A Kaleidoscope… or a Chameleon?

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I am fearfully and wonderfully made. (Psalm 137:14)

I remembered learning about chameleons in school.  I thought it was fascinating that they changed color like they did.  I struggled to wrap my mind around how that was even possible. I imagined them turning paisley or plaid or polka-dotted, just like in children’s books. Chameleons blended into their surroundings.  They were in plain sight, but still invisible.

As a child, I thought that would have been wonderful. I was a quiet little girl.  I never raised my hand in school. In fact, I cringed when my name was called.  I spoke so softly that the teachers had to give me a microphone at an elementary school spelling bee so the judges could hear me … and it still didn’t work.  How I wished I could have faded into the background that day!

As I got a little older, into young adulthood, I didn’t try so hard to blend in anymore, but I often felt like a chameleon.  I was in plain sight … but invisible.  I sat in classes at college or at tables with friends and listened to the conversations going on around me.  I soaked in every word, but I didn’t speak unless someone asked me a direct question.  That almost never happened. I was never excluded … just overlooked.  I must have developed those chameleon skills that I envied when I was younger.

It wasn’t that I didn’t know the answers as a child.  I did.

It wasn’t that I didn’t have something to say as a young adult.  I did.

Somehow, though, I never felt comfortable and I never really seemed to fit.  I was either putting my head down to make myself invisible … or I was silently and secretly waving my arms in an effort to be seen, yet … nope, still invisible.

I had plenty of friends. I never suffered cruelty like many kids did.  No one intentionally left me out.  Sometimes, I had nothing to say. Sometimes, I rehearsed in my head what I would say if someone, anyone, asked for my opinion. I was too quiet to offer it unsolicited.  The conversation moved on … and there I sat, seemingly in plain sight, but possibly turning the color of my desk or the blackboard behind me because I was, you know … like a chameleon.

As I grew into adulthood, gained life experience, and with it, a little bit of wisdom; I shed that timid skin.  I spoke up and I spoke out. That girl who cringed when she had to answer a question in class and who got physically ill at the mention of an oral book report became a business owner and a professional development trainer.  I remembered waiting to speak at a large training event and thinking about how much I had changed.  I was afraid to answer a simple question to which I knew the answer in front of a class of 25 students and now I was about to conduct a training seminar for over a hundred people and it was just another day at the office.  With age and an ever-increasing faith, I learned who I was.  I knew what I liked and what I didn’t. I worried less and less about what others thought about me until that worry was pretty much non-existent.  Although I didn’t voice my opinion on everything, I didn’t wait to be asked to share it, especially when I felt something wasn’t right.  No more chameleon.

The chameleon effect evolved over time.  As a young girl, I wanted to fade into the background and live in plain sight without being seen.  As a young adult,  I wanted to stop blending in so much and stop being overlooked, and be seen for who I was.  As an adult, I had no interest in hiding who I was, but I didn’t want to be in the spotlight either.  Still, even when we grow up and shed our chameleon skins; we are a part of social groups and many of us struggle once again.  Think about it.  A chameleon becomes the color of its surroundings.

Do you do that?

When you were with a group of people, did you find yourself becoming a chameleon and adapting to your surroundings?  Did you become the same color as your friends? Did you find yourself assuming their thoughts and opinions, even when you knew that you didn’t agree? Did you feel that pit in your stomach, that fear that you didn’t belong? Did that fear push you to assimilate, to blend into someone else’s background?

We had all done this at one time or another.  Women tended to do this more than men but no one was immune. Had you ever noticed groups of women – you knew the ones — they wore their hair in similar fashion, they wore the same style of clothes, they used the same jargon?  Sometimes, it was hard to see where one ended and the other began.  Sometimes, you got them mixed up because they functioned as one unit, not as individuals.  I saw those groups in high school and remembered when I realized that those groups still existed long after we tossed our caps in the air at graduation. Those groups of women always made me sad (and honestly, made me want to run for the hills!).  I felt sorry for them though.  As a quiet person and one who steered clear of such groups, I had the opportunity to study people.  I used to watch them.  I looked at each one individually interacting within the crowd.  I wondered if they really liked the other women in their group or if they just thought that was the group and they were happy to be included.  I wondered if they considered these other women their friends or if they knew they could count on them in a time of need.  I wondered if they really agreed with everything their pack leader said or they were just too afraid to dissent from common thought.  Chameleons.

