“You can be anything you want,” they said. “If you can dream it, you can be it,” we were told. My generation grew up believing we could follow our bliss, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, and every other cliche of the American dream. We were led to believe we were the masters of our own destinies.
I remember a moment I realized we’d been fed lies. I was standing with a friend I had been close to all through high school and college. I was on a break from grad school and he had been in the workforce before heading to law school. We stood on a balcony talking about where our lives had gone since college, about to go our separate ways again. Barely into our twenties, we had weariness in our voices already. “Nothing has turned out the way I thought it would,” he said. I saw the disillusionment in his eyes that mirrored my own. We had been launched out into a world we weren’t ready for, ill-equipped to face reality, and had no one to guide us when everything went topsy-turvy. I felt so alone.
Twenty years later, I watch nieces and nephews graduate and step into the same uncertainty. I watch my eldest with dread, realizing her turn to step into the great unknown is closer than I want to think. How can we help the next generation face reality better than we did? How can we equip them to chart a course that works? I am getting tiny glimpses into the answers to those questions as I, myself, navigate my next steps.
My personal and professional life has been fraught with life-altering decisions I have second and twenty-second guessed. Two international moves around the world and back, my husband’s mid-life career change, and a late-in-life change of church traditions for myself have left me reeling in the past few years. I’ve been asking God for assurances that I made the right decisions or to show me how to make better ones in the days ahead.
My family felt alone in making many of these massive decisions. No one in the non-profit we just left or our home church helped us figure out how to re-enter life in the United States after two years living in South Asia. Confused and alone, we reached out and felt a void reaching back for us. The map we’d been given didn’t work and we didn’t know where to turn.
I knew God was moving me into something deeper but I didn’t know what or how to figure that out by myself. I sent out a cry for help and took steps to surround myself with people to walk beside me. I needed some fresh eyes to help me see what I couldn’t see clearly for myself...
“Say it again,” they urged me. I felt like an animal in a cage, surrounded by the watchful eyes of gleeful children who poked at its helpless form with a stick. My fellow college-aged camp counselors hailed mostly from Canada and the Northeastern United States. Much of the kitchen crew came from the United Kingdom. The oddity of my red hair and southern drawl quickly earned me the nickname, “Georgia Ginger,” and now they wanted me to speak on command like a trained parrot.
I hadn’t traveled outside of the Deep South much before and didn’t realize I had a different vocabulary than people from other parts of the United States. When I said I was fixin’ to go somewhere and they laughed, I felt exposed and uncertain of what I’d done that warranted their teasing. I never realized my place in the world unknowingly shaped me in ways that were unlike other people.
Understanding the world
I was young and unaware of how acutely our understanding of ourselves, others, and even God, is formed by the location and people we are born into or by the proximity we allow ourselves to cultures unlike our own. I later learned the word for it in my seminary studies: worldview. James Sire in The Universe Next Door explains a worldview as “a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart” and says a person’s worldview “provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being.”(1)
The place, family, religious tradition, and culture in which we grow and learn shapes our understanding of the world and how we will interact with it. Each person has a unique vantage point shaped by our circumstances, background, and life experiences; but we share common beliefs and commitments to those who are like us, who share our place in the world. This is the foundation upon which we build our beliefs about God and the universe God created.
My upbringing in what’s called the “Bible Belt” didn’t just influence the way I speak. The phrases y’all and bless your heart aren’t the only takeaways I gained from growing up in the former Confederacy. As I stepped further outside of the boundaries of the Mason Dixon Line and the Atlantic Ocean, I learned just how much that red clay had been the fertile ground for a particular view of God.
The shock to my body as a young adult who was transplanted into the Western Sahara Desert was nothing compared to the shock to my soul. Wide-eyed and newly married, I sat on the hewn rock pews of the largest church in the Middle East and listened to Arabic sermons next to my new Coptic Orthodox neighbors.
I learned fresh ways of seeing everything I had ever known along with new words for God and the way to understand and explain faith. I must have looked like my camp counselor friends in those early days, mouth agape with shock and delight, “Say it again.” Abouna. Father. Eid. Feast.