shift in my behavior and outlook regarding my school and my four years there. They have every right to be confused; I think in a way it still confuses me. I had always planned on writing a blog post to wrap up college, but what this post has become is miles away from what I once thought it would be.

My years in college were hard. There was a time when I kept trying to force a post that detailed why, justifying and laying out my martyrdom in bold black pen strokes to somehow make me feel my complaint was properly heard. But that has come to seem incredibly unimportant, even childish.

I went into college as an incredibly young Christian still recovering from a deep soul-sickness, and I was carrying a lot with me. It took years to feel I had permission not to blame myself for the struggle. The bottom line is that sometimes life is hard. Some things are supposed to be challenging. I don’t regret the sorrow anymore, or even the causes I had for it. The only thing I ever find myself regretting now is this: it never even occurred to me that I could have asked for help.

For four years I wrestled and struggled to pour out every drop of who I was just to barely maintain a lifestyle I hated. Perfectionism is far too dispassionate a word to describe the reality of the demon that kept me awake for days on end. If it had been a matter of academic perfection, I could have overcome that-- there comes a point where you can let go of grades (particularly when your degree does not particularly matter to you) and simply enjoy the process of learning and exploring. But for me the point of perfectionism that haunted me was more than that. It was looking at the impossible demands that faced me outside of school every day, finding myself failing, and in the burned-out aftermath trying to convince God (and myself) that He hadn’t made a mistake when He saved me.

In those early years, I maintained enough of a pretense of self-reliant independence and ability (even to myself) that I think people were either intimidated or else didn’t particularly think I was worth noticing. Though I never would have voiced it this way, I had this perception in my head that to reach the elusive goal of “good enough” required meeting a set of standards. But perfection is still a traitor, even if the betrayal comes with the sweet kiss of success. I could reach places of achievement I had once seen as being the goal, and still I wasn’t satisfied. Something I didn’t recognize until much later was that what I often perceived as falling irredeemable short, others saw as climbing impressively high. This disparity may be why so few people worried about me, in the first years. When there’s a college kid who’s working 30+ hours a week, taking a full class load, has never once been late or absent, and routinely makes 100s on assignments and tests, no one is going to think too hard about it if she shows up to class for weeks on end with black cloth bound tight around her wrists.

I still remember a friend’s words to me when we said goodbye after time spent in Colorado in 2010, words that marked a turn in the way college went for me: “You are going to thrive this year.” He stated it like a fact, so determined that I had to believe him.

His words proved to be true for the next two years, though in ways I didn’t expect. Junior year was the year that I began to watch my perception of perfection be dismantled. I saw the structures of validation I had built crumble, and in the hurricane that darkened my sun to black, I learned what it is to sing in the dark. Some terrible things happened that year. Some beautiful things happened that year. I lost friendships, I lost a family member, I was faced with my own failure... I was befriended by the lead singer of a band who offered me more kindness than I had imagined possible, I had friends who provided a haven even at my school, and the boy I had been in love with since I was 15 fell in love with me.

The final year of college began to take the songs I had learned in the dark and to burnish them until they shone. I lived a thousand blessings I will never forget... running around backstage at rock shows with a camera, late night drives and way too much coffee with people I love, flying halfway across the country to spend two days singing along with favorite songs with dear friends, coffee shops in Nashville. But by the time graduation was nearing, there was a regret that was eating me alive. All my complaints about the unanswered suffering still stood in my heart, smouldering, the bitter smoke choking lungs that were finally trying to breathe. I was frustrated because I was nearing the end of the night and I still couldn’t understand why it ever fell to begin with. I was bitter because of the thousand things that (in my perception) every other college kid had and I never would have. I was lost in the sense that somehow I had still missed the mark, even in accepting the inevitability of my failure-- there was a piece still missing. The only kind of legacy I would leave, the only marker for those four awful years of struggle, were some grades and honors no one would care about a few months down the road.

I always assumed, in the final two years where I started actually recognizing what needed to happen, that the final event necessary for me to find an identity outside of my own achievement would be a failure so spectacular and undeniable that I would have no other option left. I was wrong, although my failure was a part of it. In the end, what broke me was grace.

It started with a group of Bible and Christian Ministry majors. Despite my complete lack of social standing and my silence that so many people have told me is intimidating, it was like there was some kind of unconscious, unanimous decision to adopt me. Those guys gave me something more valuable than they will ever know-- they gave me a place to feel safe at my school, for the very first time. Day after day, I stumbled into Doctrines or Greek class (my favorites-- those classes kept my heart alive). Often I was running on 2 hours of sleep, sick and exhausted. Sometimes I hadn’t eaten all day and knew I wouldn’t get to until late that night. Usually I was already on my fourth or fifth cup of coffee. I was hardly the kind of lively addition to the room that people value. But somehow, after three and a half years where I often went days or weeks at a time without having a conversation with anyone at school, those guys thought I was worth talking to. Even though I was so completely undeserving, they seemed to decide that I mattered. And that began to change me.

