Temporary idiocy

Since I spend the majority of my time with teenagers, I sometimes get the honor of being a friend, too.  And when they get hurt, I offer my love through a listening ear.  Recently, a few of these dear people have unburdened their hearts with stories that leave me sad but thankfully, not confused.  Here’s how it goes:

As adults, we know that it doesn’t take long on this planet before someone’s going to hurt us.  Well, these friends of mine were hurt so badly and couldn’t understand why the people who they previously thought were friends were behaving so, well, unfriendly!  In one case, they were unrepentantly snubbed with merely a shrug and in another, were the scapegoat for someone else’s sins.  People on the periphery did nothing to help, just left them stranded in cold water.

In talking to them, one observation made us mildly cheered and that is that most people are just temporary idiots.  The periphery people, especially teenagers, are basically good, solid kids.  Their hearts are in the right place and they want to do the right thing, but when friends’ relationships sour, the folks on the fringe don’t know what to do.  So, they end up doing nothing, which can hurt in its covertness as much as the original hurt in its overtness. Saying nothing is sometimes the wisest route, but other times, saying nothing hurts terribly. This is where temporary idiocy comes in. Their silence or hurtful actions are hopefully temporary.  Usually when the dust settles, they can see they were in error in stranding their friend.  The true friend will tell them that later.

I know this because I had a friend do something similar to me.  She had distanced herself with giant bounds because she guessed I wouldn’t like a decision she made.  I had no idea why she was so cool, but I gave her space and didn’t freak out.  Almost a year later, she called me and shared that she had changed course and now wanted to talk.  It was one of the best talks ever because I could honestly tell her that ignoring me didn’t help either of us.  She had assumed incorrectly.  I was completely indifferent about her decision so her fears were ungrounded but just having her say she was a temporary idiot made me admire and love her more.

In a recent movie, I heard this wonderful line: The heart is not so easily changed, but the head can be persuaded.  Isn’t that true?  Our hearts and minds get entangled so easily, but our heads have hope!  When we give each other some time, and talk openly, we can confess that we all mess up.  With time, we come around.  May we all have the grace to give to each other generously through warm hearts and listening ears.

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Okay, that doesn’t help

I know that generally, people mean well.  Really, they do, but there’s some real ham-handedness going on out there.  This week I’ve had a hand-full of people mention how they cringe when they are offered cliches when what they were really looking for was some compassion or understanding.

Okay, okay, I know not everyone is a counselor, nor should they be but can we not say to people who have just lost a loved one, “Well, at least they’re in a better place,” or to someone who’s struggling in a relationship, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” or how about my most loathed, “It is what it is.”  Ugh!!!!

That last one frosts me because I heard it said too many times from someone who used it as an excuse for his ineptness, his tardiness and his apathy.  Schedule a meeting (you’re supposed to lead) and not show up? Well, it is what it is.  Disappoint and frustrate a dozen people because you continually over-promise and under-deliver?  Well, it is what it is.  Actually, no.  What it is is rude.  It’s a cop-out.  It’s lame.  Own it and treat people better, buddy.

The words we use are a good indication of what’s important to us.  Want someone to buck up?  Tell them Kelly Clarkson’s ‘if it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger’ line.  (not that she’s the originator of the line) Want someone to get over grieving already?  Tell them their loved one is in a better place.  Sick and tired of someone being sick and tired?  Give a flip story about how you just get up and get on with the day, as if that’s so easy for everyone.  Usually our trite responses just make our listener wish they hadn’t said anything.

Everyone will be in a situation in which we just don’t know what to say, but I vote for saying something kind and loving as opposed to trite and harsh.  Saying “I don’t know” or “I’m so sorry you’re struggling with that’ is better than posturing that you’ve figured their problem out and have a flip answer for them.  Sometimes we want to rush people to the end of the story.  We want people to just get over it already.  Don’t we?

Many, many years ago, I went through a particularly long relapse of Chronic Fatigue.  Throw in a few other complications and I was barely slogging through my days.  It was obvious I needed help and there were those who wanted to help so a cleaning crew of ladies came in and went over my house with invigorating energy.  It was such a boon.  Wanting to thank each of them personally, I called each one over a series of days and expressed my gratitude.  The first few I called were confusingly cool to me on the phone.  A few more were a bit warmer but I was puzzled by their clipped “you’re welcomes.”  Attributing it to anything else but my inklings, I made one last call and out it came:  after they left my house, they went out for coffee and all decided that what I really needed to do was tackle one little project at a time.  Other bits of advice came out but what I heard loud and clear was judgment.  I didn’t hear compassion for being an ill young mom.  I didn’t hear any kind of leeway given for having to tackle these things and more while I feel like I have the flu every day.  It was just a ‘you-really-should….’ list that just plain hurt.

