Outside the Box: Becoming a Social Outcast

Article by Jeanne Tessier, Edited by Dee DeWitt


When my marriage ended 16 years ago, my friendship network underwent drastic upheaval…


Some of those I’d thought of as friends who’d support me through the terrible transition of coming spousally-unglued backed away with alarming alacrity.  Colleagues whose offices were eight feet away walked by my office door without saying hello; friends who used to invite me places didn’t any more.  It seemed my phone stopped ringing, although a faithful few stayed close at hand and unexpected people I hadn’t thought of as loyal friends stepped up to see me through.


One day a colleague of mine asked me what it was like to divorce and I said I’d not expected to become a pariah such that people fled from my company.  She replied that she understood completely how that could happen because every time she looked at me she realized that “divorce” could happen to her and she didn’t like to think about it, so it was easier to avoid me.  I was grateful for her candor.  In time I built a new network of friends.


A year ago, with great heartache, I realized that I could not in conscience remain any longer in the faith tradition I was raised in, had returned to as an adult, and had been deeply immersed in for many years…


I have many friends inside the faith tradition and in the two individual faith communities I’d been part of in the past 20 years.  I love those two communities, but I could no longer stand in the larger tradition whose actions and policies I’ve struggled with for many years.  In the aftermath of this decision and action, I realized I’d become a pariah once again.


This time it seems my stepping outside the box of a faith tradition troubles people deeply.  Friends who themselves hadn’t been to church in all the years I’ve known them suddenly were anxious and upset that I had no “faith” and wasn’t attending church anywhere.  Individual members of the faith community I was in when I left the tradition continue to tell me I need to come back, that everything is fine now, even though the policies and practices of the tradition I left have changed not at all.  A dear friend in the tradition clearly thinks (although speaking it indirectly) that I have fallen out of the hands of God and into the hands of darkness.  People who have no church of their own keep suggesting churches I should join.  The responses of many clearly suggest that they have an inexplicable but firm desire for me to pick another tradition and get on with it.  I tried to explain to one of them recently that asking me to do that now is like asking someone just coming out of a lifelong marriage to hurry up and start dating again.


I can’t.


I have no idea where my spiritual journey is taking me, but I know that I am doing what I need to do, being who I need to be, and resting in not-knowing, but many of those around me are clearly unable to believe that I could stand outside all faith traditions right now and be healthy and strong.


In life, when one thing changes, everything changes… The beating wings of a butterfly creating a hurricane.  So it is with me…


Having left my faith tradition suddenly made keeping my job as a hospital chaplain much more difficult.  Everyone wants to know where you stand religiously – what are you? – when you approach times of spiritual crisis.  And illness almost always triggers a spiritual crisis.  I had no answer to the question and I wasn’t about to lie.  Colleagues wanted me to find another faith tradition fast and offered advice as to what I should call myself in the meantime.


To be a professional chaplain, one must be endorsed by a particular faith tradition, so in order to maintain my certification I would need to find one.  My patients’ parents (I worked at a children’s hospital) all wanted to know what I was; and in truth what I was and am is a seeker after my own truth, my own deepest knowing and understanding of who I am in relationship to the Divine.


Needless to say, this is not a satisfactory answer.  So, in the course of the year, I came to realize that I could not be a chaplain any longer.


Now I’ve entered the ranks of the “ungainfully employed.”  At the age of almost old enough to retire, I no longer receive a paycheck, I have no medical insurance, and I still don’t have enough cash on hand to make the next mortgage payment and pay the bills for the month ahead.  I’m a writer, artist and teacher and am hoping to cobble together a life that matches who I am, but by leaving a job, I’ve now entered a whole new class of pariah-hood.


“What are you doing?”  “What are you going to do?”  “How can you just walk away from medical benefits?”  I hear these questions all the time.  (And, unspoken but clearly indicated, “What is wrong with you?”)


In a culture where what we do is the quintessential thing, in the eyes of many others I’ve become a “do-nothing.”  I’m busy every day, yet none of my busyness has credence, because I’ve now stepped outside the box of having a real job.  I am now “once, twice, three times” (not a lady, but) a pariah.


The social order demands that we have boxes or walls we fit neatly inside of…


I am trying to find a way now to live and to be without walls (although I’d kind of like to keep the walls of my house around me) – to be solely and deeply attuned to the whispering of the Divine in the ear of my soul.


To do so creates within one’s self what Dorothy Day described as “the long loneliness.”


Until this past year, I’ve never really understood how deep and relentless are the demands of communities and cultures to conform, to walk in step, to keep the beat.  How ironic that pariahs were the beaters of drums.  I am reminded of Thoreau:  “If a man (sic) loses pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured, or far away.”


Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. The virtue in most request is conformity.  Self-reliance is its aversion.  It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson


This article was published inThe Oates Journal, an onlineprofessional journal published by the Wayne E. Oates Institute to address issues of spirituality, ethics, and health for pastoral care givers and health care professionals.  The Wayne E. Oates Institute is a learning community advancing collaborative, compassionate, and integrative care.  Membership consists of professional and lay caregivers in the fields of religion, nursing, pastoral care and counseling, medicine, social work, and therapy.  For more information, visit www.oates.org.


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Posted on 17 March, 2010 in Career, Finance & Family, Spirituality
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