As a child, did you ever have trouble fitting in? If not, do you remember the kid who did? The look on her face? The way he shifted back and forth on the balls of his feet?
I thought about that today when my friend Karen told me about her daughter changing schools because, as one administrator told her, "Your daughter doesn't fit the profile of the kind of student we are developing." Which, according to Karen, was a way of saying they didn't want to deal with students who might actually have to struggle a bit.
Her daughter has always done B work. But the school is now billing itself as a college prep institution for the elite and has hired a publicity firm to sell that image. Her daughter made the cardinal sin of pulling a D in math last quarter. Rather than have her take a makeup, hire a tutor, or do extra work, the school prefers she move on where she might "find a better fit."
Karen has shared with me that her daughter, Michelle has always been a little different. More a loner than a joiner. More Janeane Garofalo than Britney Spears. But always cool in her own way. Obviously not the right kind of cool for an elite school.
With trepidation and high hopes, Karen drove her teen to the new high school, wanting badly for Michelle to feel good about the place. At the end of the first day she was surprised to hear her daughter complain that the school was nice enough but the kids were definitely "not cool." Karen's response was classic: "This year, honey, you're going to have to look beyond cool."
And if this description doesn't fit us personally, perhaps it describes a friend, a relative, or someone we're interested in, a colleague or possible mate in whose potential we believe.
It's one thing to deal with fitting in while navigating the waters of adolescence. That's a time for figuring out your place among your peers or slowly learning which in the array of choices feels right. It's a time of developing and, for many, a period of growth and shaping that gives way to maturity and responsibility. When you are working to fit in as a grown-up, you carry with you years of attitudes and habits that have taken root and can prove more challenging to adjust. But not impossible, by any means. We are all works in progress.
The trick to overcoming what may appear to be overwhelming obstacles of insecurity, awkwardness, and fear of choices is to reframe the challenge. People speak of the quest for healthy relationships, meaningful jobs, or successful life choices on romance or pursuing a job because they think all their ducks are not lined up in a row. But the "perfect fit," like the "perfect mate" or the "perfect job," is a myth out there alongside "weight loss guaranteed" and "one size fits all."
The challenge is not how to find perfection or discover where exactly each of us fits in to this world. The challenge, instead, is to see how what we have to offer the world is indispensable, an individual contribution we alone can make.
And so, just as Karen was forced to find a new path for her daughter, and just as Michelle was admonished to "look beyond cool," we who would make the journey to a new setting must reframe the route we are to take. It is a journey within, a path to understanding our own uniqueness and spiritual power. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "The only thing of value in the world is an active soul." So, let's begin there. And as with every journey, the toughest part is the first step.
In our quest to make the world more fit, more complete and soulful, we begin by stepping into our own soul, appreciating the gifts of our particular perspective. We rejoice in the way we value a piece of art or can learn different languages. We revel in the kinds of words that move us, the movies that get us thinking, the people who touch our hearts.
We begin by stepping into our soul's truth, finding out how our actions can be more in step with our beliefs. Taking time to marinate in the goodness we find there. Determining how this quality might emanate from us, imbuing our daily lives with an aura of meaning.
This stepping into may lead us to change course. If so, it is cause for celebration. By reframing the challenge before us as seeking, not perfection, but illumination, we alter our approach to living. And as Thich Nhat Hanh observes, "If we don't change our daily lives, we cannot change the world."
Now that kind of change is beyond cool.