The school year has had a rolling start this month; some students began classes weeks ago and others just started today. My friend’s daughter, Abby, started seventh grade a couple of weeks ago. After school on the second or third day, my friend noticed that Abby was pensive, maybe a little down, and asked if something was bothering her. In a voice tinged with desperation, Abby responded, “Mom, I don’t have a faction!”
When my friend repeated the story to me later, I was grateful I’d read the Y.A. bestseller, “Divergent”, so I was able to immediately grasp the problem. (The story of “Divergent” takes place in a futuristic society divided into five factions. As teens approach adulthood, each chooses the faction with which he or she feels most aligned. The heroine, Tris, discovers that she is divergent – meaning she has no true faction.) In Divergent, Tris feels like an outsider, never quite fitting in. My young friend, Abby, feels the same.
Believe me, I can totally identify with Abby. As a freshman in high school, I remember feeling factionless. I had a few friends, but they were from several different social groups and tended to identify most strongly with those groups, of which I was not a member. Many Friday nights I attended football games with a group of girls I never really saw, otherwise. The people I ate lunch with at school weren’t the same people I had sleepovers with on the weekends. Most of the time, this was fine. But whenever numbers were an issue, I was the odd man out – I got cut from the roster. Which left me high and dry, feeling “out” at those exact times when a freshman really needs to feel “in”.
The summer between my first and second years of high school, my siblings and I joined an inter church youth group (ICY). On a hot Tuesday night in July, we met about thirty other high school kids and four college-aged leaders at the Lutheran church. For an hour or so, we played some kick-ass volleyball on the church lawn. The game was relaxed, inclusive, fun. There was no cutthroat competition – though there was plenty of humorous braggadocio. After the game, we adjourned inside the church. In the sanctuary, everyone pulled up a piece of floor and the guitars came out. We sang a few songs, said some prayers, then began a style of interaction based on what our leaders called “Serendipity”. With our eyes closed, we mingled in the group until the leader told us to join hands with another person, eyes still closed. My partner was Dave*, one of the college guys leading the group. Each of us was given a paper plate and a crayon, and asked to make a nameplate for our partner. In addition to our partners’ names, we needed to answer four questions about the other person – putting an answer in each “corner” of the round plate. I don’t remember all of the questions, but I’ve never forgotten that, in the upper left-hand corner we were supposed to answer the question, “If your partner were a color, what color would they be?” Dave, making a nameplate for me, wrote “yellow”. I was shocked…and delighted. I’d been expecting gray, black, brown – no one had ever described me as yellow before! The whole evening was fun, but more important, I felt welcomed and included in a way that was so outside the norm of my usual, angst-y, teen interactions.
On the way home, I basked in the glow of every positive thing that had happened that evening. Later, when I went to bed, I lay there replaying it all in my head. And as the bright energy faded, giving way to sleep, I knew one thing: I had, indeed, found my faction.
From that point on, my high school experience was different. I had my ICY peeps in my corner, and I was loving life. Retreats, hay rides, late night guitars and bonfires. We met on Tuesday nights and Thursday mornings before school, cementing our connectedness with intentional yet fun activities. Interestingly, even engaged with my faction, I managed to maintain a few friendships outside the group. We liked each other for the sake of our shared interests and our individual personality quirks, without the need to be joined at the hip with one another – that’s what our factions were for! As far as I was concerned, it was the best of both worlds. I didn’t give much thought to the times that friends told me I was the only one in my group who would talk to them, or who was nice to them. I chalked it up to simple misunderstanding.
Junior year flew, full of adventures – from blowing up my chemistry lab to searching for the ever-elusive albino farm in the neighboring township to having my first jamocha shake at Arby’s. Then life happened and mucked things up.
The summer preceding my senior year, my family moved from Ohio to Iowa. I was devastated. At my new school, the senior class alone outnumbered the entire population of my previous high school. Back to being factionless, I had no clue where to sit, who to talk to, or how to address the rising panic I felt walking into the absolutely packed cafeteria. I had no one.
But here’s the interesting thing. Watching the other kids with their groups, I realized some important truths about factions. These are the things I want to say now to Abby, my young friend feeling so “out there” without her own crew.
First, factions always think they’re open to others, but they rarely are. For example, most of the students at my new school were decent people. Very few were actively cruel or hurtful. But most of them were also not actively kind. Or welcoming. Suddenly, I remembered my “outsider” friends commenting on the exclusionary vibe they got from my ICY friends. At my new school, the kids who were generous and open? The outsiders, like me.
I learned that having a faction can make you less compassionate – because compassion requires a reaching out beyond yourself, beyond your normal circles. When you have a faction, you don’t have to think about what it feels like to eat alone in a crowded lunchroom filled to bursting with other kids having fun – you’re too busy laughing for it to cross your mind. You don’t have to “reframe” to make yourself feel good about another Friday night at home with your parents when you’d rather be with friends…if you had any. Since you don’t have to do these things, you forget there are other kids who do. You literally forget to have compassion for them.
Another truth people don’t really explain ahead of time? Factions maintain their strength by a certain level of uniformity. Gryffindor is brave, Hufflepuff is loyal. ICY loved Jesus, volleyball and guitar sing-alongs. When you have a faction, you get lazy about needing to maintain effort to develop and keep friendships. The group all shows up and, voila! Shared experiences and assumed similarities of thought and emotion. Group membership becomes a shortcut to friendship – but like a lot of shortcuts, its doesn’t lead where you expect it to. Sometimes, you end up spending time with people you don’t really connect with. Or worse, you find yourself looking past behaviors you don’t endorse, out of loyalty to the group – even when this makes you uncomfortable.
It also surprised me to learn, after moving, that the strength of my faction didn’t make me strong. When I moved to a new city, I had to find strength within myself, not in the group. (Although it did help to know, when I felt alone, that there were people somewhere who loved me.) Interestingly, what helped me move ahead were the friendships I had maintained outside my faction. I still knew how to be friends with a diverse set of individuals who weren’t friends with one another. I remembered that sometimes what was truest and most valuable about someone was protected, and had to be coaxed out with regard and attention. I remembered that there were no shortcuts to developing relationships. True friendship takes time, effort, patience.
In life, I want to tell my dear Abby, you will find yourself part of many groups. They’ll come together in a variety of ways, around a plethora of shared experiences – and they will often bring you joy. As an adult, I’ve discovered that the best kinds of “factions” are created by the synergy that develops when individually strong friendships coalesce together into groups that embrace rather than try to usurp those connections. Because it is the individual relationships you nurture and develop over time that will fill out the depth and quality of your life.
Dearest Abby, I would say. Maintain your openness to people who engage your compassion; to those who invite and invoke your individuality in return. Try not to leave your integrity at the threshold of your latest faction, no matter how tempting it is to gloss over troubling choices made by others or within in your group.
And whatever you do, lovely Abby, never discount the real gift of a lone friend in favor of the dream of belonging to a “faction”. Group hugs are never as satisfying as the embrace of one dearly loved friend.
*Note: I thought you might be interested to know that my partner, Dave, from my first ICY youth group experience, is none other than my beloved brother-in-law Dave Finnegan. 39 years later still in my life but now in the faction known as “family”!
Some day I may write a post specifically about the spiritual and religious formation I experienced through my involvement with ICY, but for the purposes of this post, it serves mostly as context for the joyful experience of finding my “posse”.