When I was in high school and tied as smartest kid in my homeschool co-op class, my mom warned me that I should probably tone it down, probably tread carefully, because you know, “guys don’t really like it when girls show that they’re smarter than them.”
Now, I love my mom. We may not see eye-to-eye a lot of times, but really I think she’s done a pretty solid job at this whole motherhood thing—especially given this daughter. If she’s maybe given some misguided input over the years, it’s a convicting reminder that if I’m ever a mother, I’ll do that too. There’s grace for that.
So I love my mom, but this time I was furious. Furious at the implication that my main object should be pleasing boys. I mean, it was up there on the list. But this is me, remember? You know, the one who has just been growing brave enough to make actual friends with guys, like, recently? If I needed advice, which I did, it wasn’t advice on how to be more guarded.
Deeper than furious, though, when I heard that line I was hurt. It cut deep to hear that this one area where I found confidence and security was also a Dangerous Bad Thing. Smart was the thing I was good at. My sister was good at sports and good at music, good at being funny and kind . . . but me, I was mainly good at being smart. Or at least it felt that way. Here was the area where I actually felt I did well, and now I was made to fear that even when I was succeeding, I was actually failing. Made to worry that I was doing it wrong, and wondering what in the world doing it right would look like. Nervous that this strong part of me would scare people away, when underneath that fake strong was a lonely kid who didn’t know how to begin letting people in, and wasn’t even sure she wanted to. So she made up for it, by showing up strong and showing up smart.
So where did that advice leave her? Her, who is actually me?
It left me assessing my walls and building them higher. Besides evaluating people against my particular profile of godliness (different problem, I had a lot, we can talk about them another time), I faithfully assessed whether they were smart enough to handle my brains. If boys were this wimpy, and if I was ever going to get married, I would just have to find someone to fall in love with me who was smart enough to not be scared. 16-year-old Krystiana might not have known much about being friends, but you’d better believe she had an exemplary homeschool-girl list of all the qualities required for a man after her heart, and “must be smarter than me” was right up top.
So there are maybe lots of things wrong with the “boys don’t like smart girls” situation, but a couple stand out in particular.
The first is that it is the opposite of empowering to warn people that the things they’re good at are scary. It’s crippling. It doesn’t help. As in my ramble on learning to be a body, I think what our generation needs is not just more warning against what is bad. Eventually, those warnings stop sticking. They irk us and we shake them off, and we sit there not much better than we started.
What we need is help leaning into what is good. Exhortation not just to shut down the bad stuff, but to cultivate what is beautiful and true in its place. To be told, “here is an area where you are strong: take it and live into it with joy, with humility, and with confidence.”
Even so, that’s not all the story. Empowerment isn’t a formula, and self-confidence is not the same as strength.
Believe me, I appreciate when people remind me what I’m good at. It encourages me, and makes me want to do even better (the opposite of the “you know, boys don’t really like it…” spiel). Furthermore, in this bumpy journey from being a tight-hearted insecure little girl to being a woman growing toward wholeness, I’m learning how my confidence makes me both able and responsible to inspire confidence in others. When I work from a place of security, I’m free to adapt, to listen, and to show up to remind you that I’m here for you. Remind you that when you’re doing well, I’m thrilled. That when you’re chasing this adventure or growing into that role, I’m on your team and I think we can win. Because you delight me. Because my success isn’t threatened by yours, and we’re stronger together in image-of-God strength.
But the thing is, your strength doesn’t come from you, and mine doesn’t come from me. We, together, boys and girls and just people, are in desperate need of the reminder that our strength is found in Jesus. That we are wretched, and that the ground we stand on is made of grace.
We are made to glorify God, and given abilities and callings to follow not in our own ability, but in His faithfulness. Which is why, although I delight when you’re thriving, it doesn’t shake my love when you’re not. And it’s why, although I dread (DREAD) letting you down, failing you isn’t going to break my wholeness. Because you and me, our identity isn’t in how confident we look or how well we can perform or even how faithfully we show up for each other. Our identity is rooted so much deeper than that, in unshakable gospel grace.
Those are the messages we need to be telling each other. Not “be careful about this thing you’re good at, because you could take it too far and people won’t like it and especially boys.”
Rather, “You are good at this good thing. You are strong here. Lean into this, chase it, live it to its redemption potential, soli Deo gloria.”
But under that, and after it, and maybe before it and all the way around, speaks the other truth.
The truth that, friend, your identity is not in this good thing. Not in your brains, or in your talent, or in your calling, or in the cause you stand for with all the passion you’ve got. Because some days, all those things are going to fail. Plans are going to change. You are going to let yourself down. Maybe you will let me down too. In fact, you probably will. And if those are the source of your confidence, your confidence is going to break. Because alone you are still finite, and impossibly broken. And it is grace that your identity is not in yourself.
By grace, your identity is in the love of God, incarnate in flesh and blood, lived out to death and back for you. That is what tells you who you are. It outlives your failure, because it’s already conquered death. It runs deeper than your strength or weakness, because it created them. It knows your frame, and remembers that you are dust. It makes you free.
Free to fall short, and free to keep going. Free from the control of the lies that used to hold you. Free to aim toward holiness, in the power of redemption. Free to open up and let people in, because we dwell in this grace collectively, and it is deep enough for all our failures of love or of conscience, and it shows up in us better together.
So, dear 16-year-old Krystiana, that’s what I wish you could have heard.
That, and that it’s cool that you’re smart. It’s cool that you’re a reader of books, that you’ll win awards in college for your parents to keep on the dining room shelf and never look at, and that you’ll go to grad school. But honestly, there are things about you that are cooler, and more important. And when you do go to grad school, surrounded by people showing off their smarts, you’ll realize that being intellectual is not a character virtue or a mark of quality. (And the realization will make you want to run away, but you will not, because you are learning so slowly to stay, and to be where your feet are.)
By the way, you’ll also stop caring whether you marry a boy who is smarter than you and fits your homeschool-girl list, which is great because that list sucked. You’ll care about different things. And anyway, whether you marry anyone at all is still tbd, so don’t sweat it too much.
In the meantime, it would help if you started looking at people with a little more charity, you know? A little more grace. Not just boys, and not just in regard to your smarts. That specific tip wasn’t actually helpful. But just as a general posture, you know, it would help. It would help for you to practice making more of others and a lot less of yourself. Reeeally would have made things easier on me over here if you’d been working on it a little longer. I’m feeling kind of behind the curve on this one.
But if not, hey. There’s grace here too.
Here’s to finding it and learning to live in it together. Past-me and present-me, and you my friend reading this with all your past and present too.
There’s room in this grace. It is deep. Let’s keep living here.
Krystiana, broken, on the way to wholeness.