I actually dressed like this at 11PM on warm Summer nights in Washington, D.C. Yep.
On my first day of high school, my religion teacher asked the class a single question: “What is something you hate about religion the most?” Perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer “being judged” came up a lot. However, at the time, I hadn’t experienced any of this so-called “judging,” which likely reflects the fact that I had been blessed with very loving Catholic communities when I grew up. My peers weren’t so lucky, as many of them expressed that feelings of separation from religious folk who seemed to exist in a spiritual bubble and refused to interact with broader secular culture. Little did I know that a few years later in college, I would know exactly how they felt.
Let’s fast forward to 2018. A few weeks ago, a friend of mine came up to me and informed me that some of her peers had referred to me as “hostile.” I was intrigued by this and inquired why they would associate me with such a trait. She told me, “Will. You always wear thick dark coats, have huge headphones blasting music, and walk around at 11PM wearing sunglasses and a weird hat.” At the time, I thought nothing of her remark. But upon further reflection, it dawned on me that perhaps I was subconsciously becoming more hostile. I noticed that I had started to close myself off from interacting with people often. I was definitely close with my family and inner circle of friends, but I wasn’t so certain about my treatment of others in passing. I realized I hadn’t been smiling so much, and in fact I had been complaining a lot about people behind their backs to my closer friends. I felt like I was becoming increasingly negative and cynical about the world around me. Then I started to ask myself, “How did I get this way?” To answer this question, I would like to visit a few themes that have been present throughout my college experience.
What is your stereotypical image of a devout young Catholic man? Listens to Christian rock? Locks themselves in adoration? Doesn’t know what girls are? How about fluent in Latin with a preference of Augustine and Aquinas in comparison to the Bible? Attending a Catholic college, I can understand these stereotypes very well. As a theology major, I can see truth in many of these descriptions. Coming to college, however, I didn’t seem to check any of these boxes. Even to this day, I still don’t fit this mold. Christian rock? Well, my mother loves it, but I’ve recently found myself addicted to the likes of Elliot Smith and obscure foreign Dream Pop groups. Adoration? I should definitely attend more, though you’ll more likely find me meditating by myself in my room. Girls? The stereotype I’ve come across is that if Catholics date, they’ll only date fellow Catholics. I never dated a Catholic girl until college. I do adore Augustine and Aquinas, but I love Locke and Kant just as much.
The point is that ever since I came to college, I’ve often felt out of place in my Church. I reflected on my interests, hobbies, and habits and I kept telling myself that I didn’t fit in. Theology majors, specifically, can be quite competitive. Even today, I can count on one hand the number of theology majors I consider good friends of mine. This is because every time I hung around some of the others, I didn’t feel “Catholic enough.” When I played rock on my speakers, they rolled their eyes. When I talked about my interests and hobbies, they ignored me. When I defended the likes of Nietzsche in class, I received the dirtiest looks you can imagine. If you were to ask me when I felt most disconnected from the Church as an institution, I would tell you that is was during college. Ever since freshman year, I convinced myself that I was weird and alone. In my perception my peers were afraid to leave the chapel, only knew how to play Christian music on guitar, obsessed over the names of Cardinals, and generally disliked anyone who introduced controversial opinions into conversations. Every moment I sought to express individuality, it seemed that there was someone to shove me into a corner. These were moments when I wanted to raise my hand and join the “I’ve been judged” camp.
But this all is one side of the story. I cannot deny the rejection I felt, but my reaction to all this was, to say the least, even more damaging. I decided to double down on my “weirdness” to the point where I developed some very detrimental habits. I eventually stopped caring what other people thought about me, but in return I subjected myself to a far worse mentality. I wanted a turn in the judge’s chair.
So, I put on a hat to stand out. It served as my sense of individuality in an environment that can often feel like a stream. I wanted to be special and show the world I could be Catholic but still be me. I didn’t want to be like the “mainstream Theology majors” who I thought rejected me and my weirdness. I wanted to stand out and be provocative. I wanted to start controversy and spark intense thought, even if it made people uncomfortable. And if they had a problem with what I said or how I acted, it was their fault. People became sheep to me, and I was determined to be contrarian and go against the flock, first by donning a hat. That obsessive individuality was my sin.
