My favorite subject at school was Geography. I was fascinated by the earths’ processes: how continents morph and wrinkle and give birth to mountains, how a trickle of water can cut rock if you give it enough time, how hurricanes twist into being, how winds blow.
In our study on winds, we learned about the doldrums (or Intertropical Convergence Zones), those areas on the ocean along the equator where air rises and is carried away to the north and south, leaving the surface of the ocean strangely calm and windless. In the halycon days of maritime exploration, sailors dreaded the doldrums, as Coleridge memorable describes in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:
All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody Sun, at noon,
‘Right up above the mast did stand,
No bigger than the Moon.
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, no breath no motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
When I think about being a sophomore, the image that comes to mind is of the doldrums. Sometimes one can feel a little stuck. Like sailors doing their day to day chores, there may be lots of action but you’re not getting anywhere fast.
I think there are many stages in life where we experience a sophomore a doldrum-y kind of effect. There are seasons when we are in a “freshman” phase: we are new, and all the attention is on us to welcome us, initiate and integrate us. The focus is all on the NEW. The freshman frenzy happens at college, it happens when you start a new job, when you move to a community, when you get married, when you join a new church. It happens after big changes: a new relationship, a death in the family, getting your drivers license. There’s a lot of energy thrown in the direction of people in a NEW phase, in many stages of life.
But then after that new phase, there can often be a period of something like the doldrums – a “sophomore life experience”, where you’re not new anymore and the attention has died down. People know who you are, but sometimes we don’t feel fully KNOWN yet. You belong, but you sometimes don’t fully feel comfortable yet either.
People who are grieving the loss of a loved one sometimes say that the worst part is not just after it happens. Just after the death, the love and the support and the “how are you’s” roll in. But it’s in the weeks after that, once the funerals are over, that sometimes you find yourself alone and still trying to figure out how life is supposed to move forward now. The sophomore season of grief is tough. If we experience our sense of belonging by identity-in-relationship, then re-thinking one’s identity after the loss of a significant relationship takes time and much stillness.
There can be sophomore seasons in the workplace. The worst part of the job is sometimes not starting up in a new place: it can be exciting to be in the flurry of training and meeting people. But there’s a different set of challenges once the training is done and you’re now considered “fully on the job”, but then one day you discover you still don’t know where they keep the paper clips and you feel a little awkward in asking.
There are sophomore seasons in college. With one full year of university under one’s belt, you’ve done welcome week, conquered that great social experiment called the dorms, figured out the classes and the maps and the bus schedules.But the sophomore year bring some understated new challenges. How do you find your place when very few of the events are geared “for you”, and yet not many are in leadership? Especially when, there are still a lot of firsts to figure out: the first time you’re living in a home by yourself and having to make meals. The first time figuring out a household budget. Top ramen, anyone?
I have found myself in the just-past-new doldrums a couple of times. I’ve been a sophomore in college, in grad school, in marriage, in friendships. I’ve moved continents and churches and houses. And I’m beginning to see a pattern about how I experience the process of belonging to a community.
I’m learning that, most often, the FACT of belonging precedes the FEELINGS of belonging.
In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul addresses a group of bickering believers who were all jostling for the most prominent places in their community. In response to their division, he gives them a robust teaching example: just like there is one body made up of many different (and yet all necessary) body parts, so too believers in Christ are one body, made up of many different (and yet all necessary) members.
So all those bickering believers? They were all part of ONE body (v12), and as such – they belong to each other (v14). No-one could say “I don’t belong”, or “I don’t need you”, or “you don’t need me” to each other (v15-20). The FACT of the matter was that each of those believers belonged and was needed, whether they felt it or not.
Sometimes, the feeling of belonging lags a long time behind the fact of belonging. Sometimes it’s weeks. In the case of me at high school, it was two decades. Once I got married I was married (fact), even though some days I didn’t feel any different. And technically once I turned 21 I belonged to that tribe called “adult”, even though in my late 30s I still sometimes feel as though I’m playing make-believe house.
For believers, the fact of belonging arises from the fact that if we have confessed Christ as Lord, we have the Spirit – and the Spirit unites us to be one body.
It’s important to know that the feelings of belonging don’t always correspond to the fact of our belonging, because sometimes in the doldrums we second guess our place if “we’re not feeling it”. Our tendency then is to withdraw and wait until we feel we belong more fully, to focus inward, to refrain from giving of ourselves until we “feel more comfortable”. We withdraw. We wait for invitations. We navel-gaze.
But instead of withdrawing and focusing inward, I think that when faced with the sophomore doldrums, we need to do just the opposite: we need to focus outward. For the FACT of belonging in Christ also means we are FITTED to belong.
Every piece is needed in a puzzle if there aren’t to be gaping holes.
Every body part is valuable in our well-being (a lesson I painfully learned when I dropped a trampoline on my big toe earlier this year.)
We all have a unique combination of Spirit-given gifts, abilities and services which we alone can bring.
Sometimes those gifts might be “conventional”: musical or teaching or administrative gifts. But then I think too of my friend G’s gift for listening, and how that heals my soul. And I think of my friend B’s gift of laughing graciously when I complain, and how that helps me find perspective. And I think of J’s gift of shopping (true fact!), and how she brought this post-partum mama-who-had-nothing-to-wear TEN pairs of jeans to try on in my own home and then returned the ones that didn’t fit for me. I think of S’s gift of rough-housing with my kids and teaching them to play. I think of A’s tremendous gift of finding helpful treasures at garage sales.
Gifts come in such an assortment of colors and packages, and God means for each of us to use those gifts where we are at: even in the sophomore doldrums. Gifts are not to be stored up for the future, they are NOW gifts. The Spirit equips us in our CURRENT situation, with our CURRENT skill level to do his CURRENT work.
The “sophomore seasons” of life are perhaps less recognized seasons: they’re quieter, less disturbed. But perhaps those quiet, understated seasons actually have greater honor (v24), perhaps because of new opportunities for relational richness. When you’re in the doldrums, you have time. Going nowhere fast means you can go deep with those around you.
Those around us might be slightly different to who we expected to be there. The “body” includes people of different cultures and different generations, people with whom we didn’t expect to connect. But we can’t have the midset among any group of believers that “I don’t belong here”, or “they don’t need me”. We need the elderly. We need the teenagers. We need the mentally ill. We need the singles. We need the widows. We need the young parents with their squirming, screaming toddlers. We belong to each other. We need each other.
The sophomore doldrums needs to call forth resolve in us: even if we don’t feel we belong, the fact is we do belong if we are Christ’s- and we are uniquely fitted for service even in those quiet and unrecognized seasons of life.
Serve as one who belongs, and I believe the feelings of belonging will follow: as we love and serve those around us, our feelings of attachment grow stronger, and before we know it – we’ll find the doldrums have passed and in fact, there is a light breeze blowing as our new course is charted.
This post is an adaptation of a talk for a most awesome group of Sophomores at College Life. It is also (conveniently for me!), Day 26 of 31 Days of Belonging. Click here for a list of other posts in this series.