Long Days and Short Years

just trying to pay attention so I don't miss my life


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Judge Not Please

I really think that I could be a less judgmental person if I avoided public places.  But no.  Museums, the zoo, playgrounds, the grocery store… my current season of life is lived among concentrations of strangers, and especially among kids and their caregivers.

Just the other day, I was pushing my girls on the swings of a foreign playground (i.e. a playground in one of those other neighborhoods), and an enthusiastic dad next to us was using his toddler’s swing experience as an educational platform.  He explained potential and kinetic energy in a high and bouncy voice.   He introduced ‘his little rocket ship’ to various nebula and used the word catawampus at least fifty times as he incessantly chatted throughout the known universe.

Even describing him makes my blood pressure rise a little.

I wasn’t trying to be judgmental, but really, he was egging me on.  After about five minutes of this, my thoughts turned ugly. “Yeah, I bet he’s so enthusiastic because he only sees his daughter for about five hours a week.  He is probably one of those work-a-holics in the Carnegie Mellon robot labs or maybe Google or something like that, and now he’s got an hour with his little rocket scientist and he just needs to introduce her to advanced vocabulary so that she can grow up to be a brainiac like he is.  Poor kid.  Imagine what he’ll be like when she’s a bit older.”

Ugh.  Sorry everyone.  I am not proud of myself.  He is probably just a really smart guy who likes to spend time with his daughter.

But do you see how easy it is to go there?

****

I’m being painfully honest here because I don’t think that I’m the only one who does this.  The world of people, particularly the world of strangers, is ripe for judgment.  For example:

Have you ever noticed how mean people can be to one another on the internet?

My favorite story related to this involves one of my favorite authors, Ann Voskamp.  A couple of years ago her book, A Thousand Gifts, was published.  One of its most negative reviews came from Tim Challies, a blogger/book reviewer.  I’m not going to go into great specifics here; but he criticizes her style, picks apart her theology, and doesn’t recommend the book to his readers.

Okay.  So.  What’s the big deal?  After all, the man is a book reviewer.  And aren’t we all entitled to our opinions?

What is fascinating here is Ann’s response.  The day after the review came out, she sent Tim Challies an e-mail, inviting him and his family over for dinner (they are both from Ontario).  This was not a public invitation, and we wouldn’t even know that it had been given if Tim Challies hadn’t done something fascinating in return.  Even before they set up dinner, he posted a public apology.

In it, he doesn’t back down from his criticisms of the book.  He explains, “It bears saying as well that I feel no moral quandary about reviewing her book or any other and even warning of potential weaknesses. Any author who releases a book acknowledges that it is entering into the public sphere and may receive both praise and criticism. This is an inevitable component of making writing available to the public and it is one that authors welcome; it is an honor that other people consider your ideas worth discussing.”

He goes on.

“Having said all of that, something happened inside me when I saw Ann’s name in my inbox, and that’s what has compelled me to write this little article. Seeing her name brought a sudden and surprising realization and with it a twinge of guilt and remorse. It has happened to me before, this strange feeling that comes when I suddenly realize that the name on the front of the book–“Ann Voskamp” in this case–is not some cleverly programmed, unfeeling robot that spits out blog posts and magazine articles and books, but a person. A real person.”

Later he asks himself if his review would have been different–at least in tone–if he had known that they would soon be having dinner together.

This is a great question.

****

There is a saying-“familiarity breeds contempt”- and it is certainly true.  I am sometimes stunned by my ability to be really nasty to those who are closest to me (with specific apologies to my husband, my parents and my brothers).  However, I would like to propose that the reverse is also true, that unfamiliarity can also breed contempt.

As a city-dweller and a semi-frequent internet user, I interact with an overwhelming number of strangers each day.  And when we are confronted with an overwhelming amount of information, what do we do?  We sort.  We label.  We put things into categories.  Granola mom.  Welfare mom.  Delinquent teenager.  Spoiled brat.  Workaholic.  High-maintenance.  Hard-working.  Obsessed with technology.  Hopelessly outdated.

On and on and on.

With each label comes our own personal script, which can be positive or negative.  For example, a few years ago I realized that I was stereotyping the elderly black men of my community as automatically trustworthy.  My unconscious reasoning was that they were pillars of the community because they had survived (thus rising above) the often volatile circumstances of growing up male and black in the city.  One day a good friend (who was young, male, black and extremely gracious) set me straight.  “Not necessarily Jen” he said, “some were just tough and lucky.  You should hear the things that some of your ‘pillars of the community’ brag about.”

Look at that–elderly black men are individuals.  Imagine.

But while I’m on a roll here, let me make one more sweeping generalization, and I’ll stick by this one:

People are always, always, always complicated.  All of them.  All the time.  From our closest friends to absolute strangers–complicated.    Full of motives and stories and contradictions.  Complicated beyond our understanding, even beyond our imagining.