I wore thick coats indoors to keep me warm from the chilling realities I feared were coming my way. I am a politics and theology double major. When it comes to controversy, it doesn’t get much worse than that. I struggled with a sense of paranoia, that the whole world was out to get me. Back home in Portland, Oregon, I felt great backlash for believing in my faith. On the east coast I felt ridiculed for anything that dared contradict the status quo. I reasoned that if my fellow young Catholics couldn’t accept me, then I could use the extra warmth. So, I wore black coats to keep me warm against a world that I thought hated me. This self-pity was my sin.
One of my favorite songs is “The Fool on the Hill” by The Beatles. The song depicts a man who spends his time watching the world spinning around him. I wore sunglasses to be that man. Every person who walked by me was an innocent soul I judged as my world spun around me. The best part was that they couldn’t tell I was doing it. I became exactly what I had feared. I became the judgmental Catholic that my highschool friends had warned about. This self-righteousness was my sin.
Lastly, my headphones: the pinnacle of my self-imposed isolation. They were the final brick in my wall. They were my escape. I didn’t have to listen to the politics of the day and the gossip that floated through the campus. I didn’t have to respond to a single “fake” “How are you?” that came my way. I didn’t have to listen to anyone. This escape from reality was my sin.
I did not set out wearing such accessories with the intention of becoming so hostile. I think it is amazing that our daily habits can truly reflect our perception of the world. Everything I wore encompassed a grim reality I had been engaging with for quite some time. So, when my friend informed me of how I came across, I was initially surprised. Now obviously there isn’t anything wrong with wearing hats, sunglasses, dark coats, etc. In fact, now that it’s winter, I definitely still don these articles of clothing, though I have recently pledged myself to be more active in my engagement with others. What was actually wrong was my approach to why I placed so much comfort in these accessories. When I stopped walking around with sunglasses, I realized how good it felt to smile at people again. Taking off my coat helped me to feel the cool breeze and relax more. Again, I still wear all these things, but in moderation, accompanied with an appreciation for how they can enhance my interaction with the world God has blessed me with.
So, what are the takeaways from this? Catholics: don’t be afraid of weird people. The other day, I met up with an agnostic friend of mine from Oregon. I talked to her about how faith should interact with culture to find beauty in every person’s unique abilities and personality. At the end of the conversation, she remarked, “You really aren’t like other Catholics I’ve met.” To me, this scenario reaffirms that I’m not alone in feeling isolated from the faith. The difference is that rather than leave, I insisted on sticking around, stubbornly and proudly lording my weird habits and ideas over others as if purposely trying to evoke reactions from them.
I feel like young Catholics today struggle with authenticity. We find ourselves trapped between conformity to Catholic social expectations and an obligation to our own talents and individuality. It’s funny because back home in weird Portland, Oregon, I felt out of place for being religious, and here on a Catholic campus I often feel too weird. I know I’m not the only one who struggles with this dichotomy, and it’s very easy to fall in the trap of self-pity. With enough isolation, this will inevitably lead to self-righteousness, judgment, and even wrath. So, my fellow “weird Catholics,” know that you aren’t alone. It is okay to feel this way, but please be careful with how you express your responses.
On the flip side, as a Church, we are charged with the heavy task of being open and welcoming to others. The fact that so many secular friends of mine felt exactly how I did in a Catholic environment speaks volumes about the Church’s approach of recruitment and retainment. I gave myself enough criticism for my negative response to my situation, but it is just as important for the Church to become self-aware of how it can often be its own worst enemy.
Pope St. John Paul II wrote extensively about the balance of individuality and conformity in his The Acting Person. It is honestly one of my favorite documents I have read, and I highly recommend it. In it, he states that this struggle between being ourselves and fitting in is a common experience that all societies struggle with. It’s important to reflect on where we fall on this scale, in order to recognize our weaknesses. As for me, I think I’ll take off my sunglasses and coat, and turn the music down a bit to interact with the world and see the face of Christ in others.