Code Smoothie

Servons Speech: Acceptance by others, self-acceptance, and my faith

I delivered the following speech to my school on November 1, 2018:

At a young age: feeling accepted, “existential crisis,” social awkwardness, PALS

In third grade, following the recommendation of my teacher, my mom signed me up for the PALS program. I had to play group games instead of attending math lesson every Wednesday. There was another boy and a girl, and they seemed normal enough to me. I don’t remember exactly what we played or talked about, or whether any of us enjoyed it, but one I thing I do remember is a couple of years after, I still had a green, translucent ruler that said, “PALS are Special and Unique.” I think those Wednesday periods were designed to teach the three of us social skills.

I was a socially awkward kid in elementary school. I was aloof and passive. I didn’t enjoy the type of fun as most other boys. I was super un-athletic and gave clumsy, hesitant replies when spoken to. I was reflective and thought too much about things. Maybe this made my mood a little off, sometimes pessimistic. 

It was really all fine for me in the early parts of my childhood. I didn’t worry too much about having no close friends. I liked to think of myself as special. Teachers liked me for my quirks. Whenever I came to them in negative spirits, my parents reassured me that I was their special son, and they would love me no matter what. 

Being a child of God (the Christian God) initially made me feel accepted.

That changed in middle school. I suddenly became conscious of how my peers saw me and cared. There was desperation to fit in and regret that I chose to be cold and aloof in elementary school, rather than take my opportunities to learn to play well with others. I tried very hard to be the friendliest person I could be. But I was still that awkward, cold kid, according to a few reports later. One girl in my clarinet section in band told my sister later that she hated me, because I made her feel incompetent and miserable. I had no idea. 

I began to lean on my Christian faith to feel accepted. Thinking that I was a child of the most powerful thing in the universe was reassuring. 

But I was also being harder on myself, thinking I was inadequate emotionally and academically. In 8th grade, I was devastated when I found out that all the boarding schools I had applied to either rejected or waitlist me, including Cate. In response, I wrote a piece, which said that my “[d]reams are nearly crushed—or terribly thwarted” and affirmed, “Yes, I can always work harder and pray more in any condition.” In tears I read this to my parents, who were nearly as disturbed as I.

So for the first two years at my public high school of 3000 students, I tried to be the best at everything to pacify the voice that told me I was inadequate. Every day felt like my life was falling apart. 

Coming to Cate, which was sold to me as this secular utopia

When applying to Cate to attend as a junior, I said I wanted better balance between academics, extracurriculars, etc.. My words missed the point. I had some feeling, thought, that switching to an elite boarding school would give me something—that would make me happier? smarter? I didn’t know. I never said I wanted a better environment to grow in, one with people who  weren’t starved for happiness and self-esteem and who could relate to me and accept all of me. I didn’t realize I was actually starving for the acceptance of my peers and myself. 

I was super excited during revisit day. I chatted with Dr. Kellogg, a physics teacher who could passionately talk about scientific computing and software compilers! I ended up in a canoe with Avalon, who watched me jump in the water and appeared amused. Then, I spent so much aimless time around the water everyone had to wait for me, and all that was left for dinner was French Fries. I told myself, I’m actually coming to utopia.

Move-in day met those expectations: A senior greeted my dad and me while standing on the CHW balcony in his underwear. The friendly man who would teach me physics turned out to be my advisor. My advisory—Georgia, Jennifer, Kenzie, and Parker May—was relentlessly crazy during advisory dinner. And later in the evening, when discussing the people in my advisory, my advisor was already giving advice, explaining how in his experience, smart and accomplished people were humble. Finally, the sheer stupidity of the square dance meant that Cate was a place where I could learn to make fun of myself.

I was in high spirits the first half of junior year, despite the challenges of adapting. I was excited to meet people. Twice a week I talked with my big sib Andre Pincot, and he thoughtfully challenged me. I looked up at the sky every morning and wondered if I could ever have a bad day if the sky was clear. I was grateful that God put me in a place where I felt like I belonged.

Questioning Christian faith, dread, didn’t know my place in this world any more

Things got slightly dry as time passed, but angst started to take the place of happiness over spring break, when I doubted hard my Christian faith. So suddenly, I looked at my faith through secular lens, and then I saw what appeared to be absurdity. I would like to think that it was a reasonable doubt, based on incongruities between the Bible and what I knew about science and history. 

Part of my problem with God not existing would be that I am no child of God, and my foundation of being accepted—by the perfect-loving God—would be completely pulled out from under me.

If this God existed, he so loved the world that he offered himself as a sacrifice to pay for people’s sins. This God flaunted his power over nature before Elijah but spoke to him in a gentle whisper, an endearing and comforting voice. The Bible talks about God’s love as being a perfect love, one that never fails, one that unhindered by anything, even sin. This type of love is an extreme form of acceptance. Being accepted by mere mortals is a sharp letdown from being loved by God.

And if this God existed, he would be the standard of love and acceptance. This meant that there is some goal that maybe we could strive for. I really wanted to think that such a perfect love existed, and now, this ideal of love was at stake. 

I think my attitude towards life depended on whether this loving, accepting God existed. Many mornings, I woke up feeling deep dread. I was uncertain if I was waking up to nothing meaningful, and that the beautiful things I had faith in such as divine love were just comforting lies or that I would die and miss out what God had to offer. I didn’t know how I was going to live my day each morning. However, I did have faith that if God existed, he would be good that there would be redemption for what I was going through.

I biked to Oxnard to cope with my pain.

On March 24, an S Saturday,1 I biked to the harbor in Oxnard 30 miles away, and back.

