Outsider: Struggles with Religious Identity

This post has been years in the making, but it happened to line up with today’s Daily Prompt, which asks bloggers to write about the experience of being “outside, looking in.” When reading this, please understand that these are my own personal experiences. When talking about religion, it becomes very easy to hurt other people, and that is the least of my intentions.

For as long as I have been conscious of my own religious/spiritual identity, I have been aware that I am not-this and not-that. Growing up, the most obvious example of my religious outsider-ness was the fact that I was not Jewish. As an elementary schooler in a highly Jewish suburb of Boston, it was clear to me that I was one of only a few kids in my class who did not board the bus to Hebrew school in the afternoons. In middle school, it was a running joke that you could tell how popular you were by how many bar/bat mitzvahs you were invited to, and I was conscious that I did not receive many. I have already written about the emotional pain I went through in high school when my Jewish boyfriend of almost two years broke up with me, citing my religion as the reason. I have studied Judaism with the rabbi at my college in an effort to learn about the feeling of solidarity and peoplehood that many Jewish people feel, and in so doing to understand my early experiences of outsider-ness with deep compassion for all involved.

My experiences growing up also infused me with a pervasive awareness of being not-Christian. Over the years, I have learned more about the history of my family’s conflict around religion. My father grew up in a family that celebrated Christian holidays but was not meaningfully religious. When he was in college, both his mother and his older brother became conservative born-again Christians. My dad has told me (bitterly) that when he was experiencing depression in college, his mother told him that his only way to be saved would be to convert to Christianity. I grew up with a father deeply resentful of religion, especially Christianity. I see now that growing up, my view of the world was greatly shaped by my dad’s attitudes toward religion and Christianity.

I have always been an anxious person, and I recognize now that I struggled with mental illness for much of my teenage years. I believe that this is what drove me to become involved with my local Unitarian Universalist youth group. There, I learned to talk about important spiritual issues that I had never been able to put into words before. I became close friends with the other girls in the group, and for the first time in my life I felt like an insider, not an outsider.

When I went to college, things got complicated. ┬áMy best college friends turned out to be evangelical Christians. As my anxiety became more acute with the stress of school, I was attracted to their profound faith in God and in the world, but I was also afraid of it. I didn’t know how to reconcile my attraction to Christianity with the fact that Christianity had hurt people that I loved. I began to attend meetings of the Christian student organization while at the same time feeling that I was doing something terrible that would hurt my father.

In addition, I joined my college interfaith group in the absence of a strong Unitarian Universalist community, hoping that it would be similar to my high school youth group. Although I found amazing people in the interfaith group, I also found challenges to my own identity. I was troubled by the fact that I had so much trouble describing Unitarian Universalism to my friends from major religious traditions. I realized that I knew so much about what I wasn’t and what I didn’t believe that there was almost no room left for me to believe in anything at all.

As it turned out, my struggle with mental health was what guided my spiritual life into a better place. As my panic attacks worsened, it became clear that I was torturing myself with my ideas of what I should and should not be and do. Ultimately, I had to listen to my own deep conviction in order to get better and be who I want to be. I became involved with the Buddhist meditation group at the suggestion of my therapist, and Buddhist philosophy has become a great influence in my life. At the same time, I do now pray regularly to God and consider myself a Christian, but in a way that is very different from my evangelical friends. I also want to pursue ministry in Unitarian Universalism, since that is the identity with which I grew up.

In a nutshell: it’s complicated. But I have learned so much from embracing the complexity and letting it take me where it will rather than trapping myself with ideas of how things “should” be. I have no suggestions for other people struggling with religion other than that they sit with the confusion and allow it to be the way it is and resolve itself in time. I know it’s easier said than done, and if anyone has any questions about anything I’ve written in this post, please feel free to comment.