Disclaimer: Due to the personal and sensitive nature of this topic, some details of this experience may have been altered.
For all of us, our school years present a distinct set of complications. We are exploring the world and who we are, trying to find our little niche in this complex society. Those of us sheltered under the all encompassing wing of Laestadianism, often experience particularly difficult challenges.
A reader started a comment about the potential damaging effects Laestadianism can have on one's self esteem and security when being the only Laestadian in the school they attend. After realizing it was far too long to be posted as a comment, the reader contacted me with their experience and suggested I do a post on this subject. I agreed that it would be particularity good to touch on as I am certain there have been many and still are many out there who could relate. Here is their experience:
"I've recently started to consciously observe the behavior and characteristics of Laestadians who were born and raised within the church; particularly those who, like myself, might be naturally a bit more on the reserved end of the spectrum.
All of us respond differently to each situation and complication we face in life, according to our personality, instinct and how we have learned or been taught to respond. None of us can say another "should have done that, or this" in any situation or "I had that experience but turned out just fine" for those reasons.
That being said, I'm wondering if anyone has ever considered the long term psychological and emotional effects of forced exclusion from peers at a young age? I'm not talking within the LLC but in the public school system. More specifically being a lone Laestadian in a public school. If it wasn't forced exclusion, it might as well have been for some of us considering the things we are taught from the beginning. Questions like "when you die, do you want to burn in hell for eternity or do you want to go to heaven?" Don't give the mind of most youth much of a choice. Of course they are going to say heaven! So what does one need to do to go to heaven? Avoid the things "of the world" which include; movies, music, pop culture, sports, school functions (dances, football games, proms, ect), many of which are the base of starting friendships during those years. So how could I find a way to connect with my peers? I couldn't! Considering I was the only one (as far as I knew) with these perculiar beliefs, one can imagine the challenges faced in those years.
K-12 were some of the hardest years of my life. I was shy, and I'm still not sure if that is just the way I was born, or if it was a result of the early fear of my unusual beliefs being discovered by my classmates/teachers. It started early in elementary school. I can clearly recall 3rd or 4th grade and being afraid of questions like 'How many TV's do you have in your home?', when learning about averages in Math. I would lie with my heart pounding as I raised my hand to count myself among those with x amount of televisions, praying that the teacher wouldn't randomly ask me to elaborate on the locations or the size of our TV's (We had none) I was filled with fear of discovery and my stomach was in knots much more often than a 3rd grader's should be.
I was a kid then. Just a little 10 year old, not having a real clue why I was so different and not really even thinking about it too much. I just knew life was pretty complicated for some reason. School was an obstacle course of potential 'faith situations. Birthday parties were a nightmare, seeing as how complications like movies and music were bound to come up, and then the inevitable sleepover which was never good. I had basically no friends all through elementary school, and it was a very confusing time for me, to say the least.
This obviously worsened into middle school. I was now somewhat of loner/floater, or at least that's how I categorized myself. I didn't belong to any particular group because I really didn't fit anywhere. I was frozen with fear although I never even revealed my faith. Maybe I once or twice ashamedly and briefly admitted some small part when I couldn't beat my way around the bush like I usually did, and those were some of the worst, and unfortunately the most memorable moments of my entire life. Questions of music, sports, movies, shows, etc.. I absolutely dreaded the topics coming up in the rare conversation I was in. My heart was in my throat with fearful anticipation of the passing mention of one of those topics well over half the time I was inside that school.
All I wanted was to belong somewhere, like most kids do. I wanted to be normal, but I couldn't. Every time I went to church all I heard was how difficult it was to be in the world and not of the world. Pray to God for strength to make it through. Be a light in the world.
Some of the worst times were the movie days I would SO look forward to, that is until we got the dreaded permission slip. I was too afraid to forge a signature so I had to bring it home every time. Mom and dad would have a discussion and most of the time it was decided I would sit them out. Sometimes they asked me what I thought but I would always say what I was supposed to and agree with them. The same sort of situation came up in sex ed, when we learned about birth control. Before the class session started, the teacher would escort me out of the room and up to the library in front of the whole class, my face beet red trying to keep my heart from pounding of my chest and the tears escaping my eyes. There I would silently prepare myself for a barrage of questions that would no doubt follow, that I would have to somehow slalom through. I'm sure without going into too much more detail you can understand how mortifying and potentially damaging these scenarios were for an 11-15 year old.
On a side note, I was a loner among the Laestadians around this time, as well. My confidence and self esteem were shot into the ground before even being given a chance to rise. I barely dared say a word to anyone. Everyone else seemed so cool, and in my eyes I was the farthest thing from that. I felt like a ghost through many youth camps and events. I had extremely few people I considered friends, whatever a friend was. I barely even knew what the word meant back then. This was primarily because I didn't partake in any spiritually dangerous extracurriculars like music or movies. I literally belonged NOWHERE.
