I was recently debating with friends.
Me… debating?! Shocking, right?
We were discussing the crazy amounts of attention that we receive as foreigners in this country. They hold to the belief that it is a part of culture that we need to accept, and both of them were at peace with this.
I, on the other hand, have really struggled with it. While I respect their ability to be indifferent to the matter, it really bothers me.
After tossing this around for a while, I headed home, but did not stop thinking about our conversation.
Why does the attention bother me so? In most things, I’m not quick to be angered. Things that probably should annoy me don’t. Despite my usual demeanor, though, this is something that I have not been able to let go.
And because they were so okay with it, it was apparently something that got to me specifically.
What I realized, eventually, is that this all relates back to difficult experiences as a child. I know I sound like I’m about to go all weird-o psychology on you, but hang with me a minute – I won’t, I promise.
Growing up, one of the harder parts of my life was my father’s job as a pastor. Now please understand, I am super fortunate and thankful for my family – they’re fantastic, they love me, they invest in me, and overall, I had a pretty dang good childhood. I’m incredibly proud of them. And I love my American church family. They’re pretty great, too (and I have absolutely loved the support I still get from them while on the other side of the world! More on that another day :)).
But the whole pastor’s kid thing was hard.
Everyone thought that people should never call my dad at home… until they had this one really important thing to talk about. What they didn’t realize was that everyone said that same exact thing.
I had 4,000 people that thought it was their job to hold me to a high moral, spiritual, behavioral, and everything-else-al standard.
I basically lived at church. Sundays were a 8-3 affair (at least), and trying to leave was an (almost) comical endeavor. People just wouldn’t have it. At 5:30, it was back to church.
The hardest part, though, was that I so often had my identity stolen from me. There were many people who were interested in me, but not because of who I was – they instead cared that I was my father’s daughter. I was regularly introduced as “Pastor Jonathan’s daughter” or “a Schaeffer,” with people not bothering to so much as mention my name.
I was a pretty happy-go-lucky child, but this actually got to me pretty good. I think that a big part of this is that there were so many assumptions that came along with the mass-identity that was being uninvitedly dumped on me.
A major part of my college decision was that a Schaeffer relation had never attended there. I routinely introduced myself by first name only, intentionally leaving my last name off. I have always been bothered when I see other children treated in that way, and am intentional to treat them as an important individual instead of an extension of someone else.
While thinking through things today, I realized that I am again being robbed of my identity as a valuable individual. The majority of strangers that I run into on the street have no real interest in who I am or what I’m like, but instead see me as a white chick with blue eyes. Who deserves to be paid attention to based solely on appearance.
I routinely feel like a circus act.
Or an animal at the zoo.*
Just like when I was a kid dealing with the cheek-squeezing strangers at church.
And along with this new mass-identity there are plenty of new assumptions. People figure all kinds of things about Americans – mostly based on the media. Unfortunately, I’m not exactly aspiring to emulate Jersey Shore or the Kardashians.
This trend – and my response to it – is something that I’m still trying to work through and figure out. What I’ve been reminded of, though, is the importance of seeing each person as himself or herself. Of finding out what makes them unique and appreciating that. Of making sure that each person I come across knows that they matter simply because they are who they are: a creation of God, a valuable individual.
We so often group people, making assumptions about who they are based on their job, race, gender, family – so many things! And part of this is normal. Unavoidable. What we need to remember to do, though, is to be willing to go beyond that. To honestly inquire about who somebody is. To not stop at our assumptions and refuse to budge past that.
I’ve been especially convicted of this as I teach my 76 students this year. It is so vital that I remember the importance of seeing each one of them as an individual, not as a part of their class, family, or group of friends. I pray that this won’t just be a frustrating experience, but also an opportunity to grow.
*A special one. Like the seals. The one that everyone looks at. We’re not talking the flamingo exhibit or something lame that you glance at on the way past.