I was in Japan, walking toward the sunset above Lake Biwa, with a sticky rock in my hand. Senior year of high school I joined Teen Advisors, a Christian-based organization committed to helping freshmen handle stress, problems, and issues they might face in high school.
Every fall, there’s a Teen Advisors retreat, and at that retreat, there were speakers who spoke about different issues. We were all instructed to carry around a tube sock that weekend, and if the issue the speaker talked about was something you struggled with, you could go up to the front and put rocks in your giant tube sock. One of the speakers talked about comparing yourself to others, which was the first time I realized I had been doing that for years up to that point. I went up to the front and put a bunch of rocks in my giant tube sock. The last night at the retreat, at Camp Lee in Alabama, we all met around a bonfire, spoke what was on our hearts and what we learned, and then all together, we threw our rocks into the lake.
That year, I ended up winning an essay contest that year that allowed me to attend a language school in Kyoto, Japan, for one month the summer before college. That in itself is another story, a huge blessing, and a dream come true. So here I was, in the summer after my senior year, exploring Kyoto and the surrounding area by myself every day after class, before returning to my host family for dinner.
In my last week there, I traveled an hour and half by train away to Hikone, a town with a famous castle located next to Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest lake. I never felt more disconnected from “home” – no one in the world knew where I was at this point in time. It was a thrilling adventure, but I felt isolated and exposed at the same time. Perhaps it was that fear that put me in a weakened state, but for some reason, something really got to me. A gang of elementary school-aged boys didn’t attack me, they were just goofing off across from me on the train. They didn’t interact with me, but watching them made me self-conscious and think, “Why have I never been that way?”
I felt girly, and not boyish like them. I was home-schooled in elementary school because my dad was in the Army and we moved often. I had friends growing up, but in that moment, I felt like I never did.
I didn’t have that many friends because I didn’t go to school with classrooms of kids my age. And instead of a competitive, rowdy trouble-maker, I was more of a creative, imaginative, polite kid. I didn’t like soccer because you had to “steal” the ball. I liked baseball alright because I liked pretending to throw imaginary Pokéballs while mindlessly standing in the outfield.
There are different kinds of people, which is totally fine and good, but because I wasn’t like those Japanese boys on the train when I was their age, I felt less-than, lonely, and sad about my personality, questioning my own masculinity and identity as a man.
I started comparing myself to other guys my age back at home, about how I wasn’t as athletic as they were, or as manly as they were. The last point on my to-see list was Lake Biwa – straight ahead according to the map I had – straight ahead on a long sidewalk pointing right toward the setting, summer sun. Because of the sun’s brightness and my discouragement, I looked down as I walked.
There were no pieces of trash, no cracks in the sidewalk, nothing but pristine walkway– until I saw a single rock. I picked it up, and it was sticky. I thought about how ugly it was, and how it shouldn’t feel sticky. It grossed me out, and I thought to myself that I hated that rock. Then, I remembered the rocks I threw into the lake at Camp Lee. I kept it in my fist and kept walking, ready to throw the ugly thing into Lake Biwa with all my strength as if it were an imaginary Pokéball, and most importantly to renew my vow to not compare myself to others.
The edge of the lake was more like the edge of the ocean. High winds and waves hit the concrete barrier between land and lake. A highlighted haze was a screen on the horizon, and I wondered if I could see the other side on a clear sunset.
It felt great to renew my resolution, and I started to feel better. I was back home in about two hours, had dinner with my host family, and went to the bathroom afterwards. In the bathroom, there was a daily calendar, with little drawings of manga-style monks and handwritten Japanese sayings. Out of the 28 days I was there, I could only read two or three of the messages. But when I looked up at this message, I almost couldn’t believe it. After double-checking the verb on my phone’s dictionary, I translated its message: “Do not compare yourself to others.” The Bible says, “Don’t let your heart be troubled,” and for me, a big way to do that is to not compare myself to others.
I am a child of God, and He loves me just the way He made me – my asymmetrical eyelids, my dry chicken skin, my unique interests and talents, and my kind and gentle heart. God spoke that message to me at Lake Biwa, and three years later, whenever I go to a lake, I throw an ugly rock in it and renew my promise to not compare myself to others. I haven’t come across many other sticky rocks, but if I do, I throw it extra hard and wash my hand clean afterwards.