The Pull of Popularity






I remember the huge ads hanging inside the store. Group shots of young adults sitting around a campfire or playing a wildly amusing game of pickup football. Some showed shirtless guys with six-packs, not a single strand of body hair in sight. The thin, young women stared out of their frames, not smiling per se, but bemused. I was fourteen and had just come out of that awkward, middle school stage. I stood and wondered what secret these beautiful people were privy to. 

The photos with couples seemed to capture my attention the most. I was a proper Disney aficionado, a sucker for all things depicting love. I knew the photos didn’t necessarily show real life. Yet, I also desperately wanted to be like those picturesque people. I realized that buying a particular pair of low-rise jeans wasn’t going to magically give me the life shown in those oversized stills. I somehow also believed that wearing clothes with this particular logo would make me more likeable. And I desperately wanted to fit in. 

The cologne was as thick in that store as young insecurity. Back-to-school shopping felt different that year. Attending public school for the first time and starting high school felt as natural as eating caramel apples with my braces. The Christian school I had attended all of my life thus far was in the same building as my church, which I had attended equally as long. So, I knew it like the back of my hand. I had clomped down every staircase, raised my hand in every classroom. I even knew where the boiler room and storage closets were. The teachers all knew my family. Everything and everyone felt familiar. Standing in that store, practicing the charade of confidence, I knew that familiarity was about to fade.


Everything feels big to kids, and I don’t think it’s just because our bodies are small. Our minds and emotions have a lifetime of growing to do. Some childhood situations, which feel terrifying and dangerous, likely wouldn’t be a blip on our grownup radars- like the time my friend and I felt trapped by adult legs while we played under a payphone inside the bowling alley. 

But sometimes our narrow shoulders and knobby knees are asked to carry the same weight that would bend adult backs. And in between are the transitions that life can’t help but dole out. Those new experiences that grab both risk and growth and make them hold hands. Those scary and sometimes painful things that parents instinctively want to shield their kids from. Parents learn, however, that it’s neither possible nor beneficial to shield their kids from all of life.

Human growth includes the ability to gradually lift our heart’s gaze. The expansiveness of the world becomes clearer with time, and we (hopefully) learn to see others, to notice their experience, not just our own. As a mother now, I can only imagine how it felt for my mom to listen to me beg for that overpriced denim. It is no easy task to teach our kids how to be in the world but not of it. No formula can eliminate the tension between equipping our children for success, as sojourners in this culture, while also defining that success through a Kingdom identity.


Scripture uses agricultural analogies for good reason. I barely noticed the seeds of truth my mom’s words were planting in my heart’s soil, standing in that store. The sights and smells surrounding me felt much more real. But decades later, by the mercy and grace of our good Creator, those seeds have grown into fruit-bearing trees. My mom reminded me of where my value and identity truly came from, while also buying me a pair of jeans and a long-sleeved shirt. We can obsess over a moment’s right or wrong decision, while forgetting the countless, unnoticed moments that create life’s backdrop. The scene of my adolescent desire for popularity was set to the same score that played beautifully throughout the film of my entire life- “Seek first the kingdom of God.” Before I heard a friend describe cool clothes, I had subconsciously observed my mother clothe herself in dignity and strength, studying God’s word and serving those around her. Even while photos of models intrigued me, I already had an underlying picture of what the family of God looked like. 


The riptide of people-pleasing doesn’t automatically abate over time. I’m still tempted to feel the pull of popularity, even at age thirty-six. The anchor to my soul is the truth that I am chosen and wanted, by the all-powerful and all-knowing God who knit me together. I know now that the brand of clothing I wear doesn’t matter at all. One day we will disrobe from these bodies of clay and dust. I long for that glorious day, and as I wait, I live aware of Christ’s robes of righteousness that cover me, having replaced my tattered rags of shame.


We all want to belong because God designed us that way. He made us to be in community, which reflects the triune Godhead I will never fully comprehend. We can rest in the truth that every, single, breathing human- from the most famous to the least noticed- has equal value as a beloved image bearer. So, we are all on level playing field. We’re all in the same club: desperately dependent on Jesus. That truth is freeing indeed! We are free to welcome others, not judge, to celebrate each other, not compete. We don’t have to posture or paste on fake smiles. Jesus is the point, not us. He has chosen to use our weakness, our lack, to highlight his strength. Our broken lives serve as the posters to display his beauty to the world.














Photo by Justice Amoh on Unsplash

Comments

  1. Loved reading this. Your insights into living by grace and pleasing the Lord are encouraging to parents struggling with raising children. God bless you.

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