Does every kid grow up wondering if they’re normal? Some, I suppose, do, in hope; others do in fear. I think that I did both. I wanted to know that my hopes, dreams, and fears were normal — that others could identify with me, and I with them, and that I didn’t need to be afraid or ashamed of what went on inside my head.
I also wanted to be spectacularly unique and amazing.
Like a lot of other opposites that people experience in life, I tried to hold these things in tension and still function (a la Steinbeck). I think I managed okay but life was more like bouncing between the opposite poles than maintaining balance. I keep trying to convince myself now as an adult that I really am normal, that I’m not special, and that my life is just like that of so many others. I’m not sure I believe me, though.
I was raised with a strong sense of exceptionalism: American exceptionalism, Christian exceptionalism, church exceptionalism, family exceptionalism. Everything we did and were was somehow a gift from a benevolent God (which I mostly still believe) that we ought to be thankful for, because we were not like other people who did not have What We Had. There’s probably truth in that somewhere, though it would probably not do to put too much weight down on it. The rain falls on the just and the unjust. My family was not exempt from hardship or dysfunction (though neither was it specially singled out to experience them). We were a lower-middle-class family in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s who were pretty much like lots of others we knew (eve if we were also unlike lots of others we also knew). I wonder if this is how scholarship recipients feel sometimes — like they have feet in two different worlds and didn’t really feel at home in either of them. There was the world of the church: close-knit, Charismatic, lower-income, largely under-educated, recovering. And the world of the family: close-knit, evangelical, upper-income (at least on the part of my grandparents), educated, with nothing obvious to recover from.
In any case, what was held up to us was the expectation of a strong performance and a good reputation. I was always aware of who (and Who) I represented. I could be like C and A, the senior pastor’s kids who could do no wrong; or I could be like M, who was shamed in front of the whole church for getting pregnant out of wedlock. There wasn’t much in the way of middle ground. We’d been given gifts, you see, and we were responsible to use them. (Both my brother and I at different points in our adolescence expressed the longing to be average, because the bar was set much higher for us and it felt unfair.)
It wasn’t all bad. We were loved, celebrated, inquired after, and provided for. There were moments of laughter, tenderness, and gratitude that were all quite genuine. Like most people, ours was, and is, a mixed bag. The problem is in thinking that it isn’t.