Complicated.  And this is the reason why we should be careful to judge.  Unfamiliarity can only breed contempt if we fail to remember this:  the enthusiastic ‘rocket scientist dad’ is just as much of a real, complicated person as this long-winded ‘blogging mom.’  As real and complicated as, well, you.

It makes me wonder what could have happened if I had looked his way and said, “What does catawampus mean, anyway?”


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Time to Heal

Do you know anyone who is limping right now?

I do.   A handful of friends, first-time marathoners who charged or chugged up Pittsburgh’s hillsides just three days ago.  We watched the runners between miles 20 and 21 and yelled encouragement.

“You’re awesome!”  “You’re doing it!”  “Almost there!”

As the river of people passed, the pain on their faces increased.  By the time some of the stragglers reached us, they had been running for FIVE HOURS.  Running.  For five hours.  I find driving for five hours exhausting.  And they still had five miles to go.

We kept yelling.

****

Three days later, some of those who limped to the finish line are still limping.  But I am not worried about them.  They will take it slow, take a break, ice this and heat that, and some will even get a massage.  They will take care of themselves, and they will heal.  Healing happens one step at a time, just like training for a marathon.  And they will do it.

“After all”, they will believe, “I deserve a break now.  I just ran a marathon.”

****

My concern is elsewhere, with friends who have not run physical marathons, but who have recently endured relational, emotional, psychological, and spiritual seasons of strain.  It was a long winter, a long year, for many people I know.  They have run marathons too. Some are still running.  And some are limping.

Will they allow themselves to heal?

I suppose it should come as no surprise that it is easier for us to recognize and respond to our physical injuries.  They are (generally) clear-cut, able to be diagnosed, and often respond to cause-and-effect treatment.  Also, they are rarely our fault, and therefore don’t carry the extra baggage of shame.

Relational, emotional, psychological and spiritual burdens seem far more complicated.  Messier.  And they build under the surface for a long time while we say things like, “Oh, life is just stressful.”  But sometimes this is what I wish we would say:

“I deserve a break now.  I just ran a marathon.”

****

I am sitting in a coffee shop as I type, and the May sunshine in streaming in.  It is a good season for healing.  And as I type, I wonder what that could look like for you and for me.   Perhaps we could call a friend, or a therapist.  Perhaps we could remember the silly artistic or athletic things that we like to do, and allow ourselves to play.  Perhaps we could walk in the woods, or get tickets for a concert, or buy a box of colored pencils, or sign up for a class, or clean our bedroom, or write a story or…

Whatever it is for you, may I make a suggestion?

Plan to heal.  When it happens, as it happens, it will be a gift, but it will not happen accidentally.  It will not happen quickly.  No one expects a twisted knee to be better in a week.  Expect your own rehabilitation to take some work, and some time.

And remember:  It’s worth it because you are worth it, and all the people who love you would agree.


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Questions from the Air

On Monday I was annoyed, but on Saturday; heartbroken.

On Monday, our flight from Los Angeles to Pittsburgh was delayed, canceled, and rescheduled for the next morning. The airline cited ‘weather’ as the reason, but frustrated passengers muttered ‘sequester’ and ‘furloughed air traffic controllers’ as we found places to stay for an extra night.  My husband and I crashed on our (angelic) friends’ air mattress and returned the next day.

All last week travelers endured similar delays.  Why?  When my daughter asked me why we had returned a day late, I explained, “There just weren’t enough people working who could watch our plane in the sky.”  “Why, mama?”  “There isn’t the money to pay them honey.”  “Why, mama?”  “Uh… umm… the grown-ups are still trying to figure that out.”

By Friday, the grown-ups figured it out.  Our collective airport frustrations reached the ears of legislators who, through an almost unimaginable act of bipartisanship, fixed the problem swiftly.

Now you ask, why is that heartbreaking?

****

I first heard the news over the radio.  Saturday morning, coffee in hand.  No more excessive airport delays.  Great.  I won’t be flying anytime soon, but I do not wish extra annoyance on business travelers, parents traveling with small children, or anyone else.

However.

As a part of the report, a question came over the airwaves, right to me and my coffee cup.  But what about the cuts to programs like Headstart and Meals on Wheels?  Why has the loudest cry come from the airport lounges?  

Now, before I continue, I would like to say that, yes I know that airline delays have financial consequences.  Yes, I know that ‘entitlement programs’ carry more baggage than you could check under a plane.  Yes I know, it’s all very complicated.

Here’s something else I know:  I cared much more about my delayed flight than I do about cuts to Meals on Wheels.

It is difficult to care passionately about things that don’t affect me personally.

And given the legislative events of the past week, I don’t think that I’m the only one.