Upon entering puberty, adolescent boys and girls undergo several, life-altering changes. In the 4th grade, however, my body was similar to that of a toddler—but slightly taller—and I possessed slightly improved bathroom habits. I was always sporting sweatpants and a t-shirt with some type of baseball emblem (see the Barry Larkin blog entry) or cartoon character ironed on the front.
Recess at our elementary school included all students in 4th-6th grades, which resulted in a smorgasbord of children, as well as those who were beginning the child-to-adult transition. Four girls in particular—let’s call them the Amazon Quartet—found themselves a good 5 or 6 inches taller as they entered their 6th grade year. They towered over my weenie frame and seemed to enjoy how a light shove from their hairy, man-like arms could easily knock me off my feet. One girl had poufy bangs and eyes that seemed to want to jump out of her face; another looked like a red-headed cave man with press-on nails. The other two just had an overall unpleasant appearance—I imagined they were twins of one or more non-human parents.
One cloudy day as we headed out to recess, Bertha and her step-sisters (FYI: I just changed their group’s name) decided they really wanted to unload some insults and shove someone—me. They made the usual jokes about my sweatpants, small stature, and off-brand K-mart shoes. I stood there and attempted to shrug it off and laugh, but my patience was fading and I was becoming angry. Then the shoving began along with the insults and I had had enough. I was sick of their tormenting and I reached my boiling point, so all of a sudden my best attempt at a counter attack left my lips:
“Shut up, you...buncha fat cows!” I yelled.
This was not a good idea because I then felt what seemed like Godzilla’s hand smack my back, and I found myself lying in a thick mud puddle. The women’s biker gang….err…I mean girls erupted in laughter. The bell rang ending recess and they turned and walked towards the school. I stood up and tried to wipe off the mud that was covering half of my body and hair. I looked down and Barry Larkin’s face was also covered with mud. I think he was ashamed of my inability to defend myself.
This is it; I’ve had it with these girls. I’m going to tell on them. Their teacher and principal will be so upset they’ll get suspended and I’ll win. I’ll have revenge.
I began walking back to the school building ready to turn in the bride of Sasquatch and her daughters. I looked and saw the four of them walking in front of five or six boys in their class. The boys were teasing the girls and pulling their hair and I think I heard a “How’s the weather up there?” joke. The girls looked mortified and displayed frowns of stone on their faces.
As much as I fought against it, I felt pity on them, and though I would spend the remainder of the afternoon in mud-caked clothes, I refrained from telling my teacher. It seemed they received their comeuppance and continued to receive it, as these same boys would go on to ridicule them for the rest of the school year—and well into junior high and high school.
They couldn’t change who they were, but I could always wash off the mud, forgive and move on. I could be a better person than those girls—as well as the boys who were teasing them. Later that afternoon, while doing an activity in class, I made a girl who was often the victim of bullying and teasing, smile and laugh—which made me feel about 10 feet tall.
That was a pretty good start.
My brother and I shared a room in the first house known to me as ‘home’. It was a medium sized room with pale white paint covering the walls. Our bunk beds sat in the middle of the room; my brother manned the top bed and usually slept with a tattered sleeping bag while my bed was the bottom bunk covered with Sesame Street sheets and probably, boogers. (Hey, a kid’s gotta fall asleep somehow.) Unbeknownst to my brother, sharing a space like this gave his little six year old sibling great comfort knowing his big ninja brother was in the top bunk and would protect him should any dark and dangerous force come through the bedroom door.
There were two drafty windows on either side of the west wall, facing the city side street in front of our house. I would often sit at one of them and either look into the friendly maple tree that towered over our house, or watch the cars and people that made their way down our street. I would occasionally yell out the window to a lawn mowing neighbor or old lady walking to the grocery, and then immediately duck down behind the windowsill as they looked up, searching for the source of the idiotic sound. My adrenaline rushed as I sat there thinking about the confused look on their faces and how my clever prank had completely changed the outcome of their current activity. I was testing unknown waters. A part of me knew I was being a brat—that it was wrong—but another part of me needed to push the boundaries to see what might be beyond my safe little realm.
One day while sitting at my window perch waiting for my next victim, I noticed a group of teenagers walking up the street. Okay, here we go! They won’t know what hit ‘em! I began with a few bird sounds, which didn’t seem to have much effect, so I moved to a few basic Hey you!yells.
They stopped. I ducked down, suppressing a mischievous giggle, heart beating out of my chest.
After a minute or two thinking they had surely continued down the street, I peaked up over the windowsill and noticed them still standing there…STARING RIGHT BACK AT ME.
Their eyes lowered and I watched as they proceeded up the steps to our front porch out of my sight. I heard a knock on our door.
I gasped and my stomach sank. I thought I even saw Bert and Ernie hide behind Big Bird on my Sesame Street sheets.
