Influence is tricky. It can be as strong as a rushing current and as subtle as white noise. It can occur in a moment or last for a lifetime. It varies in form: an experience, a song, a person, a letter, a generation. The fluid and deceptive nature of influence makes it difficult to detect. I myself was unable to identify it for the first two decades of my life!
Leading an impactful life has always been a personal goal. Yet such a goal is supremely subjective! What is required for a meaningful and lasting influence? This question was answered too simply and too quickly by the influencers in my life. “Become a Christian minister!” they all said. Both gently and violently, I was pushed and pulled toward my ministerial future. No one single event or person is to blame: books and alter calls, camp counselors, classmates and family members all played a role. Successes and obstacles occurred solely to testify to my destiny. Even surviving a horrible car wreck seemed to be a confirmation of my future fate. Surely my life had been spared that I might do great things for God in the church! Corporately they all willed me toward a lifetime of Christian service. They yearned for a spiritual leader, a prophet, and I was all too eager to fulfill their yearnings.
The upper echelons of religious hierarchy are deliciously prestigious, especially if one is successful and well-liked! As with all higher ranks, there are a considerable number of perks: opinions become more respected, advice becomes more valued. Being a model to others can be addictive and no addiction is healthy – even one to setting a righteous example. When a person becomes a measuring stick, they are removed from the narratives in which they exist, in which they must exist in order to be meaningful. Such was my experience.
Happiness did not always elude me, but as my “righteousness” and “rightness” increased so also did my loneliness and discontent. Who invites a member of the priesthood to a movie or to an amusement park? Who wants a holy man to watch them live their daily life? Such people are held at arm’s length except for specific times of spirituality. Such people have little choice but to invest themselves fully in spiritual matters and in time the religious courts becomes their ultimate reality. And in taking up permanent residence in the Holy of Holies, such people lose touch with the world they once longed to change. Depression sets in and resentment soon follows.
After completing my undergraduate degree, I took a year off from Christian leadership and from attending church at all. At first I was edgy and defensive but the longer I stayed away the more secure I felt in my decision. The weight of Sunday’s obligatory rituals eventually disappeared. “The Christian’s Weekly Duties” checklist which I imagined was always hanging somewhere in the sky above my head, finally evaporated. A gap remained – both literally and metaphorically – but it was my gap and I could fill it with whatever or whoever I wanted! No more was I forced to submit myself to someone else’s idea of spiritually beneficial activities. Following this revelation, my bitterness and despair subsided and then came a moment of clarity: I did not have a “lot” in life! I could carve my own path! No one ever succumbs to influence without choosing to do so. I did not have to float comfortably along with the current; at any point in time I could have waded out of the river and stood on dry ground. And that is precisely what I have decided to do!
This decision has been a long time coming, but it was only this past summer when I finally admitted it out loud. Since then I have been tempted to regret my past as a waste of time. But when I imagine life as a narrative, then the middle and the end of my story only makes sense with a beginning. A person without a past is a person without roots, without meaning. They are only part of a person. To hate my past would be to hate part of myself. The wise words of a friend come to mind, “If you don’t like something about yourself, either change it or learn to love it.”
I choose to change it. As I begin my 25th year of living, I am choosing to stop pursuing a “destiny” I do not desire and to not regret the time I spent traveling towards it.