Escaping the Sandbox

“I may as well have lived my childhood in feudal Europe, because I hated to leave my hometown.”

by H.M. Biernat

Growing up as a male millennial, my Jr. High social life largely revolved around the online video game world. I spent many hours, often late into the night, playing games with my friends from the comfort of my house. Amongst our favorites were sandbox style games, with my favorite being Red Dead Redemption. For my non gaming friends, sandbox games allowed the player to explore an open world and create their own adventure, which was a liberating feeling for a kid that still did not know how to drive. These games provided endless opportunities for fun, but since the game designers had limited time, they often times limited the playing space itself, thus giving the games their “sandbox” name. When travelling to the end of the world, users would be stopped from travelling any farther, with the most popular hindrances being a thick forest, wall, or tall cliff. This was always a frustrating experience for me as a gamer. Despite having a world of opportunity at my fingertips, I’d spend an embarrassing amount of time running my character into walls, and trying to climb vertical cliffs, just to see if the game designers had made a mistake and I could escape the world they had limited me to. I never really grew out of this feeling, and it has epitomized my perception of my surroundings since I moved into college.

The sandbox of my childhood was incredible. I grew up in Torrance, California, which is in a region of Los Angeles called the South Bay. One of the stereotypes about the people of the South Bay is that they never want to leave, and if you’ve ever been, you’d realize why this is the case. It is filled with beautiful beaches, sublime weather, and just enough commercial property to create activity. My parents grew up in the same town that I had, furthering the truth about the South Bay stereotype. In fact, they met at the high school across the street from my house. I may as well have lived my childhood in feudal Europe, because I hated to leave my hometown. Because of this, I found deep rooted connection with the feeling that home created. All of this changed when my mom came home troubled from work one day my junior year, and announced at the dinner table that her job of 20 years was moving to Texas.

The thought of leaving my well established childhood behind to find new roots in Texas seemed to rob me of my personal identity. After all, I was not a Texan, I was a South Bay kid. Fortunately, I would be attending college by the time my parents moved, but I was always filled with the thought that nothing would ever be the same. My parents heavily pushed the idea of going to college in Texas on me, and I clung to the thought that this was their way of selfishly trying to keep me close by, as their own means of coping with the move. They took me to Texas for my first time my junior year to look at schools, and I decided to satisfy their desires so I could go on looking for schools in California like all of my classmates. While on the trip, I visited a school in Waco, Texas called Baylor. I would tell you that I loved it during my first visit, but my parents loved it even more. From that point forward, any discussion about my academic future involved Baylor. I didn’t know how to communicate it to my parents at the time, but I always felt like they were trying to make my college decision for me. This made my college decision process unique. I spent the larger part of a year trying to find a reason to not go to Baylor, and when I couldn’t find a reasonable excuse, my only logical conclusion was that Baylor was the school for me. Although I have tried to cling to God in the midst of such radical change in my life, candidly, I must admit that it’s shaken my view of my personal identity.

On August 15, 2016, I left my bedroom with the troubling thought that I might never return. I flew to Texas and made a further drive to my university, where I was presented with endless opportunities for fun. I’ve lived in this environment for the past month. School has been incredible; I’ve met so many cool people and made so many great memories. Despite all of this, I have no reason to believe that my cycles of homesickness will ever end. After the initial excitement of welcome week died down, I was struck with the feeling that I was stuck here, just like my character in Red Dead Redemption. I have my ways of coping with such feelings. By the grace of God, there is an In n Out across the street from my dorm. I made sure to pack plenty of Trader Joe’s cookie butter from California’s beloved grocery store, and I’ve spent some time talking with friends from back home on the phone. However, none of this will permanently replace the feeling that home gave me.

Baylor has a way of sheltering students within the confines of the university, often referred to as the “Baylor bubble.” The university boasts lavish facilities and a diverse range of campus activities. Meanwhile, Waco has an abnormally high poverty rate, and the downtown area is by no means lively. Furthermore, Waco is about a two hour drive from any city with a recognizable name. Because of this, students often have no business doing much of anything off campus other than going to church. Such parameters have put me into a real life sandbox game, with a short ranged perspective on my area of opportunity.

A few weeks ago, I felt as if I’d hit my last straw with the Baylor bubble. I was swamped with work late one night, but instead of doing it, I decided to grab my longboard and leave campus. I began to skate the dark lonely streets of downtown Waco with no clue as to where I was trying to go. I’d later realize that I had become the embodiment of a sandbox video game character, trying to escape a world that I had no way out of. Eventually I became tired, and I was getting into a sketchy part of town anyhow. I sat down on a park bench and had some time to be frustrated with God. The feelings were hard to swallow, but fortunately they were transformative in my perception of my role at school.

During these experiences, I learned that a human’s perception of home is central to how they interact with others. It seemed so wrong to me that I could spend 18 years of my life pouring into my hometown and the people in it, to only restart in a new community, as if my work was in vain. I’ve spent a large portion of my time at school longing for a feeling of home, when I could have been building community in my new home in Waco. Jesus teaches a similar concept in The Book of Matthew. A man approached Jesus while He was spending time with His disciples to tell Him that His mother and brothers were there to see Him. Jesus’s response is astounding:

“But he replied to the man who told him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!’” -Matthew 12:48–49.

Jesus sheds light onto an important truth about community. Community is meant to be built with those around you. Within the context of my situation, those around me are my friends at Baylor, seeing as my closest friend from the South Bay is more than a thousand miles away. Arrogantly, I could say that my Baylor friends miss out on me if I’m too focused on my community back at home. However, my friends at Baylor have invited me into a supportive community that is essential to my personal development. Humbly, I am damaging this community if I am not seeking to contribute to it.

In retrospect, the ironic part of my story is that I remembered to pack cookie butter, three pairs of boardshorts, and my rugby ball, but for whatever odd reason, I decided to leave my heart at home (cliche? I know). I left my heart at home to do its thing in the South Bay, while I tried to use a fake heart out here at school. Unfortunately, life was never meant to work this way. Jesus declares:

“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” -Matthew 6:24.

I have no doubt that God brought me to Baylor for a reason, and that He has plans for me within this community. I can no longer allow my commitments to be split, because there is a world of experiences for me to have while I’m in college. So instead of trying to escape the sandbox, I’m determined to find what the world within the sandbox has to offer. That’s how the game designers meant it to be played anyhow.

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