This past weekend, I rode up to New Hampshire with my two high school friends to attend our ten-year high school reunion. “We’re getting old!” jokes aside, it was an interesting learning experience. In the ten years since I have graduated from St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, I have gotten to experience and learn quite a bit. I’ve traveled, completed more education, and met plenty of new and wonderful people. Yet sometimes, it is necessary to re-experience snippets of our past to make sense of our present. This weekend, the present became more clear to me.
High school was a generally positive experience for me, with moments of great triumph and hardship. My first year I remember waking up to snow covering my window on a December morning. This was the first time I could touch snow and it didn’t melt like it would in the mountains of California. The winter was very dark, and much of the time I felt alone, missing my family and friends. Finally during the Spring Term I started hanging out with a group of other freshman (Third Formers, to be official) who would become my best friends for the rest of high school. My outlook on the experience started to feel more positive.
Throughout my entire time at St. Paul’s, I struggled with a complicated relationship to food. The dining hall offered many options for both entrees and dessert, and my habit was to take multiple desserts at each meal. I think food reminded me of my family, because we always ate dinner together. As you can imagine, I started to gain weight, and by the time I was at the end of my freshman year, my clothes wouldn’t fit and needed two or three sizes larger in pants and dresses. Much of the time I avoided the mirror, or when it was unavoidable I sucked in my stomach and put my face down. My face also suffered from terrible acne. My weight would fluctuate a little through the four years- generally over the summer I would return home and naturally lose some, and would gain again most during the winters when being outside was difficult and cross country season had ended. It was not until my senior year of college that I would truly change my lifestyle and lose almost 40 pounds.
There were very few instances I can remember in which my weight was directly mentioned. No one necessarily called me fat to my face, or told me I couldn’t be part of something because I was too heavy. My weight affected me first, and my self-confidence, which in turn affected my ability to make friends and maintain relationships. This weekend, as we reminisced about high school and how we have changed, one of my friends commented “I think you’re just more comfortable in your own skin.” What she may not have realized is how literally that sentence holds meaning. My skin has less acne and isn’t stretched across rolls of fat. Running has never been more enjoyable to me than it is now, and I believe the real joy of it is quite separate from the calories I burn while crossing the three, five, or ten mile line. This weekend I realized that I have found things that bring me joy because I was forced to encounter times during high school (and beyond, in some cases) that caused me great pain. Hearing that one of the popular boys in high school as well as my freshman roommate thought I was weird initially brought back this pain, but as I process, I realize that pain, if handled properly, can push us to seek joy.
For many people this is quite difficult or even impossible, especially if pain comes from powerlessness. The preacher at the Alumni Memorial Service on Saturday spoke beautifully about powerlessness in death, in our fear of losing power and then feeling paralyzed when a loved one passes away. She called on the wisdom of all religious and spiritual traditions and ethical frameworks to help us begin to think about death now, not when it is too late. I could feel her love and joy from her encounters with patients of all sorts of backgrounds, how they have suffered, and how they have used the wisdom from their traditions to face the suffering. In reflecting on my own experience at St. Paul’s, my only regret is not turning toward my faith more fully to face my own pain- though I believe now that this may have been impossible given my life stage.
In conversations with various friends and classmates, I felt hope in the successes they have achieved so far. One friend described her exhaustion from the third year of medical school, another expressed her anxiety toward starting graduate school in the fall. Hearing about the work of these classmates put my own work in perspective, and the privilege I encounter as a college chaplain. To be honest, it occurred to me at some point on Saturday night that I had been mainly interested in connecting with fellow women-identified classmates, and sat with that for a while. In my work I am privileged to think deeply every day about privilege, intersectionality, and how to help students turn their passion into meaningful work, whether this includes religion and spirituality or not. For the most part my colleagues and coworkers listen and brainstorm with me, and I enjoy hearing their enlightened perspectives about making our community more inclusive and welcoming. Through these conversations I have felt empowered, because they help me understand my own identities better. This empowerment is a privilege. I hope that the challenges these conversations bring help me to continue finding joy, especially as pain surfaces.