In the early 1970’s the Catholic fad of elementary school uniforms swept into Springfield, Illinois coloring the boys a medium-security-navy-blue, and the girls, a Kmart-pink. Knowing human nature, I probably added my own squeaky voice to the chorus of complaints against the change. But somewhere beneath the façade of public indignation, there lurked a private appreciation for the beauty of a newfound freedom from the tyranny of wardrobe choices. “Short sleeves, or long sleeves?” “Black socks, or navy blue socks?” Mornings became elegantly simple.
1974 was a bad year to leave the safe harbor of grade school uniformity. The summer of my graduation was the summer of Robert Redford’s “The Great Gatsby,” and funk/pop-music. These simultaneous cultural influences exercised a kind of one-two punch, temporarily knocking out America’s fashion sensibilities. Robert Redford might have looked okay in cuffed, plaid pants, and “stacks” (a face-saving way to refer to boys/men’s high-healed shoes). The rest of us were polyestered, big-haired clowns.
When it comes to high-heeled shoes, little girls must receive guidance and mentoring from the sorority of older, experienced, high-heeled mentors. Their first pair probably comes with small training wheels to assist them as they wobble to and fro. How else can it be that women of all ages balance themselves so effortlessly on their fashionable stilts?
Boys in the 1970’s had no such training. I remember my maiden voyage in two-inch plastic heels. They were purchased along with bold, cuffed, plaid pants, and shiny polyester shirts in a back-to-school shopping spree the week before classes began. It wasn’t quite as bad as my first foray into ice-skating. But I found that, like ice-skating, it was helpful to maintain an awareness of nearby objects that could be utilized in a split-second as makeshift canes.
My appointment with fate occurred on that first day of my high school career, just after I had purchased a huge armload of books and supplies for the semester. The unsteady cargo under my left arm represented a thirty-five percent increase in my freshman body’s total mass. My concentration must have been wholly invested in keeping the load under my arm steady. That’s why I forgot about the project of high heeled, bipedal locomotion. I made it to the stairs with no trouble. But while I was navigating the final twelve steps, my left foot suddenly froze. It refused to respond. I sailed headfirst down the stairs. Books launched from my outstretched arms. Too late, I realized that my left high heal had gotten caught in the cuff of my right pant leg. Faster than you could say, “Great Gatsby!” I was laying face down on the stairs with my books being kicked to and fro by several hundred boys engaged in a spontaneous game of text book field hockey. Not wanting to stand out in the crowd, I waited for the hallways to clear before I picked up my tattered new texts one-soiled-volume-at-a-time.
In this Sunday’s Gospel passage (Matthew 5: 1-12), Jesus invited his followers to take off the school uniform of cultural acceptance, to put on the clothes of His Kingdom (i.e. The Beatitudes). By the end of the passage, he issued a stout warning that if you really clothed yourself in the Beatitudes, you will eventually stand out from the crowd. And frequently, like the boys in my high school hallway, crowds have a way of turning on you.
This week, my youngest daughter Lizzie, accidentally gave me my favorite birthday present. In the last two years, my thirteen-year-old has become troubled by the divisiveness that has become manifest in our political and social interactions. She and her Vietnamese-American friend, Megan, spent hours of their recess time constructing a middle-school Martin Luther King Day activity that sought to bring to awareness the disparities that continue to advantage some, while disadvantaging other groups of people. Due to an ice storm that cancelled school on MLK day, Lizzie and Megan led this school-wide activity last Friday, on my birthday. When I came to pick her up, three faculty members pulled me aside to shine the light on my not-so-little girl’s convictions and determination. The buttons on my birthday boy shirt, almost hit one of them in the eye as my chest swole in pride and gratitude. Once I took her home, our celebration took a somber turn as she showed me two instagrams that she received from classmates who were angered by her foray into leading a cultural conversation about diversity, advantages, and disadvantages.
When Jesus says, “Happy are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness” (vs. 10), I don’t hear him saying that persecution is to be sought out as if it were a good in and of itself. Rather, I think he is getting at a central pre-requisite for living a life of real blessedness and a profound peace that the world cannot give. To live a whole-hearted life, dialed into your Source (i.e. God), you must eventually shed the need for other people’s good opinion of you.
I frequently hear adults worrying about their child’s susceptibility to peer pressure. But I find that somewhere in each of our adult souls, there is a little inner-Freshman who wants to be dressed in the clothes of the “in crowd.” Surrendering the need to garner the good opinion of others does not require that we kill our “inner-Freshman.” It requires that we return to the first Beatitude, and acknowledge our poverty of spirit. How do we do that?
Try out this spiritual experiment. Whenever you catch yourself jockeying to stand before the mirror of public approval, try to get a glimpse of that awkward inner-Freshman who is longing for the fickle approval of others. Imagine inviting that awkward, self conscious part of you to have a seat on your own grown-up lap. Next, in your imagination, embrace and love that Freshman part of yourself as if it were your own beloved high school child that needed a long overdue hug. It is through the double doors of self-compassion and poverty of spirit that we know the blessedness of the kingdom of God.