Familiarity is a fast killer of ambition. The choice between where you are and where you want to be is a false one. Finding your own voice, making your own way, is scary. There are no guarantees. But constantly putting off your goals in exchange for the safety of those hugs and ata boys is not God’s plan for you. Your community exists to help you grow, but at some point the training wheels become stumbling blocks.

Why do we, all of us, find it difficult to simply be

ourselves? To be simply unique, one of a kind, and to step away from the crowd? I refuse to believe that we, as a people, lack the creativity or inventiveness to simply be unique. I also doubt we choose to be blades of grass, adopting the characteristics of every other blade around us. I believe the imitative quality of humanity is fueled by our desire to be loved. That embrace, that pat on the back, hair tousle, ata boy. To be surrounded by warmth and beating hearts who accept and embrace us. Most of us simply cannot live without these things. As a result, many if not most of us never reach the potential our lives offer, because we are unable or unwilling to move beyond the comfort community affords us. We become unwilling or unable to stand out because standing out means putting those familiar and comforting things at risk.

It amazes me how people who love us can be and often are the first people to ridicule us when we reach beyond the familiar, when we step outside the norm, stretching past our comfort zone. If I said I wanted to become a ballet dancer, there’d be howls of laughter from one end of the country to another. And that’s what kills our dreams. Not the naysayers, not our enemies or strangers—our loved ones. Our community. “Isn’t that the carpenter’s son…?” Familiarity is a fast killer of ambition. We all have ambition. What few of us have is courage. Courage requires us to be willing to fail and to fail publicly, on a grand scale. To risk ridicule and scorn in exchange for growth, for learning something about ourselves.

Like food and sex, the warmth of community goes right to the pleasure center of the brain. It is comforting, assuring. Girls want boyfriends not so much for sex but for those fleeting moments where he looks her in the eye the way mommy looked us in the eyes as children. We want hand-holding—like mommy—and constant hugs and embraces. This is why we constantly see young girls pressed up against some useless boy you know—at a glance—is just using her. Why women routinely stay with men who mistreat them. They say it’s the money, it’s not. It’s the warmth. Even disingenuous warmth—fake warmth—is worth selling our souls for. Worth turning away from God and ignoring our true potential. More than wealth or power, more than the simple satisfaction of fulfilling that which God has breathed in us, we want a hug. A pat n the back. An ata boy. We want acceptance above all else.

But we crave that acceptance from man, from human beings. God has already accepted us. God has already embraced us. God is with us always, every minute of every hour of every day. Most of us claiming to be Christians acknowledge this on an intellectual level yet still continue to live lives unworthy of that relationship because we crave human companionship and human acceptance.

As children, we develop this huge laundry list of goals—

I wanna be president, I wanna be an astronaut. As we get older, that list becomes smaller and smaller, our ambitious lower and lower. I want to be a lawyer, I want to be an editor. Into our mid to late twenties, the list has grown pathetic. I want to be my section manager. I want to be on the night shift. Why? What happened to us? We have traded in our dreams, our hopes, our ambitions, our childlike reach-for-the-stars ambition, for the comfort, the safety of community.

Millions of women, each and every day, when faced with a choice between their goals and their boo, choose Boo. The chemical reaction going on inside our brains behaves exactly like heroin addiction. We won’t leave town because this is where our friends, our family are. Any botanist will tell you, plants need ultimately to be transplanted in order to grow.

Jettisoning your friends, your family, your Boo, is often the healthiest choice you can make. Reinventing yourself, starting over, stepping out, doing the unexpected—these are all healthy choices. Afraid you’ll be lonely? You will be lonely. But that loneliness will force you to learn more about yourself. You will discover things about you you never knew, never realized, because Mama ‘Nem were always in that space, breathing the oxygen out of the room. You will make new friends but these friends will be different. These friends won’t occupy spaces that inhibit your growth. The formula will be different and the rhythms will change. You will grow. You will discover.

Discussing Elisha’s choice to follow Elijah, Matthew Henry put it this way:
Elijah found Elisha by Divine direction, not in the schools of the prophets, but in the field; not reading, or praying, or sacrificing, but plowing. Idleness is no man's honour, nor is husbandry any man's disgrace. An honest calling in the world does not put us out of the way of our heavenly calling, any more than it did Elisha. His heart was touched by the Holy Spirit, and he was ready to leave all to attend Elijah.

It is in a day of power that Christ's subjects are made willing; nor would any come to Christ unless they were thus drawn. It was a discouraging time for prophets to set out in. A man that had consulted with flesh and blood, would not be fond of Elijah's mantle; yet Elisha cheerfully leaves all to accompany him. When the Saviour said to one and to another, Follow me, the dearest friends and most profitable occupations were cheerfully left, and the most arduous duties done from love to his name. May we, in like manner, feel the energy of his grace working in us mightily, and by unreserved submission at once, may we make our calling and election sure.  —1 Kings 19 Matthew Henry's Concise Commentary on the Bible

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him. —Mark 1:14-20

Immediately. They left immediately. Fishing was the common method of earning a living along the costal towns. Leaving their work had real consequences, posed a real threat, to themselves and their families. This Man was a complete and total stranger, one Who made them no financial promises, paid them no stipend. The broader implication of this text is these fishermen were ridiculed, laughed at, derided by their wives, by family and loved ones. They dropped their nets and walked off the job to follow this Man, this Man Who likely did not have a dime in His pocket, and Who did not concern Himself about things like rent and car notes, food and shelter.

I often find myself shaking my head

at the decisions people make: gifted, amazing people, who choose not to use those gifts, who talk all this yang but who, year after year after year after year after year sit in the same emotional and intellectual space, cradled within their community—whatever that might be—and who do nothing, achieve nothing, who do not grow.

Why? Because these folks are cradled within the bosom of community—of Mama ‘Nem. Of their Church Folk relationships. Of their pastor who not only does not encourage them to grow but, in many cases, actively works against growth because the pastor needs key people to remain in important positions so his thing—the church on the corner—can function. They will not learn, will not grow because they are addicted to hugs, to back pats, to ata boys. The prospect of life without a cookie—comfort food—is daunting. And, facing a choice between our community and our ambition beyond it, most of us choose our community. We stay put. We imitate that atmosphere. We become what is the acceptable and normal good. And we never reach our potential.

The choice between where you are and where you want to be is a false one. So many of us stay in bad relationships, toxic relationships, because we fear being alone. We claim to know God, to believe in Jesus, many of us to be “Holy Ghost Filled,” but we still behave like codependents: like people addicted to people. To flesh. Not in a sensual way but addicted to the warmth of the family huddle. But, you know what? When you sit with people who have moved beyond this bondage—and that’s precisely what this is, bondage—they will tell you: having journeyed out on their own, many folks discover upon returning to the family or community that the warmth and love is still there, but they themselves have emotionally, philosophically and intellectually moved on. Coming home to visit, to engage in that love is always good, but they are no longer slaves to it, no longer addicted to it. They cannot imagine giving up the life they now live in exchange for becoming an infantilized and limited junior member of a community that loves yet nonetheless dismisses them.

Finding your own voice, making your own way, is scary. There are no guarantees. But constantly putting off your goals in exchange for the safety of those hugs and ata boys is not God’s plan for you. Your community exists to help you grow, but at some point the training wheels become stumbling blocks.

Christopher J. Priest
10 April 2011