One of the easiest ways to get derailed from your calling is to become someone you didn't want to become by saying yes to the wrong things and no to the right things.
In my experience, people are more familiar with what other people think and believe than they are with their own thoughts and beliefs. They often fail to realize that every time you submit your will to someone else's opinion of what you should like or who you should be, a part of you dies. It takes courage to truly be yourself and think your own thoughts. To do this, you have to be differentiated.
Differentiation refers to a person's capacity to choose his or her own life's goals, beliefs, and values—apart from the pressures around them. Differentiation involves the ability to hold on to who you are and let go of who you are not. It means that we might not agree, but we can still stay connected.
When I was growing up, children usually didn’t play a part in defining their own life goals, values, and beliefs. Values came from our culture, the school, our families, etc. Others decided what was best for us, and most of us followed blindly. Most of the people instructing us never took the time to determine what they wanted or even believed.
The advice we received might have been valid, but there was no moment during the maturation process into adolescence and adulthood when we could decide whether that advice fit our unique lives. It was almost as if young people were robots, doing the routine and expected thing.
Part of growing up is taking the time to decide on your own goals, values, and beliefs. It’s been said that “you can take a person out of the ghetto, but you can’t take the ghetto out of a person.” Not true! While your upbringing played a huge role in who you have become, it doesn’t have to determine the kind of future you can have. To subdue the ghetto spirit takes hard work and might involve being misunderstood by those around you. At this point in my life, my integrity is more important to me than being understood.
When social pressure tempts me to choose life goals or values that are not consistent with who I am, I remember my own role models, like Nelson Mandela. When Mandela saw the unfairness and oppressiveness of the apartheid regime of South Africa, he joined the struggle to put an end to it. The South African government did not take long to take note of this bold attorney; they arrested him and sentenced him to life in prison. Mandela spent the next 27 years imprisoned, until his release in 1990. He was deprived of his right to be with his family and friends. He lost more than two decades of his life. He was kept in isolation, and his human rights were violated. He had every right to be angry.
Mandela could have sought revenge, but when he got out of prison, he preached reconciliation and forgiveness. He genuinely felt that the white minority was an enemy to him and the struggle for his people—but he knew that if he did not forgive and work for reconciliation, his country would be in a constant state of violence and bloodshed. Mandela’s mission became to work for a democratic, non-racial, non-sexist country, and that had to be done by eliminating all the negative and violent intentions in his soul and focus on the redemptive work.
Nelson Mandela is one of the strongest leaders I have ever seen. One of the most important aspects of his strength was his ability to define his goals, values, and the way he would go about pursuing them. He was opposed, not only by the South African government but also by people who shared his interests. Yet Mandela was able to stick to his guns because he was differentiated. The example of his life gives me strength and hope to land on my convictions after serious deliberation and to be willing to pay the price to follow through on them.
Find models of people who decided that they would be and do what they were motivated to be and do from an internal position. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s nonviolent resistance to racism, specifically segregation, in the South is another example. Mother Teresa demonstrated her differentiation with her request for exclaustration—a release from her vows as a nun in order to serve the poor of Calcutta, India. These individuals pursued their own life goals and defined their personal values and beliefs. This doesn’t mean that they didn’t have counselors and advisors helping them through it. It doesn’t mean that there weren’t times when they had to re-evaluate things or admit that they were stuck, or even wrong. It does mean that the final call for their life was theirs.
I believe that most people who are living for less than they were made for are in that position because of the boxes they've been placed in by themselves, society, or their culture. People who spend an extended period of time in prison often become “institutionalized.” An institutionalized individual is unable to think or act independently of the institution they are in. Unfortunately, being institutionalized is not isolated to prison. A job, a school, a corporation, a culture, and even a family can institutionalize you. This doesn't always mean the institutions are bad, but it’s unhealthy when you are defined by the institution’s rules and have lost the knowledge and courage to step out and choose your own path.
To develop the strength to transcend that world and live out your calling, you have to differentiate. You would have to develop your own compass and not defer to others in the way you were taught. If you’re going to be true to yourself, you must start by making one decision at a time as you pursue the life goals that you define.
