Estimated reading time: 5 minutes, 10 seconds.
On a fateful day in June 2011 over 10,000 of my Christian family, friends, and peers abandoned me. In one day. My social networks and the Christian Arts conference which provided my income became a wasteland.
Of course, they say I abandoned them, and perhaps they are right. After all, I had sinned. And as time passed, to add insult to injury, my former tribe began to realize much to their dismay, that I had run away to what turned out to be a much happier and prosperous life.
Of all the parables, the story of the Prodigal Son is perhaps the most beloved by Christians…and the most ignored. The parable does not explain exactly why the prodigal son left home, but we do know this: he no longer wanted to live (or was no longer welcome) in his community. The son was sick and tired of living in the old ways—instead, he wished to try a new way of life.
The son eventually came to realize his loss of belonging and though his return was imperfect—being motivated by fear of continued misery rather than being driven by love for his former way of life—he came back home. The father sees his son coming from a far way off and runs out to greet him, kiss him, and tell his servants to prepare a feast for his son.
Though his son left home, the father never stopped loving him. The son’s request for his inheritance implies he did not wish to return home, yet the father yearned for the return of his son. And though the son expressed imperfect remorse, it was met with perfect forgiveness from the father.
It’s easy to focus on what the prodigal son’s father does; less obvious is what he does not do. The prodigal son’s father does not say: “You know, you left us; and unless you come back in sincere shame and repentance and beg forgiveness from all you have sinned against and mend your ways, you are not welcome back!”
The father granted unrequested and unconditional forgiveness. I’m happy for the prodigal son—but unfortunately, that is not what happened to me and to many others who are modern-day prodigals.
Thankfully, my Mom, Dad, and siblings loved me unconditionally, forgave me, and welcomed me back to the home of my childhood. But to this day, over eight years later, I have been abandoned by my nuclear family, by my former pastors, by all but a handful of my closest friends, by thousands of members of the churches I had served, and by tens of thousands in my social networks.
The psychosis of their hero worship had turned their adoration and admiration into hatred and loathing. I had lost my tribe—my sense of belonging.
I would walk down the streets of our little utopian right-wing evangelical town called Franklin, Tennessee and those “Christian” people would coldly turn their heads and act as if I did not exist. I was invisible. I no longer belonged with their kind. I had been caught in adultery, and far too proper to cast stones, they merely declared me unfit and dead to their world. To be rendered invisible is worse than being condemned.
So, how does one survive when one’s tribe abandons them? In retrospect, eight years later, here are ten things that seemed to help me the most:
1) Get Help—From a wise guide. A qualified therapist. Not a church counselor or coach. Only a professional psychologist is equipped with the knowledge to gently perform surgery and then administer chemotherapy to an emotional and spiritual cancer this life-threatening.
2) Understand Who You Really Are—Find the four most important aspects of your being. Determine your most essential need emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, and physically.
3) Slowly Put the Pieces Back Together to Form a Whole—Carl Jung’s writing’s about how he utilized the Mandala on a regular basis to evaluate his life helped me begin the journey to wholeness.
4) Form a New Philosophy of Life—This formation naturally begins to happen as you determine the four essential aspects of your life and piece them together to form a whole. There will be eureka moments of meaning and purpose that will emerge and guide your quest.
5) Slowly Begin to Build a New Tribe—Choose new relationships carefully. And restore old ones circumspectly. Take your time.
6) Do not Tolerate Shame in Any Circumstance—If family members or old friends demand guilt or shame to reunite—do not do it. There is no room for shame in healthy relationships and tribes.
7) Establish a Criteria for New Relationships—Learn what you need to enjoy a friendship. What qualities are life-giving rather than life-draining? Those requirements (for me) are that a person is congenial, curious, and intelligent. If one of those aspects is missing in a person—then I do not expend energy into beginning, continuing or restoring a relationship. All of us will have different criteria.
8) Once You are Healed, Begin to Help A Small Number of People Meaningfully—For me at this point in my journey, I’ve realized my capacity to help is still minimal. One, two, but no more than twenty people. My career in the ministry almost killed me. It was only after my crash that I realized I had not been called (nor was I equipped) to help the entire world—instead just a few people in my sphere of influence.
9) Expect 1% From New Relationships—Most people desire 100% from their new relationships and are disappointed when they receive much less. If we start out hoping for only 1%, imagine our surprise when they give back 2% or even more.
10) Be Who You Are—No matter what your former tribe says or demands, don’t let them mold you into who they want you to be. “Being Who I Am” has become a life mantra and pursuit for me. In fact, I made a really cool video about it. It is available on YouTube.
I intend to say and write much more about these ten ways to survive when your tribe abandons you. Especially steps two, three, and four. Watch for them.
I hope this post helps anyone who has experienced a loss of belonging.