“That Sarah is going to be a model.” I was about 11 or 12 and at a sleepover when I overheard my friend’s cooler older sister say those words to a group of her friends. Something happened when I heard those words. I felt special, unique, set apart and… ashamed. I was almost afraid to consider the implications of someone thinking I was pretty enough to be a model. I hadn’t considered my awkward self as anything that anyone would comment positively on. For a brief moment there was joy, but there was also something strange… shame, or maybe that feeling was actually fear. To understand this story you need to know that I grew early. I was tall until 8th grade when everyone else shot past me. I laugh at the photos where I stood in the back. Since 8th grade, I have been relocated to the front row. Now my height is average at best. I was also a skinny thing before puberty hit, so these girls were most likely commenting on my size and less likely commenting on my actual looks, but their comments stuck with me. Following that sleepover, I began to wonder: am I special? I remember asking my Mom if she thought I could be a model. My mom is a wonderfully supportive mom, but we are British Canadians and we generally aren’t your ‘overly flattering types.’ To be honest, I probably asked her during a busy moment. Her response seemed to crush me yet at the same time gave me some peace, “Sarah, not everyone can be models, otherwise models wouldn’t be unique.” Okay there it was, I was normal … plain. That stung, but it also had a strange sense of relief. There is something scary about thinking you are special, but also something exhilarating. Your mind is filled with ‘what ifs,’ and that can be both a joy and a curse.
Yesterday, I was listening to the news, as I often do in my car, when I heard an odd statistic: in the 1950’s less than 10% of high school students polled thought that their life was special or meant for greatness; today that statistic is over 70%. I was shocked. How could people not think their life was meant for greatness? But then I stopped and thought about my fear of a life meant for greatness. Part of me envied those who were capable of thinking of life as fulfilling without having a huge success story. The same poll measured those folks as feeling generally content with their lives. Since the 1950’s, there have been many changes that may have culminated in everyone thinking that they are destined for greatness. Social media allows everyone access to the potential of being a celebrity, and news is changing as fast as 140 letters can be typed or erased. There is a sense that greatness is not just achievable but is expected. My friends joke that we live in a culture where everybody gets a prize and everyone is a winner. I am unsure how to feel in all of this. Does it mean that we are all special and therefore no one is special? What does God think about it? I think about the words that I say to my niece and nephew – I want them to know that God did make them special, but what does that mean? I know with that specialness comes a sense of potential with an equal measure of pressure.
Today I may not think I’ll be a model, but I have had some of those feelings lately. I have had a couple of amazing conversations recently, where in the midst of the conversation the person has stopped and looked me sincerely in the eye and said, “do you know you are special?” Now I am tempted to make a joke about it or shake it off or say something to distract them, but I don’t want to simply dismiss what they are trying so earnestly to express. They are trying to articulate something they see in me and it brings me great joy and also great fear. What if I don’t live up to this special thing they see? I am as equally afraid of being great as I am of being ordinary.
You see, being ‘special’ has been lonely. If I am honest the things that make me unique and special have also been the things that have isolated me from the communities and relationships I have so greatly longed for. Being a female pastor is a wonderful gift that sets me a part… and leaves me feeling like a unicorn in many of my social circles. Whereas there are many female pastors in Methodism, for many of my friends’ traditions I am an anomaly. There are so many expectations and assumptions people have when they meet me, and I am well aware that there is both potential and pressure. The things that make me unique as an unmarried, artistic, sporty, educated, girly, tomboy writer are at the same time filled with great potential and great risk.
So what do I do when someone says you are special? I am reminded of a quote I love:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”