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Authenticity or Acceptance?

Navigating beliefs and acceptance

by Lauren Richards

My friends and I were sitting in my kitchen sipping rose when one of them exclaimed how much I had changed since freshman year. She said I used to be very churchy. One of my other friends nodded, but she seemed a little surprised. Her expression changed slightly, but I caught the brief frown. I hid my face from her.

Here my two worlds merged: A couple friends I’d grown especially close to these last two years of college and my other friend who’d known me from the two years prior. I met the latter in a religious group on campus when I was highly involved in and dedicated to Christianity. I went to church every Sunday, I attended Bible study two times a week the Christian group had and went to many of their social events. I met two college roommates and even some of my closest friends in that group. My friend was part of that same group and saw me fresh in college, high hopes and faith so great it bordered on naive.

Then there I was, wearing a tight dress, sultry makeup, and holding my second glass of wine to my lips. I didn’t know what she made of me. I wanted to scramble and pick up the pieces of who I once was and put them back together for her. I wanted to show her I could still be that cheerful girl when we first met, the one who tried to maneuver God into every conversation and would suggest Bible studies over coffee. The one who babbled endlessly about tea and indie-folk music that had religious undertones.

I wanted so badly to see myself through her eyes, to know her thoughts and maybe even judgements. Was I awful? A fallen soul? A sight that caused pity? She’d always been understanding, I know, and she’s seen glimpses into my messy dissolution of faith, but here she saw it manifest more than ever before and this wasn’t even the worst of it.

Yet that’s where the tension lies. The “worse” behaviors are no longer “worse” to me. The rigid moral code I ascribed to my every thought and action slowly disbanded as I gained more knowledge and understanding. I used to see things as black or white, pure or sinful, and now everything has color and bleeds into each other. There’s more nuance and complexity to how I view the world. The topics my church labeled as taboo or bad, like sex and drugs and gender fluidity took on new meanings that usurped those labels. How I understood beauty and what I considered art also changed into something more inclusive and abstract than the narrow definitions once thrown at me. As much as I am confident in myself and my evolving understanding of love and so much more, I shrink when confronted with my past, knowing that things I now condone would’ve disappointed my old self.

The whole night I tried not to swear. I refused to sing along to the rap music blasting from the speaker, not sure of what she’d think. I felt myself split in two and I wasn’t sure which part of me to chase. I knew all the steps to contort myself into the pious yet insecure girl I once was, but the thought of doing it made me sick. I’d grown so much since my understanding of religion and God transformed into something that resembled theistic agnosticism, however, I couldn’t admit this to her, I can barely admit this to myself.

The next morning while I was making breakfast with my roommate, she asked if my visiting friend was religious and went to church every Sunday. I said yes, and we both admitted our tricky relationship with religion but the withstanding personal connection to God. She’s Muslim, I’m Christian, and yet there we were, figuring out our faith together. She said she prays in her heart and I knew what she meant. I’ve been doing a lot of that lately.

Those prayers are silent but almost constant. I don’t know what to make of them anymore. I grew up learning that prayer was a beautiful thing directed to this specific depiction and understanding of God. Now, that depiction and understanding of God is drastically different. Since stepping away from the religious rhetoric and worldview I grew up in, I’ve found love to be far more abundant and inclusive, and surprising than I’d experienced before, but I can’t deny how my upbringing also helped foster such an understanding. It’s messy.

My friend and my family and others who knew me in the past still exhibit love. Everyone loves differently and understands love differently. I remember a few months ago I spoke on the phone with a friend from where I grew up and she told me that she believed that there were many ways to connect with God but only one way to God. I remember smiling at her poetic phrasing but disagreeing quietly. I asked if that were true, wouldn’t that make God deceitful in that there’s connection but that connection proves to be false, if indeed, there was only one true way? I don’t remember her response, or even if she had one. In truth, I hadn’t meant to tell her where I was religiously in the first place. I like to leave my positioning ambiguous to most people from my past.

That attempt is proving to be futile though. I slip up and reveal more of myself than I intend to and I think that’s because it’s difficult for me to sacrifice authenticity in order to present an image for others. Yet, every time I’m around people who know me from before my sophomore year of summer, I feel the urge to shrink back into that old self.

So I sit in that divide, juggling it all. I’m not sure how to reconcile who I was and who I am and who I am becoming. It’s an odd pendulum swinging between me embracing who I am and me wanting to hide who I’ve become depending on who I am around. Is it survival to shrink myself or is it inauthenticity? Can I reveal my whole self unabashedly and risk losing relationships, or do I hide the parts of me that changed in order to keep up an illusion for others’ comfort?

All I know is I want more openness to permeate my relationships, where I show up fully as myself and others can do the same. I’m not there yet, and I’m not exactly sure how I’ll get there. However, the night before the dress and wine, my roommate, friend and I sat in my room and spoke for hours, each of us bringing our understanding to the conversation and analyzing and expanding upon it. I was authentic then, and I believe they were too. I guess it was a glimpse into how I want to be, who I want to be, and the role of authenticity.

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