by Natalie McMahon, Focus Group Leader 2021–2022
Few things challenge your sense of identity like moving to a new place. Every year, I have my students read an excerpt from a book called The Terrible Two by Mac Barnett and Jory John that goes, “On your first day at a new school in a new town, you get to decide what kind of kid you were going to be. You could be the smart kid, or the kid who has cool shoes. The kid who knows everything about old cars, or current events, or World War I. The kid who always has chapstick … Today was the day when you could decide to become a new kid and be that kid for the rest of your life.”1 It’s silly, but it also captures a feeling I had when I first found myself in Houston. It wasn’t that I necessarily wanted to try being a new “kind of kid,” but it raised the question for me—who am I when nobody knows who I am? This feeling may be familiar to those of you who are Houston transplants (and I know there are many of you).
The concept of the “looking-glass self” was coined by sociologist Charles Horton Cooley, who wrote, “We develop our concept of self by watching how other people react to different versions of ourselves that we present.” According to this point, it is natural that we gain a sense of ourselves by how we think others perceive us—by how we think we fit in a group. Identity and community are inevitably connected. What do you do when you don’t feel like there’s anyone to see you at all? When you feel like there’s nowhere to go where anybody knows your name?
On one hand, there is a spiritual answer to this question. In Christ we are given an identity that is unchanging and independent of what anyone thinks of us. The Bible is full of the truths of who God says we are. Countless books have been written on how our identity in Christ should shape our thoughts, our actions, our desires. One of the precious truths about our identity is found in 1 John 3:1: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” In those lonely days I spent a lot of time meditating on what it meant to be a “child of God.” There’s a permanence embedded in being able to identify with God as family. He is the father who never leaves, the friend who knows our history and our future and loves us all the same. Our best earthly relationships are a shadow of this kind of commitment and care. When it felt like loneliness was a burden too heavy to carry, leaning into this truth had real power to heal and lighten my load.
On the other hand, there is still a practical need programmed into our being to feel known and loved by a community. It is unavoidable. In a perfect world we would have both—security in our identity in Christ as well as a community of people who make you feel safe, people who see you. People who love your mess and celebrate your success. Unfortunately, we live in a fractured world and all too often we find ourselves feeling like we are floating adrift. Perhaps spiritually. Perhaps relationally. Perhaps both. This was true for me for at least a couple of years after my husband and I moved to Houston. It’s hard to rebuild a community—especially in a sprawling city.
One place I have recently come to experience real community and belonging has been in my Focus Group. This little group that only formed a couple months ago has, in many ways, been years in the making—composed of relationships both newly forged and recently renewed. A friend I should have called years ago. A fellow Connecticut to Houston transplant. Women from my City Group who I’ve sat in circles with for years without really learning their stories. A name dropped by Clint in an email. Each week I meet with these women I am awed by the beauty of their stories and humbled that I get to know them. In some moments this leads me to sadness because I wonder what could have been if I had only engaged sooner. I spent so much time wishing I had somewhere to belong when there was a community floating around me, waiting for the strings to be pulled and draw us together.
We can’t control how others see us (or if we are even seen by anyone at all), but we do have a God who tells us who we are. Having your identity rooted in Christ doesn’t necessarily take away your loneliness, but it might give you courage to reach out and ask someone if you could walk alongside them. You probably aren’t alone in your loneliness.
This should leave us with both hope and a challenge. The truth is we don’t necessarily have control over what kind of friendships we have, but we do have some control over what kind of friends we can be. Chances are, no matter how long someone has lived here, how involved or social someone seems to be, we all feel like the “new kid” from time to time, figuring out our stories and how to tell them.
1. Mac Barnett and Jory John, The Terrible Two (Harry N. Abrams, 2017).