In the midst of that ever-intensifying clash of regret and blessing, my last month of college was characterized by things that brought me a lot of heartache, pushing me to weariness and ultimately desperation. When I finally reached a place of need deeper than I had ever known, for the first time in my college career I swallowed my pride, went to one of the professors I respected most, and told him I needed help. He offered me something unexpected.

He didn’t provide an option to work to get where I needed to be or a way to get back up to the standard I thought I should meet. Instead, he offered me grace-- complete forgiveness in the face of my desperate need.

I panicked, at first. I wondered how I would make it up to him, how I would prove I was worthy of what he was offering me, how on earth I could ever recover the strength I was supposed to have. And then in a terrible stillness I realized I couldn’t. There was nothing left to work at, nothing left to do but to accept the quiet freedom of grace.

I went home that day, a week and a half before my college graduation, two days after my 21st birthday, and curled up in my bed and cried for hours. Somehow, in the very place where I had completely failed, I had been called enough.

That catalyzed the change. I had been waiting for so long to get the blessings everyone else had, the ones I wanted, the ones I thought I deserved, while all along God had been giving me a much different set of blessings-- the blessings that I needed. And that is a stern grace, the kind of grace that demands you drink deep in surrender and die to everything you thought your story was supposed to be. I needed to learn to thrive in the face of suffering, to be willing to give up what I wanted, to see some of my worst fears become my deepest failures and to learn that Love still held me in the aftermath.

When I started to see this, the endless aching complaints were uprooted by an intense gratitude. I am grateful for how I was carried through the storm, but also grateful for the effects of the storm itself, this hurricane that changed everything I thought I knew about myself. Even for the wounds that I have yet to see the reason for, I am grateful. I am learning more and more the freedom that comes with recklessly abandoning the pursuit of my own understanding. I don’t have all the answers. God never said He would give them to us-- He said He’d give us Himself. And at the end of the four years that I so often called the worst experience of my life, the Person I found in answer to my question is more loving and gracious than I had ever dared dream.

I had so many conversations I will never forget in those last few weeks of school, after grace gave me the freedom to be honest. And at the very end, as I sat in the commencement ceremonies surrounded by others who had all fought their own battles and been granted their own grace to be there, everything quieted and I simply asked God “did I do OK?”

And as I ducked the brim of that ridiculous square hat to hide my face, I could hear His voice gently whispering “well done.”

And that too was grace, this radical, counter-intuitive movement that shakes us to our core, that states that when we are the most aware of our need we have the most potential to be whole. At the end of the four years I took my efforts, so pitifully inadequate, and I handed the mess to God and let Him take it. There His grace filled all the holes, shaping insufficiencies and triumphs into something beautiful.

They say that college is to some extent about self-discovery, about learning who we are.  If there is anything I will take away from those four years, any picture of myself to remember, it is this: I am more needy than I had ever imagined it possible to be... I am offered more grace than I had ever imagined existed. That grace has named me and it brings me to life again and again, calling me out of the nightmares and into the gentle fading in of the dawn.

- Elraen -

P.S. - There are so many people I could thank for walking with me through this, for being living pictures of love and grace even when I barely believed it still existed. My family, who ultimately became my friends. My CleanPlace family, especially those who came to Texas and shared my room and my life even when I barely had a few hours to give them in return, and the mooters who made me a little more myself every summer. My “boardie” friends, both Skillet and Disciple, especially those who shared Wisconsin with me in November. The friends from before college who went through it with me, providing long walks and longer conversations.The faculty in the Bible, English, and History departments, particularly the professor who put up with me for nine classes and taught a 17-year-old infant Christian more about following Christ than I had learned in a lifetime growing up in the church. The library staff, student workers, and patrons, who made all the long hours and early mornings worthwhile. The many band guys who took time out of busy schedules to look out for me. The incredible staff of NewReleaseTuesday who consistently encouraged me, made me laugh, and taught me that I really did have something to offer and a place where I could serve. The A-Uers who still follow my facebook posts even when most of us haven’t been on the forum in years.

I hope to keep in touch with all of you as much as possible even as my life changes so quickly and so radically. The diploma I earned in some ways belongs to all of you much more than it does to me-- thank you.