If you've ever struggled to navigate office politics, faced a catty clique at church, or felt left out of a social circle and thought, "This feels like high school," you are not alone.
Since we develop our identities during those formative teenage years, there's a part of us that stays there. A recent New York Magazine piece explained "Why You Never Truly Leave High School." According to the article, even when high school long behind us, it remains at the front of our minds:
The adolescent years occupy a privileged place in our memories, which to some degree is even quantifiable: Give a grown adult a series of random prompts and cues, and odds are he or she will recall a disproportionate number of memories from adolescence. This phenomenon even has a name—the "reminiscence bump"—and it's been found over and over in large population samples, with most studies suggesting that memories from the ages of 15 to 25 are most vividly retained.
Vivid might be an understatement. I remember standing with my back to the biting February wind, smoking behind the school with the rest of the misfit kids because the social taxonomy of my high school had me slotted into the genus "freak." The smoking area was the place where the freaks lit up between classes. Jocks and cheerleaders ruled the football field. The library was the home of the brainy kids. Thespians owned the warren of rooms surrounding the school's theater space.
I home-schooled my three children through high school hoping the experience would provide a more inclusive, less socially segregated frame of reference. Even within the more individualistic home school community, fairly typical cliques and alliances formed among many of the teens, even though there was no physical football field, library, or smoking area to mark each group's turf.
Take away the school, the cliques are still there. Turns out, you can even add a few decades, and the cliques still remain. Any time adults are herded into "giant boxes of strangers," the same kind of tribalizing behavior we first experience during our teens usually follows, according to U.C. Davis researcher Robert Faris, cited in the New York Magazine article. We will be dealing with high school dynamics until we draw our final breath.
High-school-for-life includes our experiences in the church. Is there anyone out there who hasn't experienced a case of benign exclusion (or worse, a Mean Girl-style campaign) by an "in-group" at church at one time or another? We Christians don't always do a good job of acknowledging that our lifelong growing pains and insecurities shape our identity. If our adolescent search for self forms the filter through which we interpret social reactions for the rest of our lives, then I suspect there's an important "both/and" tucked inside the "either/or" way in which we usually talk about our "in the world, but not of the world" identity as followers of Christ.
Christian authors and speakers have a lot to say about the topic of identity: a quick search of christianbook.com turned up 315 different resources on the theme of identity in Christ. While I've heard plenty of sermons about my identity in Christ, most of them are variations of "Whatever your sinful flesh tells you to do, just do the opposite." Excluded from the office lunch gang? The old you might have some flashback emotions to that time when your so-called friends didn't invite you to sit with them during 5th period lunch. A new creation in Christ will count it all joy, and eat her tuna sandwich alone at her desk, humming "Just A Closer Walk With Thee."
There may be a measure of truth embedded in this approach, but it is not a full portrait of redemption if it divides us from our own humanity rather than redeeming it. Instead of trying to hum our way through a lifetime replaying high school, Psalm 86:11 reminds us that we don't need to endeavor to ignore the mess of growth: "Teach me your way, Lord, that I may rely on your faithfulness; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name." The fruit of reverent dependence on God is our wholeness – a wholeness that embraces our adolescent growing pains as formational to our identity, rather than asking us to pretend they never happened and don't exist.
In the church, leaders, mentors, and peers would do everyone a service by avoiding talking only in terms of "new Creation in Christ" triumphal metamorphosis. We would do well to acknowledge in sermon and conversation that we are in process, and this process has a lot to do with recognizing there's an awkward teenager in the cocoon. When church politics rears its ugly head in a congregation, part of the conversation might well include a look at the adolescent insecurities and triggers each one of us carries.
One of the best movies ever made about high school, The Breakfast Club, ends by noting that each one of us has an identity far more complex than the labels we give to ourselves and each other. Each of us is "a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case. A princess, and a criminal." The One who made us knows this about us far better than we could ever know it ourselves, and loves us as we are, where we are… even at the high school smoking area.