It wasn’t just social groups, though. There were many groups – business groups, political groups, even church groups.  There were the groups of Moms from your children’s sports teams, the parent volunteers at your child’s school, the community groups formed to help people in some way.  Many of these groups did wonderful things. Many of these groups were full of wonderful people. Still, groups, by design, functioned as a whole and not as a sum of the individuals who were a part.  Groups were often internally exclusionary.  Groups often caused people to pull out those chameleon skills to survive.

When you became part of a group, did you find that you were comfortable being yourself within that group or were you forced to surrender a bit of yourself to remain in that group?  Were you willing to do that?  Really? Also, when you spent time with people, you didn’t just assume the colors of your surroundings like a chameleon; you allowed the thoughts and feelings of the people within that group to permeate into your being.  Had you ever noticed how bad you felt when you spent too much time with people who talked about others or who complained a lot?  Did you ever feel yourself doing the same thing?  When you spent time with people, you often became just like them.  That’s why it was so important to choose carefully those people with whom you spent your time.  If you were that person that easily changed like a chameleon; you needed to check your surroundings before you jumped in to see if you were comfortable living in that particular skin.

As a business owner and a parent, I interacted with all types of people and had seen a lot of these groups in action.  Having seen the drama and discord created in those group environments, I was content to hang back or visit with one or two people at a time. I was one who didn’t fit well into a large group.  Some may have called it anti-social but I liked to think of it as self-preservation.  I had nothing against people who enjoyed that group dynamic and thrived in it; but I knew my limits, and it just wasn’t me. When I spoke individually to people within these groups, I always found them to be pleasant, well-spoken, and thoughtful; but when they were a part of the group, I often didn’t see that same personality.  I think that disconnect was what made me keep my distance.  I was confused about why some chose to hide their awesome personality for the sake of a group. Why did they do that?

Then I remembered the chameleon.  Changing colors was a defense mechanism.  They blended into the background to protect themselves from prey.  Interesting, right?  Maybe the chameleon effect was a way to protect ourselves socially.  As a child, I tried to blend in to protect myself from being called upon to answer a question.  As a young adult, I was quiet and reserved. I tried to blend in to protect myself from perceived social embarrassment, but hoped to be spotted as I was tired of living in the shadows.  As an adult, I didn’t want to blend into the background, but I didn’t want to be in the spotlight either.  Being the center of attention terrified me so maybe I did still keep my chameleon skills in my back pocket.

Maybe those women were protecting themselves too.  Maybe those women were chameleons because they weren’t comfortable being themselves. Maybe they needed to blend into a group because they were tired of blending into the background. Maybe there were afraid to have their own opinions because they were afraid if they did, the group would turn on them like predators preyed on the chameleons.  Because sometimes, that was what people did.

God didn’t make us to blend in.  He created us to stand out.

God didn’t want us to be the same.  He wanted us to celebrate our differences.

It was never a good thing to be a chameleon.  I wished I had the confidence as a young child to be share who I was.  I watched my son suffer from that same lack of confidence and low self-esteem.  One day, my son had a particularly rough day at school. He told me about how he sat with his friends, the words ready inside his head, but when he opened his mouth, the words just didn’t come out.  I remembered that feeling well and my heart broke for him. I told him that God made us all different. He wasn’t like anyone else, but he was perfect just as he was. He had heard that many times before and I could tell that my “Mom advice” wasn’t helping him that day.  Being the persistent mother that I was, though, I didn’t allow his disinterest in my pep talk to stop me.  He was a child whose heart was filled with God’s love so I told him that by not showing his heart to others and by not allowing himself to be the person he was, he deprived the world of the person God made him to be.  I watched his eyes light up and his posture straighten.  I knew that my words had penetrated. My hope was that if he heard that over and over again, my words would settle into his heart.

He didn’t need to be a chameleon.

He didn’t have to blend in or take on the color of his surroundings.

He just needed to be who he was, who God made him to be.

God filled his heart with a kaleidoscope of colors.

Why would he want to choose just one?

Why would you?

For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10)

Author: Jennifer Lilley Collins

I'm a Mom, wife, daughter, and friend navigating life with metastatic breast cancer while finding joy in the everyday and spreading hope, love, and inspiration along the way.

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