My last weekend at home before leaving for the Focus on the Family Institute, some friends and I got together for an overnight swimming/movie fête. Girls only.
We hit the pool just before sunset. When the sun finished setting, we decided that we preferred the warmth of Krista’s apartment to the cold chlorine. Treading delicately up the stairs with wet feet, I thought about my belonging with this group of girls and tried to ignore the deep doubt I felt about my place with them.
Warm and dry inside the apartment, we commenced our Matthew McConaughey film festival. In The Wedding Planner, McConaughey tilts his head a little and says to Jennifer Lopez that even though he doesn’t know if she ever wore braces or contacts, “I know the curves of your face. And I know every fleck of gold in your eyes.”
I both love and hate these types of scenes. I love the sweetness of the “moment,” but I hate the sureness in my stomach that no one will ever adore me that way. These last 20 hours with my friends represented so well my thoughts as I headed out to the Family Institute—belonging versus not belonging, affirmation versus isolation.
I arrived fearful in Colorado Springs, not because, as previously discussed in Me vs. the Girls, I tend to gravitate toward guys for friends and have a hard time fitting in with other girls. A program with 74 girls and 14 guys wasn’t going to be gentle on me, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
My first night in the apartment that I would share with three other girls for two months, we sat on the couches in the living room and talked and prayed about what we wanted from the summer in front of us. I tried my best to drop any fake confidence and told them that I was scared to death that I wouldn’t fit in, that I was coming here wanting relationships and unsure that I would be able to form them.
Sometime during our talk, any fear I had that the girls would be catty and gossipy dissolved.
Later in the week, we were sitting in our classroom getting briefed by the women’s ministry leader, watching a video collage of women’s activities set to “I Feel Like a Woman” by Shania Twain. I sat under the dimmed lights and tried to brush off the feeling of sadness that came over me—I couldn’t help but feel removed from this world of female friendship. And I didn’t want to feel that way.
As the Institute program took shape, fellowship dinners and small group opportunities abounded, giving me the chance to get to know the 73 other girls. And I learned a few things. For one thing, I learned that I wasn’t that different from everyone else—Christa and I shared shyness, Lindsay and I shared a somewhat administrative disposition and Katie and I shared a zeal for cooking.
Moreover, a lot of them struggled with some of the same things I did. During small groups at a girls-only retreat, I heard echoes of my own thoughts and fears: “I’m not pretty enough.” “No one will ever really love me.”
And, as time went on and I mastered the art of saying, “Can I sit here?” I found the girls to be much more accepting of me than I thought they would. When one girl found out about an article of mine that came out during our semester, she told everyone in our section to read it. The ensuing support and encouragement from all the girls made me feel like a Web literature princess.
The girls wrought something of a healing in my life over the summer. But the guys—in spite of the vow taken at the beginning of the summer that I would leave the guys alone in favor of cultivating female friendships—also impacted my perception of God and life. Amazingly.
The Institute guys took the codified rules of gentlemanly conduct to a new level. They were always planning brunches and cookouts (no lie), as well as carrying our groceries and walking us to our cars. The best of their courtly ways came our last Saturday night at the Institute, when they planned an elaborate formal dinner for us, complete with linen tablecloths, floating tea candles, 74 red roses and 74 Thai dishes cooked to order. During the worship portion of the evening, I wept into my cloth dinner napkin, smearing my eye shadow.
The next day, I had to get away—I had to be alone to process every minute of the evening. The thing is, being away from my guy friends had made me realize how much of my dependence I put onto those relationships. I ended up writing in my prayer journal, “Please let last night be salve to my eyes.”
I began the summer begging God for community. Honestly, I don’t think I achieved it (if such a thing can be achieved). I found it easy to bare my soul, but not so easy to trust anybody to carry me. I failed to develop the kind of relationships that I had wanted.
But the summer left me believing more firmly now that God commits Himself to grow us and develop us—that He walks with us in our struggles. And the people I met loved me as much as I allowed them to, which made me think that maybe there is acceptance on the other side of vulnerability. The summer also left me with a little more confidence than I had that night at the pool, struggling with my worthiness to belong with an incredible group of people known as “the girls.”
More than once in the last few weeks at the Institute, I heard from one of the girls, “I wish we’d hung out more.”
I do, too.
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