Back in school, I connected with no one besides the social outcasts and 'losers'. It was an odd hodge podge of outcasts like myself, with nowhere to go and no one to turn to besides each other, and that was the only thing we had in common. I couldn't connect with them either but at least it was somewhere to sit at lunch.
Somewhere in this time frame, I entered high school. This was a time of pretending for me; I had my lies all rehearsed and a smile to paste on my face. People started to show me a little more respect perhaps for that reason, or maybe just because it was easier to not care about me, seeing how most kids were too busy thoroughly enjoying their high school years. I, however, stumbled through them, never participating in a single event outside of school or having any real friends. I have no way to describe who I was through those years because I felt like I was nothing. I longed for at least some sort of label, anything to describe me as a person. I felt almost non-existent, I just lived and breathed, and tried to make it through the day. At the end of it, I would put in my headphones and walk home alone.
Presently, I got confirmed and nervously exposed myself to the haps world, and found a group I belonged to. I immersed myself in it and completely disposed of the couple friendships I had made in the world. I finally had people I really connected with, on some sort of level. I found activities I was interested in and somehow found the confidence somewhere in the depths of my broken self when talking to people of the opposite sex, or I guess just people in general. I had some real friends and discovered that I could actually make others smile! It was a perfect 4 or 5 years. I wasn't too different and I was accepted. I went ahead and left the rest of the world behind.
Years and years later, friends have moved on and/or married. Those friendships disappeared much quicker would be expected considering the strong base we supposedly had of the same spiritual belief (which never showed in any fruit of faith of my peers or myself). Looking back, things are becoming more clear to me. Recently, life got very real very quickly. Old forgotten memories of mine are rising to the surface, and now I have the mental capability to look at myself now, from then, and compare and contrast the two people. I can determine what made me the person I am today.
I've passed the honeymoon phase of the Laestadian. I'm sure many can relate to what I'm time frame I'm talking about. I was someone for a few years, and I was happy, but now that's over. That's how it is for me..I'm not saying that's how it is for you or maybe anyone you know. But I know there are others out there who feel like me. The church does not make me happy, or make sense anymore. Those ties that bind are gone; those ties being my close, temporal friendships.
Today, I can easily see the effects from my youth in the my confidence in interactions with anyone I don't know well. I see them in so many of my thought processes, I am a tortured individual..I find myself struggling to stand up for myself even today, years and years down the road, because I still deal with that irrational, but deeply rooted, fear of rejection as a PERSON. I have struggled to maintain too many noticeable values and/or opinions about things, or at least voicing them, because conflict of any form, big or small, is my enemy. I still fear being on anyone's bad side because I don't want to lose anyone, no matter how important or trivial they are to my success in life, because I had no friends for so long. But at the same time, that is no way to live your life. I'm working on changing, but it's a lot easier said than done.
There is no doubt in my mind that these traits are a direct result of those dark years spent as confused outcast from the people I spent 3/4 of my life around as a child and teen. If you've read this whole post, please take some time to think about what I've written. This is highly personal, and it took a lot for me to post this. I'm not speaking for the enemy or the devil, I know that for a fact. I'm speaking from my heart, and this has been bubbling at the surface far too long. If I went through this as a child, others must have. It is no way to grow up.. every person should have the opportunity to discover themselves as individuals from the earliest age. Some may have no problem making that happen despite a tough childhood, but we are all not that strong. I am still struggling to find out who I am and where I belong. What is my place in the world? My life is a sad and confusing puzzle, and for myself, the missing pieces do not lie within the LLC. The church concealed them early on and I have to find them now, years later, by myself.
Take a look at your family, friends, kids if you have any; or even yourself, for that matter. There have got to be people out there who are like me..these people are quietly living the worst days of their life, and it might not get any easier. For an organization that preaches so much love and forgiveness, there sure is a lot of pain below the surface. Pain, isolation, confusion, loneliness.. these are things that can cause severe depression, which can potentially lead down worse pathways, which I thankfully escaped. At what point do you put religion aside and take a look at real issues that people are having as a result of a certain way of life? I am one of those people have and continue to suffer the consequences of this, and in my opinion one is one too many, even if there are no others.
Is this the price some of us really must pay? Is this what God really wants for us? I have a really hard time believing that. Someone else in that position may have been able to take it and forget it..but others may not be so strong.
These are questions that have to be addressed. They cannot, in my opinion, be discarded as personal trials. That is so unfair to those who are struggling to even just keep their head above water..There are very simple solutions to make life much easier for these people, and they deserve that opportunity.
Of course, over those years I didn't give my situation much thought beyond some very basic feelings. How could I? My mind had been closed to the possibility of another truth since childhood, before I could even form my own ideas about what might be best for me in the long run. Now later on, I finally have some perspective. It brings tears to my eyes today when I picture this little kid, lost and scared, battling his way through school every day. I walked on eggshells for a decade of my life. No one should ever have to feel that way a result of a religious group or upbringing."