Experiences like those make us clam up.  They make us determine never to reveal a need again.  They make us distrustful, because what’s behind our words are values and assumptions and those can lead to some profound misunderstandings.  Misunderstandings lead to hurt.  When someone is told something as unhelpful as the above comments, we hear what they’re really saying loud and clear and it’s not loving, kind or wise.

As the years tick by and the hurts stack up, so do the occasions where people get it right, thankfully.  I think of my neighbor Sherri who had only a faint hint that I wasn’t the image of health and one day she came onto the yard to see me barely awake and as limp as last night’s spaghetti.  God bless her, she didn’t ask anything, she just took in the scene of two little boys running around and said, “I’ll have the boys at my house this afternoon, go get some rest.  I’ll bring them home in time for dinner.”  I could have cried.  No judgment, just help.  It still brings tears to my eyes.  That scene is a model for me that I refer to often.  I don’t always get it right, but I try, and it helps to know that when people disappoint us on earth, we can lean into a Savior who was an expert at suffering.  He knew it all: betrayal, pain, sleeplessness, rejection….and he chose it.

Everyone’s going to have a weak day or week or month or year and when we do, I want to lean into a Lord who gets it and not rely too much on people who don’t.  I also am reassured that there ARE folks out there who know exactly how to come alongside others and just do what needs to be done, with kindness and love.  So if you know someone who wouldn’t be helped by a ham-handed remark, keep it to yourself and reach for something a little more gentle.  Better yet, just listen without judgment – one of the most beautiful gifts you can ever give to another.

Different is not necessarily wrong

This summer my husband and I took a food tour at the Pike Place Market in Seattle.  Our guide began at a tea shop in the corner of the market – a place I wouldn’t have visited on my own.  Literally, everything in there was foreign to me, including the way they made tea.  Two lovely Chinese ladies performed a ceremony in which they poured hot water into tiny pots over an elegant, lipped tray.  The tea leaves contained leaves and miniature rose buds and a variety of other oddities that tasted delicious.  After a dozen tastings we moved on to other new culinary delights.

I do it differently.  My student, Hannah, timed how long I steep a tea bag: a whopping 8 seconds.   That’s how I make my tea.  While my students thought I should leave that puppy in there the whole time I’m drinking, I wouldn’t think of it.  It makes the drink way too strong.  Who’s right?  Me?  My students?  Or the lovely Chinese connoisseurs?  Usually we think the way we do things is naturally the right way, but I couldn’t disagree more.  It’s just a way.  That’s it.  Not necessarily the right way. Seems to me that, more often than not, people think that their way of doing things is the right way of doing things.

Want to get someone’s knickers in a knot?  Change the way things are done.  I’m not advocating this…in fact, I go out of my way (or at least I think I do) to make people’s knickers stay comfortable.  But before this analogy goes too far awry, let me explain.  I’ve been noticing more and more lately that some people are all too quick to point out something different as wrong.

And yet, different is not always wrong.  I remember feeling that it was wrong somehow when I put cheese on the top of my pizza instead of underneath the toppings; when I ran outside one summer day to say goodbye to someone and I was wearing socks; when someone opened my utensil drawer and found it – I don’t know – organized?  full?  Clearly these things are criminal.  And yet, the people I was with made me feel that my different to them was also wrong to them.

When that’s our mindset, other, more important things can become ‘wrong’ too.  It makes a person start to wonder if how they pray or worship is wrong; how one raises their kids is wrong; or any host of other behaviors or decisions.  some people are more open to and interested in how people do things differently.  Recently we were with a group of people who were talking about how we observed Sundays.  When I was growing up, it was wrong to do anything other than avoid any kind of physical activity on a Sunday.  We had to take a nap, stay very quiet and basically not have much fun.  Other Christians who love God just as much had considerably more freedom on Sundays.  Is one wrong and one right?  Or, just different?