I heard the door creak open, followed by an exchange of angry muffled voices. The door closed and moments later my mom called me downstairs. I guess I shouldn’t say called, it was more of a demand. I stood and walked out of the bedroom and met my mom’s eyes as she stood at the bottom of the steps. Her face held a look that confused me. I couldn’t tell if she was angry or hurt; disappointed or sad.
“Have you been yelling out your bedroom window at people?” she asked.
Shoot. Where was this going? Who were those guys? Why did they talk to my mom? I’m only six… please don’t come back and murder me and my family!
“Uh…yeah,” I meekly replied.
“Those boys out there said you called them…”
Her voice fell into a soft beleaguered tone as she sighed and finished the sentence,
I immediately recognized that something strange was happening. I had yet to hear that word in my short life, but as my mom uttered it, a sense of confusion and fear fell over me. A new fear, one that made me realize that maybe life was not as simple as I expected it to be. The word was new and foreign, and it made me feel uneasy.
“Wh..what? I don’t know what that word is, mommy.” I stammered as tears began to fill my wide eyes.
“Those boys said you were yelling at them from the window and calling them that name. I know you may not understand, but that’s a terrible and hurtful name to call a black person.”
I could tell my mom hated having to reprimand me for something she knew I didn’t do, furthermore to have to teach her six year old son such a difficult lesson about life, so soon. But she was no stranger to hard lessons, and she knew it was necessary in order to help me successfully navigate this situation.
I nodded and she told me to return to my room and close the window, perhaps sheltering me from certain inconvenient truths my mind had yet to fully comprehend. Maybe all a six year old needs to grasp is that his family loves him, and that the outside world can—at times—be a confusing and complex space. For the time being, security could be found in my bunk beneath my ever vigilant brother.
Later that evening, as I was getting ready for bed and gathering my stuffed animals, my mom hugged me a little longer than usual.
I never yelled from that window again.
There have been numerous people praising Brittany Maynard for her strength during her battle with cancer and subsequent suicide. Brittany chose to end her life before the cancer in her body incapacitated her so that she could no longer care for her self and communicate with her loved ones. Of course the burden on those same loved ones would be a great one as they cared for Brittany and witnessed her suffering.
As iron sharpens iron,
I have trouble taking criticism. I'm sure I'm not alone.
But the past few years have brought me to realize something (maybe because I'm growing older or I'm just making more mistakes resulting in criticism). Criticism, when given and received respectively and properly, can be a remarkable catalyst for personal growth and change. And the word 'change' doesn't imply that we need to become a different person or alter our personality. No, it means we fine tune...we evolve...we become stronger and more effective in our purpose.
Our society is extremely individualistic. We are consumed with ourselves. As a result ,often times we fail to take a good look at our actions and words through the lens of a respected friend or loved one. We think we have all the answers.
God didn't intend for us to do this life thing alone, because He knows we can't. We need accountability and an occasional kick in the tail to keep us on the right track.
Within the church walls, some may argue that to change would mean to degrade spiritual integrity or abandon sacred tradition, but this couldn't be farther from the truth. Healthy faith examines and evolves--repeatedly-- all the while staying true to core beliefs and essential liturgical practices. This can only be done when the brick walls of stubbornness and fear of change, are taken down.
My iron soul could sure use some sharpening. How about yours?
I began adding a steady stream of Christian artists and musicians to my music collection about 15 years ago. I enjoy the message as well as the level of musicianship of many Christian artists currently performing and recording. Christian music runs the gamut of emotional topics, and usually connects with God in some way, and for the most part, I enjoy it.
Where it becomes frustrating to me, is when I hear a song like this from an artist by the name of Jamie Grace.
Here are the lyrics for the chorus in case you missed them…or wisely opted out of listening to the entire song.
“Oh, I love the way You hold me, by my side You’ll always be
You take each and every day, make it special in some way
I love the way you hold me, in Your arms I’ll always be
You take each and every day, make it special in some way
I love You more than the words in my brain can express
I can’t imagine even loving You less
Lord, I love the way You hold me”
Is it just me, or does it sound like Ms. Grace is longing to sit on a hillside somewhere watching the sunset while on a date with God, staring longingly into one another’s eyes? The song makes me nauseous. Don’t get me wrong, it’s catchy and fun, but it’s barking up a dangerous tree.
This song represents one of the things wrong with the modern Christian music: spiritual intimacy is being misinterpreted as earthly, physical intimacy. “Hold Me” is essentially a Colbie Caillat tune that’s geared towards Christian radio. Christian record companies and their artists (not all of them) are so preoccupied with selling poppy, trendy songs to K-Love listeners that they let the content become boring, unchallenging, and misleading.
I challenge Christian music listeners to pressure record companies and large radio networks such as K-Love to turn the dial when fluff songs like “Hold Me” are played. God has created us to be better; above a record company profit or catchy chorus.
