When I look back on my short 30 years on this earth, in retrospect it’s easy to see all the times I went left when I should have gone right. Easy to see all the times I volunteered for own heartbreak. Easy to see that holding on tightly caused a thousand times more pain than letting go ever would have. But that’s the thing about looking back. It’s much easier to see from this vista.
I remember being 17 years old, wide-eyed, full of hope for the future, flipping through glossy college brochures. I desperately wanted to be unique. I was terrified of being generic or looking like everyone else. I cut my hair short and shaggy, wore bright colored tights, and cat-eye eyeliner in deep purple. But I was also incredibly insecure and a little bit shy. I quickly ruled out large public universities where I feared I would drown in a sea of strangers.
I decided to apply to small private Christian colleges. I had been raised going to church, had been dedicated at the altar as a baby, prayed over and blessed while my parents agreed to raise me to know Jesus Christ. I grew up going to Vacation Bible School, summer camp, and youth group. In my mind, a Christian school would offer me a supportive environment of like-minded individuals and small class sizes where I wouldn’t be just a number. How could I have known, at the tender age of 17, what I even needed? I was merely a child, forced to make life altering decisions that would launch the course of my young adult life.
When I arrived, I immediately had a creeping sensation that I had made the wrong choice. As I looked around campus, I realized everyone looked the same. Talked the same. Dressed the same. Thought the same.
I was amazed at how quickly the cliques formed. How quickly couples paired up. We were still teenagers, away from home for the first time, many coming from conservative homes. The temptations of freedom dangled before our eyes, but we had signed living agreements and had pledged to not smoke, swear, drink alcohol, or engage in any sexual activity outside of marriage. We lived in gender specific dorms with monitored visiting hours for the opposite sex. We were required to attend chapel three times a week. But, as we tasted our first sweet taste of independence, I saw the secrecy slowly start to unfold.
Through my eyes, it appeared as though the students fell into one of two extremes. Those who held fast to their beliefs, those who played their guitars and sang worship songs in the student commons, those who lived righteously and dared not question the rules. Then there were the ones who spun out in a hedonistic frenzy, slowly losing control but desperately trying to hide it. At times these were the ones that held their hands highest during worship. Sometimes it was the guitarist or the drummer in the praise band.
Then there were what felt like the small few in the middle. Those that didn’t think it was sinful to drink a beer or swear, but still loved God. Those of us that doubted and asked the hard questions. Those that wanted to let loose on the weekends and study hard during the weekdays. It was hard to find those people. And I was lonely.
I remember studying existentialism in philosophy class, theories about authenticity, faith versus knowledge, Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche. We discussed the theory that one could not truly say they believed in something, could not classify that belief as truth unless it had been questioned, evaluated, and subsequently chosen. I remember one of my classmates becoming angry, asking our professor if this was akin to blasphemy. One did not question the Bible, he said. One cannot question God! The next week he brought his father to class. I squirmed in my seat. I had been drinking up these ideas with vigor.
I missed the days of diversity. The friendly and sometimes passionate political debates with my high school friend. I missed the discussion between Democrats, Republicans, and Libertarians. I missed being challenged, being prodded. I missed my Hindu friends, my Mormon friends, my Jewish friends, my Buddist friends. I missed walking down the halls and seeing faces of every color.
I started to see the Church differently. Our fascination, no - our obsession, with sin. Our arrogance in believing we knew exactly what God wanted. Our need to believe that we had all the answers, and if we only followed these specific rules, we would be safe.
I was never lonelier, never more heartbroken than I was in those days.
But something beautiful grew out of the rubble of my shattered expectations. I grew. My worldview expanded. I learned tolerance. Tolerance not just for those who were of different religions, but also for those who shared my religion. I accepted my need to question, in fact, I embraced it. I stopped believing I had any of the answers. I became less religious and more spiritual and I fell more deeply in love with God than I had ever been. Suddenly I found myself on a spiritual path that would lead me to the ever evolving faith I have today. A faith in a God that asks nothing of me other than that I live as love personified every day.
Had I but known that I would feel so alone in a small pond full of similar fish, perhaps I would have chosen the vastness and diversity of the ocean. Perhaps I would have made the same choice, but would have walked into that dorm room prepared for the long and winding journey that lay ahead. In the end, it’s best that I didn’t know. Because sometimes having your heart broken is exactly the thing you need to grow. Sometimes while lost in the wilderness, you find the exact thing you never knew you were looking for. And sometimes, having your expectations shattered is the best thing that could ever happen to you.
Stevie, short for Stephanie, is an aspiring writer, wife, and mother to three fur babies who have taken over her heart and home. A lover of words, coffee, and yoga, she can be found at her blog, Joy in the Midst of, (http://joyinthemidstof.com) where she writes about her quest for joy, learning to love a little deeper, laugh a little more often, and living with more gratitude for all the blessings life has given her. She can also be found hanging out on her Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/joyinthemidstof or tweeting away at @joyinthemidstof.