Suffering and deliverance

By Esther Mulder

esther FtF featured blogI’ve always had a sense of surrealness about my existence. I remember having these existential moments as a 7-year-old, when the questions of “Who am I? Why am I here?” overwhelmed me. My place in the world—the meaning of my existence—was an open question for me.

The question of belonging is especially poignant for foster kids. As a child, your sense of value and identity is grounded in the people closest to you. Children are vulnerable and precious—and at the mercy of the adults in their lives. The people closest to me, who were supposed to help me figure out my place in the world, sent me the message that there was nothing I could do to earn their love and acceptance; I didn’t belong with them.

And to be honest, I didn’t want to belong to them. My mother is a woman broken by her struggles. Her own childhood tragedy combined with high-pressure schooling drove her to the brink. The fallout was tremendous. My mother didn’t want me to face the pressure she had, so she went to the opposite extreme. She had no goals for me, no expectations. I remember asking her, at some point around sixth grade, if she was ok with me dropping out of high school as soon as I could. She said yes. I despaired. I didn’t want to be like her, but wasn’t sure how not to be.

Neither did I want to belong to my foster parents. There was a harshness of spirit in that house that sucked out any chance of real love or connection. I lived with my foster family from infancy to toddlerhood, had respite care over the years and went back again permanently from seventh grade until after high school graduation. I tried to earn their love; I was a straight A-student, played in orchestra, held down a job, did community service and was involved in church. Yet they seemed to think that unless they exercised distant, authoritarian control over me, I’d be a total mess. It was not a happy place, and I was hell-bent on finding a way out and forward.

In part, my drive and ambition has certainly come from this search for belonging and meaning. Since leaving my foster home, by all worldly accounts I’ve been wildly successful. I graduated from a liberal arts college with honors and accolades and close relationships with peers and professors. I joined Teach for America and spent three years teaching middle school in Jacksonville, Florida. Then somehow I landed at Harvard Law School and dedicated myself to a career in public service. Now I have my dream job as a public defender back in my hometown. None of this was planned— all of this happened because I worked hard and wasn’t afraid to take risks. I had nothing to lose. Nothing could touch the pain of my first 18 years of life.

Despite all my success, of course no achievement healed my wounds. My first year of law school was an incredibly lonely and disappointing period. I had a hard time investing in relationships—I could take all sorts of professional risks, but interpersonal risks? To open up to another person, to be vulnerable again? I didn’t want to deal with the pain of relationships gone wrong. I was used to being alone and I thought I wanted it that way.

I’m still a work in progress, but being alone with myself has forced me to confront the fear and pain in my heart. I am learning the truth of the aphorism “no man is an island.” A few years ago, I finally began to search for the answer to a question I didn’t know was still within me.

The answer has come slowly and unexpectedly. Aristotle extolled the primacy of experience over reason. My experience has taught me that nothing in this world will satisfy this longing within me. Even the moments where I am most transported, moments of communion with others and with nature, leave my heart aching with the awareness of its incapacity to truly take in this joy. The most beautiful things in this life point me towards something else. The greatest truth I have encountered is summed up in the instruction to “love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.” All good in life seems to flow from here.

Published on May 10, 2016 as part of Children’s Rights’ “Fostering the Future” campaign. The opinions expressed herein are those of the blog author and do not necessarily represent the views of Children’s Rights or its employees. Children’s Rights has not verified the author’s account.