Exercise – What Commandments Do You Live By?[i]
In light of the commentary on being differentiated, I want to invite you to do an exercise to concretely name the commandments from your culture or family of origin and then name your own rules for your life. This tool is here to help you learn to break the power of past unhealthy habits and behavior patterns by first identifying them. You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge. Culture is learned, and it can be unlearned in time.
I think this is one of the most valuable exercises in this guide. Our families of origin are probably the most influential group we will ever belong to. Sometimes, we have to do the work of going back to go forward with more confidence and determination to live out a new way, stand our ground for what we believe in, and change the culture for the better.
As you complete this exercise, try to separate what you think from what you have been told to believe. It takes courage to denounce the unhealthy ways of your family and culture, so it's important to stay committed to what you believe, even if you are met with parental, societal, or cultural disapproval. I want to guard against oversimplifying things, so I’ll start with commandments to give you an example of the exercise.
Unhealthy Inherited Commandments[ii]
Family: You owe your family until you die. You have a duty to family and culture that supersedes everything else. Never share your family’s “dirty laundry” (flaws and problems), even if unhealthy and/or abusive things are taking place in the family.
Feelings: Feelings are not important. You are not allowed to have feelings. You can react based on how you feel without processing your emotions.
Attitudes about culture: Don’t have friends from outside of your culture. Our culture is better than other cultures. Don’t marry someone from outside your culture.
Money: The more money you have, the more security you have. The more money you have, the more important you are. Money and wealth prove you “made it.”
Expressing anger and conflict: Anger is a bad and dangerous thing. Sarcasm is a way to show anger. Explode in anger to make a point.
Relationships: Don’t trust anyone. They will hurt you. Never let yourself be vulnerable.
Grief and loss: Sadness is a sign of weakness. You are not allowed to be depressed. You need to get over losses quickly.
Conflict: Avoid conflict at all costs. Loud, angry, constant fighting is normal. Don’t get people mad at you. Physical altercations are prime options to resolve a conflict.
Sex: Don’t talk about it. Men can be promiscuous. Women have to be chaste. Women are only worthy of love if they are worthy of sexual desire.
Success: You must attend the “best schools” and make a lot of money. You must get married and have kids.
Family: Be thankful for the family I was raised in. Leave the dysfunctional ways of my family. Learn how to wisely live out the values I’ve chosen for myself while honoring the positive legacy of my family. Men have to respect and protect women and children.
Feelings: Pay attention to your emotions as a gift from God. Prayerfully and carefully think about your feelings before you act on them. Experience your emotions in order to love others well.
Attitudes about culture: No one culture is superior or inferior to another. Every culture has a redemptive gift to offer the world. There should be no sexism, racism, classism, or ethnocentrism in the family of God.
Money: We are stewards of God’s money. We are to live below our means so we can be generous to others.
Expressing anger: Don’t let the sun go down on your anger. Take time to discover the source of your anger. Use your anger to assert yourself instead of stuffing or projecting it. Explore the fear or the sadness behind your anger, because anger is usually a secondary emotion.
Relationships: Repair ruptured relationships to the degree that you can control. Receive God’s love in order to love others well. Respect people’s individuality.
Grief and loss: Pay attention to your losses and wait on God for understanding and comfort. Your losses are important to God. Grieving losses, instead of ignoring them, leads to maturity and compassion.
Conflict: Learn how to fight “clean” (See chapter 35). Allow God to mature you through conflicts. Don’t run from or avoid conflicts, but use them to negotiate differences. Choose to resolve things peacefully. Take the time to cool down and think deeply before engaging in conflict resolutions.
Sex: You are to preserve the preciousness of sexual intimacy for marriage. Do not use people or let yourself be used.
Success: Learn from your mistakes. Become the person God intends and do His will. Live in brokenness, depending on God, and honor your deepest values. Put all your effort into becoming an asset to your community and influencing the world for the better.
The great news is that your family of origin doesn't determine your destiny. To a certain extent, your beliefs and choices do. You have control!
Take this time to reflect and think about what kind of life you want to create for yourself.
Attitudes about culture
Expressing Anger and Conflict
Grief and Loss
At the end of your life, God is not going to ask you why you were not your mother or your father, or why you were not like the pastor or your other “successful” friends. He will ask you why you were not you and why you tried to live out someone else’s life. Let’s begin to organize life so that the answer will be that you were true to yourself.