Welcome back to Three-Book Third Thursday! Though I haven’t written a post like this in some time, this series is actually one of my favorite things to write. Entries like this one reflect my life in a more organic, contemplative way than any individual post might. I think that’s because books lie in my mental compost pile, so to speak, after I read them. When the message from one book start to melt together with the ideas in another, and another, it’s time to take that and use it to create a post that no one else would come up with.
Perhaps you can identify with wanting to create something no one else would. Maybe you love books, too. It could be that the title of this post intrigued you. Thank you for reading, no matter your reason for being here.
Today, I’m sharing three books that have typified the feeling of not belonging where you know you are supposed to belong: “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League,” by Jeff Hobbs; “The Reappearing Act: Coming Out as Gay on a College Basketball Team Led by Born-Again Christians,” by Kate Fagan; and “Shame,” by Greg Garrett.
In “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace,” Peace’s Yale roommate Jeff Hobbs explores Peace’s difficult childhood in a poor neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey, his subsequent years studying molecular biology at Yale, and the post-grad years that Peace spent, mostly back in Newark, before his early death. Hobbs writes a nuanced portrait of his friend. Robert Peace is neither idealized for his intelligence and abilities, nor demonized for being unable to slip free from patterns established early in his life.
Instead, Hobbs presents a sympathetic figure in Robert Peace, and walks alongside the reader to learn more about how we identify with the differing groups we all encounter in our own lives. Who, among college-educated adults, cannot recall trying to establish ourselves in a new environment during freshman year? Or trying to reestablish ties with high-school friends on weekends back home? As we move from work to church to kids’ activities to volunteering, don’t we all befriend at least one person along the way whose outlook on life is so different from our own, but whose personality clicks with ours?
Robert Peace, it seems, grew up knowing how to be part of his neighborhood in Newark without denying the fierce intelligence he possessed. At Yale, his intelligence placed him right at home among his fellow students; few at Yale, however, could understand Peace’s challenging background.
The tragedy of Robert Peace’s life, I felt, was not simply his early death, nor his wasted potential. His tragedy played out in this: Robert Peace could never be all of who he was in either of the ends of the spectrum of his life: not in poverty-ridden Newark nor in the more affluent opportunities available to Yale grads. The tragedy of Robert Peace’s life is that he could never find a middle ground.
Kate Fagan, by contrast, yearns desperately for middle ground throughout much of “The Reappearing Act.” As a member of the University of Colorado’s women’s basketball team, Fagan spent her college years trying to be a devoted Christian alongside many of her teammates while also coming to terms with the fact that she is gay. Having come through her college years, Fagan is openly out now, and her recollection of these years of dear friendship, heartrending struggle, and self-doubt bears a distinct slant toward her having experienced that being gay meant that the church – and, by extension, her Christian friends – would shun her.
However, that’s not exactly what I saw as the most important theme to me as a reader. Fagan’s story is unique in its details, but common and accessible in its scope. What I took from this story is that any of us can come to feel isolated in our struggle to pinpoint our identity. Any of us can feel misunderstood by people we love, and who love us. We can make huge mistakes along the way; Fagan describes one weekend when her parents came to visit, and in her pain and confusion, she shuts them out before they can shut her out. Her parents, not knowing of her inner struggle, become understandably hurt and angry. That particular parent-child drama played out for many of us in college, and it didn’t always have to do with sexuality.
Kate Fagan clearly belonged on the University of Colorado’s women’s basketball team. Her skill level had placed her there. Still, even in a group where she had been assured of her place, Fagan came to feel that her belonging rested on not telling much about who she was discovering herself to be.
Reading Fagan’s story brought one thing back into clear focus for me: as a Christian, I need to do my best to be kind, with “difficult” people who don’t tell me their struggles, and with my loved ones when they do. Fagan’s teammates were the only face of Jesus available to her in that moment, and she came away feeling rejected. Do I do any better than that when people open up to me, and again, not just about their sexuality? Truthfully, probably not. And yet, I hope to do better.
Doing better is one of the main themes of “Shame,” a novel by Greg Garrett. Garrett takes us into the life of John Tilden, a small-town farmer and volunteer high-school basket ball coach, who is facing down his past and his future. Tilden, having grown up in the same small town, will always be seen as part of the only state championship basketball team his high school has won.
He will also forever be seen, he feels, as the guy who got a girl pregnant in high school and had to marry her. Unfortunately for Tilden, the girl he impregnated was not the girl he loved. He and his girlfriend had broken up; when she came back to try to work it out, Tilden’s wedding was already a foregone conclusion.
Twenty years later, still married and father of three, Tilden’s almost dormant feelings for his high school sweetheart reemerge as the high school reunion – and a championship team reunion – approach. Through Tilden’s interactions with long-lost teammates, his children, and his wife, we see a life filled with daily triumphs and defeats, intentions and distractions. Tilden’s is a life that seems destined, even to him, to go off into the ditch here in mid-life.
Tilden, farming land his family has farmed for generations, knows about roots. He understands seasons, sowing and reaping, bounty and loss. And yet, despite his understanding of how he fits into a larger picture, he still yearns to break free and try something different, something more congruent with his early dreams for his life. I can understand that disconnect between head knowledge and heart yearning. Who among us hasn’t dealt with an unpleasant reality, be it diapers or bureaucracy or rush hour, and thought, “I am not cut out for this.”?
Garrett’s novel, whose ending I will not spoil for you, gives us insight into a man who, by all outward appearances, fits in better than most people in his small town. Still, he feels trapped by that belonging, which in turn creates a feeling of not belonging as much as others think he does. In the midst of that, one of the most touching aspects of the book for me was the friendship he reestablished with a teammate who had stayed in town, building up twenty years’ worth of being judged by the town for his bad choices. As the friendship flourishes, Tilden realizes that he is not the only one giving support and wise advice. I loved that Tilden was humble enough to see wisdom, no matter where it came from.
After having read these three books this month, I walked away with a keener insight into sense of belonging and place in this world. I think we all desire to feel included, wanted, accepted. On most days, we tend to receive enough affirmation to take up our tasks for the day. What I hope to do going forward is deliberately offer more off that affirmation to the people around me.