This was no event for reflection. It was more like a healthy distraction, a numbing, if you will, from emotional pain, which partly came from the threat that the God who accepted me did not exist. I focused on the pain in my body and getting to my destination without getting myself killed. Partly motivating me were senses of pride, accomplishment, and control. Maybe I wanted a story.

Over summer, reading The Return of the Prodigal Son allowed me to better understand the relationship between the Heavenly Father and the child and prompted me to consider again the topic of acceptance.

Over summer, while still doubting, I read The Return of the Prodigal Son, which is a Catholic priest’s personal reflections on the painting by Rembrandt of the same name and the New Testament parable. Jesus told the parable of the prodigal son as a way to understand the relationship between God and the believer. There’s a father and two sons. One day the younger son asks for his share of inheritance and goes off. He lives indulgently, runs out of money, then takes on a job feeding pigs. He’s so destitute that he craves pig food. He realizes at some point that his father’s servants are better off than he, so he decides to go back home and say, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.”4 But his father sees him a long way off, runs out to grab him and clothe him in the nicest clothing, and throws a party instead of rebuking him, in way that makes the older brother, who has been obedient, feel wronged.

The Christian faith brings a type of freedom. In God’s house, it’s really okay to be stupid and immature and think crazy thoughts and be confused about things—and God would catch me where I would fall short and still love me for who I am. If I happen take my inheritance and run away, but then decide to come back at some point, he would spot me from a distance and run out to embrace me and throw a party instead of rebuking me. Yes, if this God existed, he truly would accept me for who I am. 

I needed to be in a place where I could accept others, and I needed to accept myself before I could accept others.

The Return of the Prodigal Son had shown me how beautiful acceptance from another person was, and it prompted me to reconsider acceptance from other people and self-acceptance. 

I wrote this a month before school started this year:

“I crave acceptance” would be an understatement. “I live for acceptance” would be more accurate. Almost everything I do is for acceptance, even the things I say are for myself: running, working on my social skills, and learning what I like to learn. Heck, my life has turned into a college app.  If I’m going to regret not getting into a good college because I didn’t study hard enough, I’m going to doubly regret living just for the college app—even it it’s just for few months—pretending that’s the primary “next step” of my life, forsaking my convictions in order to look good to a committee, and tricking and training myself to a commitment that is counter-productive to my goal of liberating myself from being desperate for acceptance. 

Those thoughts came down to, if I didn’t think I was adequate, I would work selfishly until I thought I was adequate. If I thought I was adequate, I would be in a better position to accept and serve others. 

I wrote this on September 1. I know almost nothing about economics and sociology, and I’m going to use the word social capital in a way that has nothing to do with how people actually use that term. Okay:

…if almost every one wants acceptance and a lot are desperate, it’d be very reasonable to make those around you accepted—to put them at ease in this specific way. In fact, you “earn” (in the [sense] of social capital), or simply receive, acceptance by giving it out. It’s really just capitalism in a social/emotion[al] context. (I’ll dub this social capitalism…) You make other people feel like they matter in any way (personally, comedically, intellectually, etc.) and they will not only respect you, but also accept you as someone they feel comfortable hanging out with or even trust and love. Giving acceptance-feeling, not respect, is often worth the highest currency, however unconscious this may be. We may think we simply want respect rather than acceptance, but I’ll frame respect as being comprised of admiration and acceptance…we often want admiration because think it will earn us acceptance. Really, social capital comes down to acceptance. 

This social capital is not equally distributed.

I’m fine now, but I still haven’t worked it out. There’s no rational solution.

I guess articulating and (over-) analyzing my problem got me pretty far. I’m now fairly comfortable with myself and my friends, and it’s mostly a good time, in a way that I think is different from before. 

With regards to acceptance from other people, I’ve tried hard to get it by providing it. I’ve studied psychology, read an unhealthy amount of self-help, and asked for advice. Somehow, I’ve acquired attributes and landed in the right environments, that my friends feel at ease around me and can relate to me. This doesn’t happen for everyone in all social environments. 

I don’t call myself Christian anymore, for now, despite the absurdity of our existence and consciousness: It would be cruel of evolution to make us yearn for meaning in life if it doesn’t exist. All this refinement into the most complex and beautiful thing in the universe culminates in something that tends to create delusions to comfort itself. Our genetic code won.

I’m getting used to this absurdity rather than trying to resolve it rationally, partly because I can now see myself satisfied with love from only mortals. I don’t know if there is a rational solution. Yes, the stakes are high.

I’ve chosen to accept myself and deem myself adequate so I can be a person who gives, rather than takes, from other people. And since the ways I’ve closely identified myself—performance, being a child of God—have changed, and this has caused me great pain, I’m going identify as just a human being, for now.

I still don’t know how to resolve this acceptance issue. There might not be a rational solution. For now, it’s safer to give acceptance while I have it. 

Acknowledgements (not part of the speech)

I’m indebted to the people who helped me with this speech. Ms. Taylor Wyatt went over drafts with me, helping me with direction. Dr. Jamie Kellogg, my 2017–18 advisor, counseled me over the phone while he was in the UK, telling me the good parts of my struggle and how telling those stories could actually help others. Kaiser Ke (Cate ‘19) helped me restructure my speech for a rewrite three nights before I had to present it. Clare Meehan ‘19 and Kate Bradley ‘19 gave pointers after listening to it. My peers, especially underclassmen, emboldened me by believing in me.

  1. A Saturday with morning classes. 

  2. The faculty member who is responsible for student safety that day. Students must check in with the MOD by 7 PM. 

  3. Dean of Students’s nickname. 

  4. Luke 15:18b, NIV.