Many advantages exist to living in and working for the same place for many years.  However, the disadvantage is that you might not see that something needs to be changed, and can be changed without the world ending, or, that others can do something differently and it’s still okay.  This is something I really want to teach my kids.  As they move away and live with other people, they will need to be more flexible with how things are done.  I’d be thrilled if they see something done a different way and be interested, curious and open.  So they can move to China and drink tea (the right way) or stay in town and rub shoulders with someone of their same ethnicity; I hope they notice something about their new friends and be intrigued….and maybe even come home and show me how it’s done!

Can we “play well with others”?

Remember those teacher comments on your elementary school report cards?  Your parents loved to see “a pleasure to have in class” but that is an individual accolade.  “Plays well with others” shows you know how to interact with others which is a super important skill to have.  We live with all sorts of people who land somewhere on the continuum of being able to easily interact with people to those who more closely resemble Homer Simpson falling down a hill.  (Duh!, ugh! doh!)

“We are only successful if those around us are successful,”  rings true in so many arenas, especially the work world, yet some folks have a hard time embracing it.  Lately I’ve be made aware and reminded of some women who don’t want to share people as friends or celebrate when a peer succeeds.  I’ve been known to not talk about an accomplishment with certain women because they’re more likely to be miffed or fake-happy than to give me a hearty congratulations.  Other women make their poor friends “choose” between them and another friend when that friend offends them.  Seriously? Are our hearts not wide enough, our lives not full enough, our selves not confident enough to take joy in someone else?  This grieves me.

How do we define success?  Is it only what we accomplish?  Is it about our bank account?  A truly grounded person might be more inclined to point at a mature, self-less individual who lives to lift up another.  Those that are worried about making sure others know how great they are might be missing more than they realize.  Personally, someone who wants to hog the limelight is the least attractive in the room.  I’m drawn to the person who is interested in others, who asks good questions and genuinely listens to the answers; someone who might have a lovely resume but instead demonstrates qualities of concern and care for others.

And yet today, we’re awfully interested in ourselves.  I’m no different, most days, but I’m striving.   My good friend says it like this: I think it starts by cultivating a life focused wrongly on self.  It’s the Me Show starring ME.  We have forgotten how to celebrate with our neighbor who is going to Disney Land because we’re sad that our vacation’s highlight is a trip to the library.  No fair!  We don’t get out the poppers and bake a cake for one another enough because it’s all about us.  We need to learn how to be glad for each other while still rejoicing in the way God enriched our life.

My husband likes to end the day with a question for himself, “Have I blessed anyone today?”  This question alone allows for a stance of selflessness.  Each day, he’s looking for small ways to bless other people and every day, whether he realizes it or not, he does.  A full, rich and successful life is not the ME show.  Rather, it’s a life lived with such gratitude and others’ focus that we can celebrate with others as God blesses us each in the way He’s pre-ordained.  I would say that that being concerned about blessing others and celebrating them is one of the most loving way to play well with others.

Atticus still gets it right

My 10th graders and I just finished reading To Kill a Mockingbird.  It was their first read, my 7th or 8th….and it doesn’t get old.  Some say it’s a civil rights novel; others know it’s way more than that.  When a novel is written that well, you can glean out of it for years. That’s what I’m doing today.  I’m thinking of the people who could benefit from being reminded of Atticus’s advice, and that is to try walking in someone else’s shoes for awhile.  Oh how much better our interactions would be if we try to imagine what a situation is like from their point of view.

If you’ve read the book, you might remember that feisty Scout could scrap with the best of them.  The nanny/maid Calpurnia was too strict with her, her new teacher Miss Caroline was mad that she came to school already knowing how to read, her brother Jem didn’t want her hanging around him at recess and Walter Cunningham got her in trouble at school so she shoved his face in the dirt at her first opportunity.    Life is rough for a 6 year old.  So, she pours out her troubles to her wise and gentle father who listens quietly and doesn’t reproach her.

I know a few people right now who are facing a relational conflict.  I bet they wouldn’t mind a turn on that swing, getting kind advice from a man known to millions as calm-headed and wise.  Thank goodness we can be reminded of what Atticus told Scout that day – and spent the novel trying to teach his kids – if you only try to think of what the other person is experiencing, you might not be so upset.  It’s hard for us to do that.  Don’t we think we’re always right?  How could there possibly be another way to look at it, after all?

