A few years ago I facilitated a faith sharing group with high school aged girls with the purpose of inviting them to reflect on their identities as young women and as people of faith. For our first activity, I asked them to answer the following question with a story from their own lives: What does it mean to be a girl?
What stories come to mind when you think of what it means to be a girl or a boy–in your family, with your friends, at your school, in the church, or in our society?
In response to this prompt, Sheila shared with us the story of her relationship with Ben, whom she started dating when she was fifteen. Sheila’s world revolved around Ben, who was older and more popular than she was. At first, dating him made Sheila feel as if she was on top of the world; all of a sudden people knew her name, and she got invited to hang out with the older students she admired. But as time went on, dating Ben became a lot of work. She ended up skipping her cousin’s sweet sixteen birthday party because Ben called to say that he missed her since he had not seen her that day. Many times, Ben gave her an ultimatum if she had already made plans with her friends for a particular night, saying, “If you really loved me, you would ditch them and come out with me.” Slowly, Sheila became more and more isolated from her family and friends.
After they had been dating for about a year, Ben suddenly broke up with Sheila. Since she had done everything she could do to please him, she did not understand how this could have happened. Feeling overwhelmed and alone, Sheila took a bottle of pills to try to escape her misery. Fortunately, her mother found Sheila in time.
After sharing her story, Sheila told our faith sharing group that she did not want to focus on her suicide attempt in our discussion that followed. What she wanted to focus on was what she had learned from the experience. Sheila had decided that her biggest mistake was not dating Ben but rather allowing her relationship with him to eclipse and isolate her from all others. In response to the question, “What does it mean to be a girl?” Sheila was clear. In many high schools, being a girl necessitates having a boyfriend, often to the detriment of other aspects of a girl’s life. She hoped that her story would awaken others in the group to the dangers of too closely associating one’s identity with a romantic relationship, since when a romantic relationship ends, a girl may feel like she has truly lost her self.
I share Sheila’s story with you this week for a few reasons. First, I think her story points to one of the central principles of Catholic social teaching, a teaching that is related to this week’s Gospel reading (Mark 10:2-12). Catholic social teaching indicates that all human beings are not only sacred but also social, meaning that we are made to be in relation with others. Sheila’s relationship with Ben isolated her from friends and family; when this relationship ended, life felt as if it was over, because, alone, Sheila quite literally felt like no one. We cannot be who we are to be as human beings alone.
In this week’s Gospel, Jesus quotes from Genesis, referring to the fact that God created males and females and that, “for this reason a man should leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.” This text also points to the social nature of human beings; we are created to be together. Certainly, the marriage relationship is a crucial one, one that the Catholic church believes can be “an effective sign of Christ in the world” when it is built on a loving foundation and commitment between two partners. (This week’s Spirit has a helpful discussion of the sacrament of marriage.)
But the second reason I share Sheila’s story is because it highlights how important it is that young people remember that a marriage relationship (or the precursor to that in a dating relationship) is not the only relationship to which we are called and within which we can express the love of God. We are called to extended familial relationships–to be sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, grandsons and granddaughters, cousins, nieces and nephews. We are called to be the best sort of friends, standing by those with whom our spirits connect. We are called to care for the poor and marginalized, both in our own communities and around the world.
It may be hard to remember this in the social world of high school, in which the pressure to date in order to feel accepted may be high. But an intimate relationship with a romantic significant other is not the only relationship that can meet our needs to be social in life, nor is the only one within which we are called to give ourselves.
In what relationships can you most be yourself? In what ways does your family know you? How is this different than how your friends know you?
What do you like most about your relationships with your family? How do these relationships support you? How do you support others through these relationships?
What do you like most about your relationships with your friends? How do these relationships support you? How do you support others through these relationships?
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