Last weekend I attended my 30-year high school reunion. Reunions of any kind…classes, families, organizational, etc….have always been sort of strange to me. You gather with a bunch of people with whom you have some connection but rarely see, catch up on what everyone’s been doing since the last time you all got together, and then scatter again until the next reunion rolls around.
High School reunions have their own particular kind of strangeness, though, especially if, like me, you come from a small town where the school is the nexus of the life of the community. To a large degree, the people you graduated with were more than just schoolmates. They were the people you grew up with; the people with whom you learned not only academic lessons, but life lessons. The people you played Little League baseball with, went to Boy Scout camp with, attended church with. Your families got together for dinner and card games, or met randomly in the grocery store and spent hours in conversation. Summer afternoons were spent at the swimming pool or in the county park, tossing a frisbee or shooting hoops. Winter evenings saw improptu trips to the bowling alley or the Pizza Hut down the road.
St. Marys, WV, was a place where kids did more than attend school together. We did life together. We learned love and trust and certainty and forgiveness, fear and cynicism and anger and doubt, with each other and from each other. We laughed and cried with each other, we dated each other, we got in trouble with each other. And then we drifted apart into the wide world, where we created new relationships based on the lessons we had learned from those childhood relationships. Some stayed put and raised their own families in much the same environment and the same ways we were raised. Others traveled far and moved frequently, setting down roots too distant to reach our hometown very often.
But wherever we landed, we learned much of what we know about how to exist on this planet from the group of people we grew up with and graduated with. Our influence on one another was and is virtually immeasureable. In counteless ways, we gained our identity in those times with those people.
And so when we come together for our reunions at the obligatory 5-year intervals, there are a couple of distinct social and interpersonal dynamics that come into play.
The first is the one where we almost literally turn back the clock. We see each other through 18-year-old eyes, remembering the times spent together, re-telling stories of our great adventures of adolescent discovery, and in many ways picking up exactly where we left off.
The second dynamic is a bit more complicated. It’s the one where we realize that the person sitting across the table from us or sharing a beer with us is not the same person we knew 30 years ago. And then we realize that we are not the same either. We have lived almost two full lifetimes since we knew each other. We have been molded by different experiences, different environments, different circumstances. We have shared both triumphs and tragedies with others who have gained importance in our lives while the kids we grew up with have diminished in our memories.
It’s the tension in those two dynamics that make reunions strange for me.
On the one hand, we all want the people we grew up with to think we have found success in life. It is hard not to fall to the temptation to embellish, whether in our clothing, our mannerisims, or what we choose to reveal about the current state of our lives. Our class has never been particularly prone to that kind of behavior, but I’m sure over the years we’ve all indulged ourselves a little bit…probably less out of a desire to impress people than out of a desire not to disappoint them.
On the other hand, though, we all want to be known for who we are…especially among the people who had such a strong influence in shaping us. And so even in the embellishments and indulgences, we try awkwardly to reflect the real us, the person we have become, the person who grew out of those 12 years of shared existence.
As I made my way around the riverboat where we had our reunion dinner, visiting with old friends, meeting and re-acquaitning myself with spouses, I tried to listen closely to what my former classmates were saying. Not so much the words that came out of their mouths, but what they were really saying. And I noticed something remarkable.
It seems that once we cut through the initial phase of rekindling relationships, and through the secondary phase of realization, we hit a third phase that was both heartbreaking and beautiful.
I noticed that, even in 30 years of separation, we are all somehow united in our brokenness. Whether it was failed relationships, job losses, struggles with kids and stepkids, health problems, or deaths of loved ones, it seemed everyone was carrying some baggage about something in life that wasn’t quite right. It wasn’t complaining or self-pity, and it most often wasn’t shared in all the bloody details. It was just an openness to speak out the fact that life is life, that sometimes things suck, but we’re still in there doing the best we can.
Maybe we’re all just getting old enough that we don’t need to BS each other anymore. Or maybe we realized that even though we are now complete strangers in many ways, we once shared a piece of this life together that was real and still connects us across time and space.
It may sound strange to say that I find being united in brokenness to be beautiful. But it was a stark reminder to me that none of us has to be alone. Those who seem to have it all still have crap in their lives. And those whose life seems to be crap still have hearts and love. And we all have a deep desire to be redeemed in the midst of it all. To be united through it so that we can experience something better despite it all.
I am reminded of the story in John 21 where, after seeing Jesus in his post-resurrection glory, the disciples are gathered together, wondering what to do, trying to figure out what it all meant. And Peter decides to go fishing. To reconnect to something from his past, to something real, something that once defined his identity. And Jesus shows up. And the disciples’ choice is whether to continue searching for their identity on their own or to look to the risen Christ to define them. To cut through their hopelessness and unite them in something real, even in the midst of their doubt and pain.
I told somebody the other day that I felt like I had more significant, honest conversations during that 3-hour class reunion than I’ve had in church in the past 5 years. Now maybe that says something about my approach to church that I need to re-examine, but I think it says something bigger about our ability to simply encounter people in the reality of life, in the honesty of our circumstances, and to simply say, “There’s hope. I know it because I’ve found it. And yes, sometimes life still sucks, but there’s hope. There’s hope because there’s love.”
My prayer for all of my classmates from the Class of 1981 is that somehow, in the midst of it all, across the years and miles that separate us, we will always allow our hope to connect us. To each other. To the world around us. To the love that unites us and redeems us all.
Godspeed, my friends! Looking forward to our 35th!!