A few years ago I gave a talk where I spoke of how my parents grew up on the same block and later bought a house on that block, which is where I was raised. I spoke of attending the same grade school my parents, aunts, and uncles did. I spoke of recalling my volitional choice to follow Jesus at the same camp where my mom had made that choice as a girl. I spoke of humble roots and being the first to graduate from university. I also spoke of the moves and changes I had experienced as I grew up and moved away.
At the close of my talk there was a Q & A. One woman stood and let me know hers was more of a comment than a question. She affirmed me and congratulated me for breaking free from the shackles of my upbringing. For being able to make such vastly different choices and move far away to become all God had created me to be. She said I was an inspiration for others to shed the upbringings they endured.
Clearly I was not communicating clearly that day. What I intended was to declare that I came from a place of solid ground, deep roots, and stability. What I intended to say was that it was this very “sameness” that gave me what I needed to be the first to go off to university and beyond. That the familiar ground I walked offered perspective and heritage.
I was so flustered by her comments that I looked at her oddly and had one of those out of body experiences where I was trying to process how she could have heard so wrongly what I had said, so I simply responded with my voice cracking, “thank you.”
In hindsight, she was reading her life into mine. Not all of us have been egregiously raised. We have not all been oppressed and we don’t all need to name the demons from our childhood.
I have enough of my own baggage that does exist, I don’t need anyone else’s thank you. What I did take away from this time of speaking were two things. 1) I suck at responding when I get really thrown off. I need to work on that. 2) I need to be more careful not to read my own issues into the stories of others.
Perhaps Jesus taught in parables for this reason. When we are so mired in our own junk, we cannot escape our own stories. They color everything. Now, I try to listen a little more. Sometimes I do well, sometimes I do not.
In addition to the admonition to listen carefully to others, I think my point here is that we need to be careful what we project onto others. Yes, we may have come to an understanding of some facet of life that helps us put everything into its place. Be careful upon whom you fling those “insights”. Just because you witnessed or experienced an abusive situation does not mean that everybody else is coping with that same baggage. Just because you know some pastor’s kid who was neglected by his dad because of ministry does not mean every pastor’s kid has that same experience. And just because you figured out how to do ministry in a particular area or with a particular group of people does not mean that those techniques work everywhere.
Let’s acknowledge that life is far more complex than our experience of it. Thankfully, there is a God who comes alongside each of us. EACH of us.