It was my first time sitting nervous in the car outside the now-familiar house, the first time I would arrive excessively early and circle the block a few times, mustering the courage to knock on the door.
I’d barely met these people, yet in a manner that it seems only evangelical Christians have truly mastered, I was assigned to go to their house weekly and eat with them and other strangers, and then share my life story, struggles, and sins with them.
We call it small group.
I don’t remember much from that night- I think we ate pizza, and I remember thinking Teresa was kind and welcoming, though I don’t remember why specifically. We talked as a group about what small group would be like and then introduced ourselves.
I was the youngest member by at least a few years.
“I’m Rachel… I’m a senior studying elementary education, and I live with Caroline, so she invited me to this church and I liked it so I decided to join a small group and…”
The hostess, Jennifer, who had been busy with kids and food and greeting everyone and had barely had a moment to sit, much less speak to me, interrupted and addressed me directly for the first time.
“Oh, I love Caroline! She is so wonderful. Is she in the Hunt’s small group this year?”
Looking back, and knowing Jennifer now, I am certain she meant to connect with me on this, to express that we had a mutual person, that I must be wonderful if I lived with such a wonderful girl. I know this now because I know that Jennifer is generous with her first impressions and kind and welcoming, but I did not know that then.
What I heard in her statement, instead of welcome and love, was bitter disappointment that they’d been stuck with me instead of Caroline.
I know. It’s comically and obviously not what she meant, but I carried this lie with me for months.
It was the story I told myself.
I believed that I was not good enough to be welcomed, that Caroline was inherently better and more lovable, and that I was a disappointment. And so I heard that in Jennifer’s welcome.
I left that night certain I could get to know and love some of the women in that group, but equally certain that I would keep Jennifer at arm’s length until I could prove my worth.
Jennifer is now one of my closest and dearest friends, and I trust her to speak truth into the darkest, ugliest corners of my life, and I feel honored to tiptoe gently into the dark corners of hers as well and walk together into the light.
And I could have missed out on all of it if I’d listened to the story I told myself.
Instead, I showed back up the next week, and the week after that, and I slowly began to believe that perhaps they liked having me there, too, even if Caroline is wonderful.
As an aside- Caroline is wonderful, y’all. She is my people. We lived together for four years and she still lets me sleep on her couch without warning. She is my most knowledgeable handy (wo)man, first text when I have news to celebrate or to cry over, the dinner table I am most likely to invite myself to, and one of the only people I can communicate with with just a glance. Some of my insecurity at that first small group was most certainly because I was jealous of the kind of person Caroline is- full of integrity, knowledge, and hospitality. I’m still a little jealous, because those are areas I wish I was stronger in, but I’m learning to celebrate and call on her strengths rather than wishing for them to be my own. Slowly.
I tell myself stories all day, every day. About my worth and why others are treating me the way they are treating me.
The coworker who barely gave me the time of day as I gave her some new paperwork to look over? She thinks I am so annoying.
The friend who clearly read my text but hasn’t responded yet? She really doesn’t want me to help with that volunteer activity this weekend. She knows I won’t be any good at it, anyway.
The new acquaintance who looks distracted as I introduce myself? He thinks I’m boring and ugly. He can’t even look at me.
If I’m not careful, I let these stories color my future interactions with these people. I believe that that coworker doesn’t like me, so I avoid her (and soon, she really doesn’t like me). I skip volunteering because they didn’t really want me there. I never talk to that new guy again, even though he knows no one in a new city.
I’m learning to tell other people my stories, because the light always defeats the darkness. By admitting my insecurities, I somehow become more confident and less afraid of being found out.
So I say my stories out loud. I tell someone when I feel insecure, and we laugh about it, and I realize it was a story I was telling myself all along. I can hear the truth when I say it out loud. I can recognize the light once I admit I’m sitting in the dark.
It’s the time of year for starting new things: school years and exercise classes and small groups. Tell your stories and listen for the truth, and be gracious to your new people who might be telling untrue stories about you. I am eternally grateful that Jennifer didn’t let me continue thinking that I was not good enough or that she was unwelcoming. The least I can do is extend the same grace to everyone else.
We all have our own stories we tell ourselves. Let’s help each other make them true.
Photo by Michael Shaheen, via flickr.