I caught a few minutes of an interview with Francis Ford Coppola at a film festival. During the Q&A portion of the interview, a young audience member asked Coppola what kind of advice he could give to an aspiring filmmaker. He said, and as usual I’m paraphrasing this horribly, “If you’re a man, get married.” He goes on to explain his advice, saying that he loved raising his kids and that they kept him grounded and focused on his work; held him accountable in his productivity.
As a creative individual, one could easily look at his or her family as a roadblock to creative independence and artistic output. But Coppola discovered that supporting a family and having them support him, inevitably bolstered the quality of his art and motivated him to continue his work.
It’s refreshing to hear this from someone in an industry such as film. So often we view the family of a brilliant, creative mind as a distraction from their work. But when we’re surrounded by those we love and love us, we can’t help but create beautiful art and in the end become better, well rounded people.
There is a daily NPR show that I try to catch called "Talk of the Nation" hosted by Neil Conan. Today I happened upon a segment where the topic was Genome study and Gene Therapy Research and how it affects our quality of life and modern medicine.
Becoming more popular is prenatal testing to determine whether an unborn child will arrive months later in the arms of his/her parents, healthy and normal….or with a disability such as Downs Syndrome.
One caller shared the story of the time he and his wife had testing done on their unborn baby, revealing a severe disability that would bring about an enormous burden on their family emotionally, physically, and financially.
They chose to terminate the pregnancy. The caller later said that they now have a healthy, happy little girl that was born a short while later.
Children and adults can also have testing done to discover (due to a particular illness common in their family history) whether they will fall victim to a disease or disability similar to their ancestors.
Another caller told of a man who was given a strong, almost definite, likelihood of developing Huntington's Disease. This truth was more than he could handle, so he took his own life. He didn't have an actual diagnosis, mind you.
So is it right for us to know, everything that will go wrong in our future? Is it better to expect or to experience our pain?
I remember when I was little. Being a boy who loved playing outside and in the woods, I would be sporting at least 3-4 band-aids weekly. And the thing that scared me the most wasn't the actual cut or even the pain removing the band-aid…it was the mere thought of ripping the band-aid from my skin and the possible pain associated with it. While deep in my 10 year old brain's crisis of how to go about removing the dreaded thing, my mom would come along and RIP! the band aid was gone. And before I could even open my mouth to scream, the pain had vanished. I was too busy expecting the pain to actually experience it. And when it came time to experience the pain, it really wasn't what I had built it up to be.
Now, I know the pain I describe pales in comparison to the pain of losing someone you love to a tragedy or learning from test results that you have a life-threatening illness. But in the end, pain is pain. We've all been dealt our fair share. We experience it, find ways to heal and cope, and do our best to move on and learn from it.
What good does it do me to know that my gene structure says I might develop Alzheimer's late in life? Could I start now by setting up insurance policies and prepare myself to slowly deteriorate and succumb to the disease? Possibly… but how does that make my life any better when, come 50 years from now, the tests turn out to be false, and I'm void of any life-threatening illness?
What if someone told you that on October 17, 2009, you would be inheriting a sum of money that would make you ridiculously wealthy? You would be excited, right? You would prepare yourself and make plans as to what you would purchase with the money. Your life starts to revolve around October 17, 2009. You start to live for that day. What if you died October 16th? All that excitement, all the planning…would be wasted.
It's the same way with pain.
When we expect pain, we live it and it lives within us, bringing us down and keeping us from happiness. But when we experience pain, we learn from it and move on. Suffering is a tool every human needs to use in order for us to grow. The growth in my own life is due, not to my successes, but largely in part to many painful situations, illness, and unanswered prayers.
There is a reason for the trials we go through. There is a reason for suffering. There is a reason for pain.
There was a reason the first caller and his wife were given a baby with a disability. There was a reason the friend of the second caller was a prime candidate for Huntington's disease. It was to make them each stronger. It was to make them realize the frailty of human life and that we must be grateful for the small amount of time we do have here.
We must accept the tragedies that befall us and learn from them.
But, we as a forward-thinking, developing human race would rather find ways around this experience. We would rather rid our lives of a burdensome baby that could grow to be a blessing to those around her, or we would rather discover we might become sick before it's our time to know, giving us no hope for survival.
Why do you think our prime time TV is saturated with pharmaceutical ads touting a new drug to pull us out of sadness or depression? We don't want to experience it. We want a pill to take the pain away and leave the underlying reason for the sadness, unresolved. But, if we put a blanket over a fire, it appears gone, but it will soon burn through and show itself again.
Human suffering is not a medical condition we can treat. Human suffering is a necessary part of our daily lives. We have to confront it and attempt to heal. For when we avoid it… we miss the opportunity of the beautiful sunrise at the end of a long night.