My youngest son started middle school this year. On the first day of classes, climbing on the bus with all his Number Two pencils and three-ring binders, he also carried with them enough anxiety to fill a mama’s boy’s backpack. It wasn’t just the reality of a new school that put them on edge; it was middle school, and that is scary enough all on its own.
For the record, I wouldn’t go back and repeat those few years of middle school (we called it “junior high” back in the day) even if you promised me a war pension. It was, without a doubt, one of the more miserable seasons of my life. My body was awkward and out of control, hair began growing in strange places, my hormones and emotions were stampeding like angry cattle, and my face broke out like a pimpled topography map.
To make matters and passions worse, as my twin sister and I began climbing the escalating mountains of puberty, my mother entered the refining fires of menopause (It was no wonder my father was working 80 hours a week!). I fear the same thing is now happening in my own home, but I digress.
Yes, middle school is hard – very hard – and not just because of growth spurts and new experiences. It is hard because at this age children become acutely aware of their social status and standing. They will do most anything to “fit in” or to win the coveted prize of acceptance from their classmates. Acceptance is a good and healthy thing. It is incredibly validating to be welcomed by a group of people or to gain the respect and admiration of your peers. But it doesn’t take long for this normal and valid need for acceptance to slide into some very dark territory. I so readily recognize this tendency in my children because I recognize this in myself.
Adults, not just pimpled pre-teens, want the approval of others. In short, they/we desperately want to be loved, and will do anything to get it. That’s what makes forty-year-olds behave as adolescents. You can have a house in the burbs, a nearly four-figure car payment, three kids in soccer and still act like a child trying to make it with the “in” crowd.
Splintered, needy, and anxious, we spend the lion’s share of our energy and years of our lives chasing after the validation of others, a validation that we think will make us whole. We become slaves to the expectations of others while simultaneously manipulating those expectations to get what we feel we need. It is exhausting, for we do and say things we don’t mean, to hold on to approval we don’t need, wasting time and energy we don’t have.
And for what? A few emotional strokes, the fleeting approval of someone who is as fractured as we are, approval that lasts for about five minutes, and then the grueling exercise must begin all over again. Here’s some good news, good news for my children and for the rest of us: When you are deeply, madly, unconditionally, and fiercely loved – as God loves us – you can let the foolish exercise of chasing the approval of others go.
If we could get it through our thick skulls, our variegated defense mechanisms, and down into the basement of our hearts that we are always loved; that that our sins and failures cannot change God’s untiring affection for us; that our acne scars and awkwardness do not forfeit his acceptance, then we might enjoy a degree of confidence and freedom that we never thought possible.
We can – yes we really can – reach that point in life where we no longer need the love and validation of people, because we have come to know and experience the unconditional love of God. Then we can be free from the ruthless, unmerciful demands of uncertain and provisional affections. Now that is a lesson for middle school and for life.