In seventh grade, the worst 15 minutes of my day were the first 15 minutes. It was the moment when I got off the school bus and faced the challenge of finding a group of boys to hang out with until the bell rang. It was a high stakes game of fitting in and I was usually losing.
Outside the building were circles of kids standing around talking, reflecting their places in the social hierarchy. There was the popular crew, the druggies, the “trashy” kids, the smart girls, the “band nerds,” and the handful of African American kids in our ultra-white southern school. But there was one more group.
There were the kids with no group at all, the ones who sat on benches looking down or pretending to do homework. I was a solid candidate for that group but I couldn’t bear to live in social isolation, so I shot for the stars: I tried to fit in with a group of boys who were moderately popular, pretty smart, and maybe in the choir.
My efforts were met with abysmal results.
These sort-of-cool boys stood in an unbroken circle that was just big enough for about eight people. Certain boys could walk up and be granted instant passage into the circle; but the group would promptly lock the circle back into place.
Occasionally a boy could work his way into the circle by finding a narrow opening and edging himself inside, but I was not one of those boys. Usually, I stood on the edge of the circle distractedly talking with another outsider, hoping for my chance to get in. And finally, that chance came one morning. There was a slight opening in the circle and I was one of only two boys vying for the spot.
I eased my foot into the opening and moved forward, but I was immediately thwarted when one of the insiders saw what I was doing, pushed my foot aside, and locked me out. That was the morning I gave up and decided to just hang out with some friendly girls who were in the band.
I wish I could say that was my last encounter with unwelcoming inner circles but it wasn’t — we’ve all experienced them from childhood to adulthood. Sometimes it’s the boss’ favorites at work, the cliquish soccer moms at the park, the board of elders at church, or the Facebook friends who only interact with other popular Facebook users.
There are the married people at church who don’t invite the singles, and the singles who don’t invite married people if they have kids. It’s the Republicans who can’t stand the Democrats; and the CNN fans who look down on the Fox News fans.
You can’t get away from it.
C.S. Lewis called it “the inner ring.” He said, “I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the [Inner] Ring and the terror of being left outside.”
Unfortunately, our fixation with the inner ring will make us slaves to a circle that has no lasting value. Lewis says:
“Unless you take measures to prevent it, this desire is going to be one of the chief motives of your life. … If you do nothing about it, if you drift with the stream, you will in fact be an ‘inner ringer.’ I don’t say you’ll be a successful one; that’s as may be. But whether by pining and moping outside Rings that you can never enter, or by passing triumphantly further and further in — one way or the other you will be that kind of man.”
We need to identify the inner rings that make us feel privileged and also notice the resentment we feel toward people inside rings we’ll never break into. Either way, when we fixate on inner rings from the inside or the outside, we make ourselves beholden to a small world that constricts our ability to love others (and ourselves).
In Romans 12:16 says: “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.” Who is “lowly” to you? Who does your tribe look down upon? Who are the people who have no place in your “inner ring”?
God is calling us to abandon our inner rings, our cliques, and our exclusive social circles. We were made for more, others were made for more. If Christ died to break down the wall between us and Him, surely we can make the effort to break down the walls between us and others.
You know what the real problem is with inner rings? They’re simply too small for God’s boundless love. Find your place in His inner ring and invite others to join you. There will always be space in it for you and everyone else.
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