“ Nobody loves me. Everybody hates me. I think I’ll eat some worms.”

One of my best friends in High School would frequently say, “Nobody loves me. Everybody hates me. I think I’ll eat some worms.” He would say it like he was joking, and we would laugh, but looking back and reflecting on his life, it now seems to me that he suffered from social rejection. He felt different. I never took his “joke” seriously because he was an A student, not bad looking, and had an infectious sense of humor. How could he possibly feel socially ostracized?

Have you ever felt rejected, marginalized, ostracized, bullied? How about ignored? How about “not taken seriously” or regarded with indifference?  Social rejection can take many forms. At the overt level, it may manifest as bullying (including cyber-bullying). Have you ever been singled out as being different, ugly, laughed at or scorned? Have you ever been socially marginalized because of a disease, a stutter, a cleft lip, or because of the shape of your body? You may have been rejected because of who you love or with whom you hang out. You may be a victim of xenophobic fear of the foreigner.  In the musical West Side Story, the Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks, sang, “We have a social disease.”

Ancient societies practiced social rejection as a way to protect their social group. They instituted taboos for certain people or behaviors. There were taboos on women during menstruation or childbirth. There were taboos against mourners and warriors returning from battle. Lepers were ostracized. Anyone caught eating blood would be considered unclean and put out of the community. When a disease or disaster threatened the social group, they elected a scapegoat who would be taken outside the village and sacrificed.

Today the CDC and/or governments quarantine whole populations when there is a disease outbreak—that’s isolation but not rejection. A high school wrestler told by the referee to cut his dreadlocks or he wouldn’t be allowed to compete in the wrestling match—that’s rejection. A same-sex couple not allowed to attend their High School Prom—that’s rejection. A Vietnam veteran returns to an ungrateful nation and feels shamed and humiliated for participating in a war he/she believed in—that’s rejection.

          But at the passive level, rejection may mean that people are indifferent to your existence. You don’t count. You are ignored. In an attempt to cope, you first may react with resistance or aggressive behaviors. After you learn that strategy doesn’t work, you may try humor. You may try to “crash the party” and show up where you know you may be rejected. You may hone your skills so that you make the team in spite of your race or economic class. Or you may go passive with resignation and say to yourself, “I’m used to being rejected.” “Woe is me; I think I’ll eat some worms.” At that point, you stop trying to fit in.

          Many of us grew up reading classic children’s stories about rejection. The Cinderella story taught us about rejection and the overcoming of it. The Ugly Duckling taught us how to name the pain of rejection.

And then there is the children’s book, The Velveteen Rabbit. In this story, we learned that one becomes Real when loved.  “Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out, and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

At Sunday School, we learned of the rejection of Joseph by his jealous brothers who sold him into slavery. We learned how Joseph rose from victim to powerful ruler, and in the end, those brothers who rejected him repented of their cruelty. Delving into the stories of Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Hagar and Ishmael, we learned that rejection is not just social rejection but is full of spiritual angst. Jacob’s wrestling with an angel becomes our wrestling with spiritual anxiety. These stories of family dynamics, stress and rejection are pregnant with spiritual tension.

While there is psychological and social isolation, there is also spiritual loneliness. Sometimes solitude leads to spiritual awakening. Sometimes depression leads to the “dark night of the soul” and mystical, spiritual experience. The psalmist declares, “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the Living God.” (Psalm 42:1-2)

The people of Israel suffered 40 years in the wilderness. Jesus spent 40 days in the desert, overcame temptation, and spiritually equipped himself for ministry. We learn that isolation, solitude, rejection, and struggle are fertile ground for spiritual exploration. Sometimes we need to embrace our pain to set it free.

Read more about the intersection of the emotional and the spiritual in my book: “How to Take Your Spiritual Temperature: 10 Dimensions of Spirituality—From Angst to Joy.”  www.soulrefresh.org    or  www.amazon.com/author/youngdale-alan/