A Big Happy Family: The Rules and Rituals of Relationships at a Conservative Christian College

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Let’s go back to my freshman year of college at a conservative Christian institution.

That feeling of “not being good enough” haunted me, though it was more complicated than that. It wasn’t as if I devalued myself, that I thought I was worthless. I knew I was a good catch, but I just wasn’t the fish anyone wanted. Whenever a boy talked to me, threw a smile in my direction, I fell in love. I wrote lists of what I wanted in a guy, which included traits like “quirky,” “honest,” and “confident.” My fixation on a relationship filled me with guilt and my journal was interspersed with lists of valuable traits in a guy and hard-edged promises to focus on God and holiness. I was torn between a desire to be loved and a desire to be autonomous. My school taught me to find my satisfaction in Christ but also continuously shoveled teachings about marriage and gender roles at me, making it impossible to not be aware of how single I was.

I cast myself as some kind of long-suffering heroine in a tragedy. The different one. The one who waits and waits but no one comes. Some people pass by, fascinated, but they never stay. They care for a time, I know they do, but my problems don’t have an expiration date and people get tired. I get that. It hurt to think that people just stick around for as long as they do because they feel sorry for me. It’s pity. That’s the worst. It’s like a zoo exhibit for The Sad Girl. Please do not feed. You visit for a while, feel bad for the poor creature all locked up, but it’s getting late and it’s awkward to just stand around.

Paranoia believes that every kind word or encouragement is a forced gesture. Any sweetness became overbearing. I became angry with people who spouted their buzzwords and vague assertions about hope and pain. It was impossible to connect with someone who didn’t seem to have their feet planted. I just ended up kind of swatting at them, trying to get a grip, trying to cling to their stability. Maybe I scared them away. I wasn’t sure what to expect of people. This was a Christian college. We’re a big happy family, right? Not total strangers. That’s what they told us when we lined up in chapel and were told to sing with our hearts and clap with our hands. All in one room, me with hundreds of other kids, but I still felt like a bruised fruit in a perfect bowl.

On my floor, there was a group of students who were into a more radical form of Christianity, and being more familiar with that, I adjusted my spirituality to fit in more. I believed there was power in what we did, no appeal to God ever goes to waste, but nothing I did seemed to alleviate the depression or loneliness. I realized that I felt more fulfilled during a simple conversation with a person who seemed genuinely interested in me than with an hour-long prayer session. Eventually, I became exhausted with the hysterical spirituality I found myself involved with, but I still hung on the fringes, reluctant to sever the only connections I had.

Being at a conservative religious school has made me disillusioned with Christian establishments. There were so many rules. We had to go to chapel five days a week; they scanned our ID cards and kept a record, so if we missed more than our allotted number of skips, we got fined. I didn’t even have people to complain to; everyone seemed to think it’s a reasonable thing to ask of students. Some girls said, “If you enjoy going to chapel and it makes your day a bit more Jesus-filled, what does it matter if it’s a requirement?” Except I didn’t enjoy it and it didn’t make my day more Jesus-filled. It was a bunch of announcements mostly, sometimes a special speaker, one who always seemed to talk about marriage.  One chapel in particular annoyed me so much that I live-blogged it to my brother. The speaker talked about how waiting for the right person was important and to enjoy being single, and then ended with a story about how when he accepted that about his life, he met his future wife two weeks later. How very convenient. At another smaller chapel I attended to try and avoid a fine, a young married couple took questions about how to live a Godly life as a single person. A young married couple. They were, I don’t know if I mentioned this, married. Everyone who talked about how to be single was married.

For a class, part of our homework was to keep a journal with a Bible verse each day. I couldn’t even be real about it, I had to turn it in as part of my grade, so it wasn’t even a real journal. It just made my skin crawl, turning worship and the Bible – the two main tenets of the Christian faith – into things that were scanned, measured, and graded. I felt like I was the only one who was really angry about all of this, like really, red-faced angry. It made me feel even more isolated and vulnerable to feeling like I was somehow “better” than other people because I was so aware of the injustices and hypocrisy bearing down on a rabble of young minds.

Was this narcissism? Believing in all of this? Even though being in pain sucked, it separated me from other people. It made me unique. I sat alone and wrote depressing poems, shaking my head at the nuzzling couples and giggling cliques. Oh, you foolish children. How could you understand the depth of life’s agony? And even if you do, you have a symphony of love around you to keep you from drowning. Unlike me. Poor, sad me. Trying to pull myself out of self-pity usually made it all worse. I was self-centered and angry for being self-centered. You. Stop. Stop being depressed and so full of yourself.

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