I may not be Andre Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald or Reggie Wayne, three of the top wide receivers in the NFL, but I do know something about catching footballs. I think you also know something about catching footballs too. Or something very similar. As children, we all tried to catch something. We all tried to catch the same thing, but it wasn’t a football.
Most of life goes back to elementary school, middle school and high school. It’s where the grooves of our lives are cut deep. It’s in our early years when the scripts of our life are chiseled into our hearts and minds that influence how we grow into adulthood. This is where many of us get stuck. Really stuck.
I wrote a story about catching footballs in my book, The Longing: Embracing the Deepest Truth of Who You Are. If may not be your story, but I hope you find glimpses of your story somewhere in it. For this reason, I hope you’ll be encouraged and share it with others.
For the first ten years of my life, I grew up in the same neighborhood and had many experiences of being accepted just for who I was. I had all my buddies; all the friends I’d grown up with since kindergarten. It wasn’t until I moved from Los Angeles to Dana Point that I experienced loneliness for the first time. Our first and only family move began a process of me going to five different schools in six years. Before, I didn’t have to prove myself to anyone, but as I jumped from school to school, I now had to prove myself worthy of others’ friendship. And so I became a performer. A really good one.
For me, the story that crystallizes my search for acceptance begins with catching a football. It was the first week at my new school in Laguna Beach, and I had spent more than a few days eating lunch by myself. A bunch of the other sixth grade guys were starting a game of football, and they were short one player. So they asked me, the new kid. Eager to fit in, I said yes, and everyone got ready to play.
The opposing team kicked off. The ball sailed in the air and drifted in my direction. I caught it and to everyone’s surprise (including me!), I ran it all the way down the field for a touchdown. My team was estatic and I was now in. That was my ticket. Performing, for the most part, has been my ticket to belonging, and I have been catching footballs ever since.
Though my junior high football touchdown never led to an NFL career, I can look back over the past forty years of my life and honestly say that I have received most of my approval, strokes, and attention because of my performance. It’s what has worked for me to earn love and praise. It wasn’t until my thirties that I began to realize that my identity was based too much on performance instead of on simply resting in being a child of God. My adult years have been a slow and difficult process of learning that I don’t have to prove myself or perform for God to win his love. Tough work allowing God to rewrite those oh-so-familiar scripts I was barely aware even existed.
As boys and girls, we are wired to please our parents, and we want to hear those one or two voices cheering us on. I was fortunate to grow up in a home in which my parents were great cheerleaders. But even so, who doesn’t spend their early years proving, in one way or another, that they are worthy of love? We all long for unconditional love and acceptance.
Whatever uniform you wore as a child, you still felt the same need and the longing for approval. You might have been a five-year-old little girl dressed as a ballerina. Or a seven-year-old at a piano recital. A nine-year-old boy playing baseball. A ten-year-old girl playing soccer. A middle school girl getting dressed for her first dance. A high school athlete hoping your dad or mom would show up to the game. Let your heart wander back to when you were growing up. Where were you? What were you wearing? Most important, who was there watching you? What did they say? What didn’t they say? What were you seeking?
We weren’t just hitting or playing or performing to win the competition…we were performing to win the heart of our father or mother or new friends. We wanted to be seen. We wanted to be noticed. We were doing our best just so we could hear those few choice words, “Well done. Great job.” And when we flubbed our line in the school play or missed the shot at the buzzer, what we really needed was encouragement and not a harsh reprimand. We hoped that our parents’ love wasn’t dependent on our performance, the goals we made, the grades we achieved, or the trophies we earned. All we wanted to hear, in one way or another, was that we were loved just for being a son or a daughter. And that was good enough. Is your heart still longing to hear those words?
These are words that I want my four kids to hear again and again…you’re chosen, loved and accepted. Just for who you are. Go ahead and drop that ball or flub that line or miss that shot. I don’t care if you’re not Andre Johnson. Yes, do your best, but know my love for you is not dependent on your performance. You’re my beloved child and that’s enough for me.
Questions: When you were a kid, when was a time you knew you were chosen and loved just for who you were? When were you not loved or accepted? Who have been the most influential people in your life communicating God’s unconditional love for you? If you never received this love from your parents, how have you received it from God?
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