It arrived in my inbox this morning. I eagerly clicked open a message so uniformly succinct that it could only mean one thing--my first rejection in seeking an agent for my new novel, Kin. It ended politely enough, wishing me well, and I told myself, as I laced up my running shoes and set off on a jog, That wasn’t so bad.
Perhaps it wasn’t so bad, because just a few days ago I read the personal account of a successful writer who queried 100 agents before finding one who would accept her work. Enduring rejection is a numbers game, I told myself. If I put myself out there enough--myself, my work, my heart--someone’s bound to say yes. I could easily plow through 100 submissions, cranking them out in my daily grind, if I could also be assured the effort would pay off with the right agent.
But that’s not how rejection works. Our emotional triggers and habitual reactions don’t rest patiently on the shelf until, with the benevolent haze of hindsight, we can examine them through the lens of hard-won success. We experience rejection in real time, often on the heels of taking a risk that exposes the true desire of our heart. Rejection stings long before we know what the end will be. In this cultural moment, with the Pavlovian ping of facebook “likes” echoing in our ears, we are increasingly told to avoid or bury the pain of rejection. That, or fashion it into a weapon.
What about that? What if everything coming at us that looks like a weapon could be traced back to the sting of rejection? What if toxic masculinity could be cured simply by teaching our children how to bear rejection with their dignity intact? What if the President of these United States had the opportunity as a child coming of age to experience radical acceptance that had nothing to do with wealth, power, or the trappings of inherited privilege--would we still be poised for war? What if the white supremacists I encountered in Charlottesville last August were taught a history that didn’t resort to scarcity; what if the increasing polyculturalism of our nation was never a rejection of their own identity?
Or, to turn the thing upside down, perhaps those who have wrangled most with rejection have also walked away with the greatest wisdom. What if black joy is rooted in the kind of resilience-to-rejection instilled by the spiritual genius, in the words of Ruby Sales, of parents who created a world where the notion of inferiority never touched a black child’s consciousness? What if the remarkable endurance to persist that we witnessed in Standing Rock was born of the psychic rejection survived by peoples who have faced genocide? What if LGBTQ+ siblings can dance their resistance with such courageous beauty because they learned how to rise above shame?
If the spiritual equation holds that learning to withstand the sting of rejection opens space for greater joy, blessed endurance, and beautiful courage, then shouldn’t we sometimes (gulp) welcome rejection as a teacher? Rejection is not inherently brutal or dehumanizing, and no one would welcome systemic oppression in the name of garnering greater joy or endurance, that’s foolish. Rejection happens in a thousand ways, from banal to excruciating, and no life-lesson justifies the trauma of withstanding systemic violence. We can, however, gain deeper wisdom when inevitable rejection is put in its proper place.
Henri Nouwen, a sage in my spiritual life--although I was never able to meet him in real time--preached about the power of three great temptations--accomplishment, renown, and possessions--to keep our lives in emotional and spiritual flux. When our identity depends upon our successes, what others say about us, and all that we own (including our health, education, and family), then we are doomed to a roller-coaster ride of self-doubt. Our sense of self is hitched to what lies outside of us, earnings and estimations that can plummet as quickly as the DOW Jones Industrial. Instead, Nouwen wisely offers, if we discover our true belovedness within, if we understand how truly lovable we are to God--to life’s longing for itself--our sense of self is grounded. Solid. Unshakable.
Hearing the still-small voice of deeper wisdom over the noise of today’s social media and 24-hour news cycle is more difficult, I believe, than the challenges faced by any previous generation. Neuro-scientists tell us that every time we respond to the ping of our phones, we reinforce the neuro-pathways in our brains that connect impulse to reaction. Each time facebook tells us our vacation photo, political viewpoint, or witty observation has received a "like,” we train our brains to desire more shallow affirmation. Not only do we do this to ourselves, we’re raising a generation of kids whose connectivity to digital platforms stunts their development of delayed gratification and the wisdom that emerges over the long haul. When we fashion our daily lives around an endless responsiveness to social media dings and avoid the vulnerable exposure that risks rejection, we shrink our capacity for lasting joy, deep resilience, and radical self-acceptance.
Concentration camp survivor Victor Frankl notes, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our own response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.” When the stimulus of a response to my next agent query arrives packaged in a succinct email, that “space” of which Frankl speaks feels so miniscule. In the flash of an instant, I want to react, to ask for another chance. Could I mold myself into whatever this agent seeks? It takes me a few breaths to return to myself. When I do, my longing for growth and freedom keeps me leaning forward, raising my voice, sticking my head out, knowing rejection is certain. An exciting new adventure is also possible, and it’s worth the risk.