Last month I was in a crowded Aeropostle, squeezing my way through a narrow gap to get a different size shirt for my daughter.  I had been shopping too long, was too warm, felt light-headed and thanks to low blood pressure, kept having to take deep breaths.  Those breaths sound like irritated sighs apparently, b/c I heaved in a good amount of air just as I was squeezing by a mom and daughter, stroller in tow.  The older woman gave me quite an acidic, dirty look.  I so wanted to say, “Lady, don’t assume my breathing has anything to do with you. (way to assume the worst, btw!)”  But it’s not so easy to explain an odd health issue like I have, in a crowded store at Christmas time,  so I let her think what she wanted to think.

I’m not always good at this but I try to remind myself that in their shoes, things undeniably look different.  And most often, people’s responses to us have less to do with us and more to do with them.  (Glass half empty, anyone?)   My husband is particularly good at slowing down, stopping to think, giving the other the benefit of the doubt – and believing that something else might be going on that is affecting things.  I think he and Atticus would have been great friends.  Meanwhile, I still have plenty of Scout moments where people just don’t make sense, life seems unfair and I need a calm and patient listener.  Thankfully, I’m reminded again to practice walking in another’s shoes and hopefully, I can play ‘Atticus’ to someone else who’s tempted to rub someone’s face in the proverbial dirt.

The silver lining of a crisis

No one likes to get a phone call that someone they love is hurt or sick or somehow is in sharp need but on Saturday, that’s what happened.  Son One, living more than 2500 miles away was in the ER and darn if those miles didn’t feel even longer than usual.  He was one sick kid, but thankfully, he is doing well and on the road to recovery. Additionally, not long ago an email landed in my inbox about the threat of demise of an organization I’ve come to love.  The heart sinks when we get news like this.  However, I’m not one to freak out, but instead I’ve learned to watch.  It didn’t take long and I wasn’t disappointed.

Every crisis has a silver lining and it’s been wonderful to point to it this week.  When Son One was out of it and waiting for the first responders, a kind woman dropped what she was doing to come and sit with him.  His grandpa followed the ambulance and was a calming, loving presence in the hospital and his watchful companion the rest of the day.  Six hours away his future mother-in-law prayed.  His aunt picked up his prescription, bought soup and juice and she and his uncle were kind and solicitous in every way.  Others checked in on him, one even bringing him a meal.

The weakened organization just needed to wave the flag of distress and creative, energetic and industrious people came out of the woodwork.  Meetings were set, minds were melded…new energy was infused.  It was said, “I’m sorry it took a crisis….” and so am I, but isn’t this silver lining lovely? It took this crisis for others to ask, “How can I be used?” Now we feel hope and are genuinely anticipating the future and all it holds.

Both situations have shown how crises aren’t all bad.  Yes, it’s sad that it takes a crisis to rally people, but it also shows how good people really are.  They want to help, pitch in, pray…anything to bless others.  Sometimes we don’t ask early enough but when we have no other choice, we see the very best in them.  This is when we see people and situations with fresh eyes.  My son noted that the first responders were clearly trained to calm – which is exactly what is needed at times like those.  I think we all could benefit from that.  Keeping calm, and looking for opportunities to use our skills in whatever way we can.  Then later we can thank God for those silver linings which most assuredly are there.

This will kill your relationships

If you think about the relationships in  your life that have gone south, slid sideways or even died, I bet this had a role: unmet expectations.  It can’t just be me.  In fact, I’ve not only experienced it  but I’ve seen it happen at churches, in classrooms and in dating.  Person A expects something (without telling person B usually), and Person B unwittingly doesn’t meet the expectation.  Person A withdraws, cuts off or detaches some way.  Sometimes harsh assumptions happen; other times healthy and helpful conversations occur.  Either way, it changes things.

Relationships can be a lot of work. Duh, I know.  But when we have expectations (and who doesn’t?), dynamics change.   I saw this most recently with a few couples and some small groups of people.  With the couple, she thought that sending a text meant that he would text back.  Silly girl.  He was hot and cold with his texting but she expected something a little more steady.  The relationship dwindled;  he was confused.  In a group, it was expected that everyone would be equally invested and put in the effort to keep the group healthy and strong.  To others, it was a supplemental side dish, not the main meal the others saw it to be.  Needless to say, feelings were hurt.  The group stumbled a bit.

We all have expectations and it seems we all expect the people we live with to know what those expectations are, but how unfair.  When in doubt, communicate.  If the relationship is highly valuable to you and you’d be loathe to lose it, maybe a conversation about expectations are in order.  If things have gone and are going smoothly, enjoy the ride… but in the meantime, brush up on those listening and communication skills.  You’re bound to need them soon.