One of the beautiful qualities of living in community is the opportunity to challenge others and to be challenged to become a better person. Particularly when the community is formed under a unifying ideology, living in community can promote solidarity, unify behavior and establish group goals for members to pursue. On Baylor’s campus, many social norms and behaviors are influenced by the university’s explicitly Christian identity. While this dynamic can have positive effects like those listed above, religious group identity can often lead to silence and judgment where vulnerability and empathy should be.
For example, if a Baylor student chooses to consume alcohol and shares his experiences with his friends, their reaction can deeply influence his willingness to talk about these things in the future. If he is not met with understanding or even constructive criticism, he may further internalize the idea that his actions are an indication of his moral character. If we don’t talk about sex, alcohol, drugs and other taboo topics, they gain unwarranted power fueled by secrecy.
When individuals choose to be a part of a larger group, they often align their behaviors and actions with others in the group to affirm their identity within the larger group identity. Deviating from these behaviors can compromise one’s membership or status in the group. This increases pressure to not only behave as others in in the group behave, but to work to embody the ideal member by any means, including dishonesty and disingenuousness.
This sociological principle holds significant power in religious groups. Christianity calls its followers to work to avoid sin and to pursue goodness and virtue in all elements of day-to-day life, and, in the case of some Christian denominations, living a life of sin may lead to eternal damnation.
Beyond attending Sunday services and Bible studies, the ideal Christian lifestyle is one devoid of sin and marked by virtue. At the same time, Christianity affirms that no humans are sinless other than Jesus Christ and, depending on the denomination, his mother Mary. Nonetheless, Christianity calls for the pursuit of sanctity, and behavior deemed sinful is therefore a deviation from that ideal. In other words, sinful behavior is inconsistent with the ideal behavior member of a Christian group.
This dynamic can lead people to feel shameful of their struggles that are deemed sinful by Christian authority and to be secretive with their internal conflicts so as to not lose status or membership in the greater Christian group. Struggles with alcohol or drug consumption, sexual behavior or addiction of any kind are then left in the shadows where individuals are left to face their challenges alone.
Shame and isolation can quickly take hold of individuals who feel alone in their struggles. This lack of communication only perpetuates the issue. It’s easy to think you are the only person with “sinful” behavior in your life. In reality, everyone faces their own challenges that make them feel alone.
College is a difficult time during which students undergo significant personal development. Without the watchful eye of parents, Christian students can find it difficult to resist behaving in ways they may have been told are sinful and struggle with removing such behavior from their lives.
Rather than perpetuating this negative cycle, Baylor students should practice radical vulnerability with one another. By being open with one’s personal challenges, others will realize that everyone struggles with one thing or another.
Furthermore, discussion of issues like sex, depression, money problems and addiction separate the issue at hand from the person experiencing them, and individuals involved are able to recognize that one’s character or integrity is not necessarily bad simply due to one’s struggles or experiences.
There is an old adage regarding addiction that says, “An addict alone is in bad company.” Although addiction is more extreme than minor or occasional struggles with certain behavior, the truth remains that garnering support from surrounding community is an effective way to affect improvement in one’s life.
Baylor has already made strides in reducing stigmas surrounding some of these issues. The Beauchamp Addiction Recovery Center extends an invaluable resource to students struggling with such things and invites them to bring those issues forward and find support in the Baylor community. The Baylor Title IX office has fostered important conversations about unhealthy relationships and sexual violence. However, institutional efforts do not address the underlying issue, which is the negative cultural experiences of grappling with an issue alone. Baylor students need to be more vulnerable with their own issues and cognizant of the ways that their communication might be interpreted by others.
Though difficult, vulnerability invites members of a group into deeper community because it allows individuals to see more authentic versions of each other, leading to deeper friendship and support for everyone. Take the step to be vulnerable and encourage others when they open up to you.