Ellie’s face turned maroon. “I’m angry!,” she screeched. She was playing a board game with her twin four year old sister, Evie.
Ellie gets intense. I’d never seen her this irate. Why was she angry? No other reason than her sister was ahead of her on the board. That was deemed unfair. I calmed her down. She resumed playing.
The girls proceeded to butcher the game. I resisted my urge to control and correct. I let them play on, refereeing only when it was important to call out cheating (as opposed to their misunderstanding the rules).
I glumly thought as they played, “This game is pointless”. It was rules driven with no autonomy or decision making … roll the die, count out the spaces. Roll a ‘six’ on the die, draw a card, do what the card says. Brainless! I lamented I was teaching my kids how to follow rote rules that are stupid and meaningless outside the context of a meaningless game. I was having an existential parenting moment.
Evie was 1 space away from winning. She had to roll the exact number, one, to finish and win. She started to gloat. I warned her, “We don’t celebrate a win until the game is over.” Two die rolls later, ‘six’! She pulled a card that sent her back to the beginning. Evie wanted to quit. “Evie, we don’t quit!,” I said. Evie pushed forward.
Ellie went from foul mood to victory dance mode when she found herself beating her sister. I told her the same thing I’d told Evie, “We don’t celebrate the win until the game is done.” The next die roll, ‘six’! Ellie was sent near the starting point on the board. She flared. “I’m so angry! This isn’t fair!,” she screamed.
I called the game over. There was no point moving on.
Ellie emotionally seized up. I asked from her “Give me your eyes,” to get eye contact. “Give me your eyes.” I repeated. She looked at me. I spoke quietly and slowly. “Do you like how you feel right now?” Ellie said, “No.” “What are you feeling?,” I asked. “Angry,” she replied.
” You have no control over what happens in this game. You roll a die. You pick cards. You do what it says. Your only choice is how you respond.” I pause for a moment. “If you get angry, you lose. If you keep control of yourself, you win … regardless of who wins the game.” “What do you choose? Be angry and lose or control yourself and win?” Her face softened. Ellie relaxed. She chose to let go of the anger and regain her composure. She chose to win.
Most of life is outside of our control. We don’t like to admit this. We don’t choose our parents, the timing of lights on the way to work, whether we’re susceptible to cancer, who we work for (even when we run our own business), or if cilantro tastes good or like soap.
It clicked for me when I coached Ellie to respond differently to the game. We can control how we choose to respond. We are responsible to control ourselves. It’s simple, not easy. It requires our human brain overcome its lower counterparts (primate, mammal, reptile). It requires mindfulness, discipline and maturity. It’s easier for some than others. It’s possible for most.
The kids’ game I deemed stupid and pointless with rules and structure I begrudged exposed this perspective. It wasn’t futile after all. The rules aren’t important. How we respond to them is. That is the real game.
This lesson dangled in front of me elusively for decades. I didn’t grasp it. It took 45 years for me to see and accept what I own – the way I respond to this game called life.
Maybe my kids can learn this life lesson 40 years sooner than I did. Of course, this is out of my control. Patient perseverance as I teach them over and over again … That’s something I’d like to control. And I can.
I closed the last book. They sat there awkwardly. Some looked at me blankly. Others’ minds and bodies wandered off. Mrs. Bush said, “What do we say?” The class mumbled, “Thank you … ,” not quite in unison or unanimity. “What dooo we saayy?!,” Mrs. Bush repeated with greater expectations. The kids screamed, “THANK YOU!”
I was the “Mystery Reader” for Evie’s class. She’s one of my twin 4 year olds. I read 3 books … two too many for the attention span of ten 4 year olds. They tuned in and out like that one radio station you want to listen to while driving along a far west Texas ‘Farm to Market’ road. Side conversations, inspections of hair and clothes, and rolling on the floor were intermittent like static cutting in and out along the drive. Mrs. Bush prodded periodically for politeness to get the station tuned in again. It was humbling being a “Mystery Reader.”
I read books about curious, passionate kids who explore and build things, defining who they are — Ada Twist, Scientist, Iggy Peck, Architect, and Rosie Revere, Engineer. The characters face and overcome rejection, make mistakes, and persevere. Their flowers burst from buds. These are children’s story versions of Anais Nin’s quote, “and the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
I read for nearly 30 minutes (again, too long for these kids). Occasionally, I paused pregnantly. Tears welled. Breath eluded me, stolen by the gestating hope I carry for my girls to be more brave and strong than I have been.
I aspire to create experiences for my girls that might catalyze curiosity, courage, and commitment. Some are bold. Some boring. The experiences and experiments are matches I strike in the windy night of life. Some light. Many blow out. A few may find a fuse and catch. Fuses burn, fuses fizzle. Some may sizzle slowly. The gunpowder that is my girls potential awaits the charge. Me, with anxious anticipation, look to the sky for the colored light and glare while I hold my ears, wary of the blast.
When I finished, one of the boys told me, “That was boring. But I had fun.” Evie climbed in my lap. She hugged me, looked me in the eyes and said , “I love you.” I hugged her back and whispered in her ear, “I love you, too. Be brave. Make mistakes. Learn. Grow.”
She walked away.
One more match lit on a windy Fourth of July.
Lighting up imaginations
Ellie stood at the side of the pool. “I want my floaties!” I told her she wasn’t getting her floaties. I needed her to be brave. She melted down like a Bomb Pop in the Texas summer sun. I walked to the edge where she stood. I encouraged her to just let me hold her in the water. She got in cautiously.
I floated her around, holding her by her bathing suit. I encouraged her. She relaxed. I told her to put her face in the water as she swam. “No. I’m scared!”, she replied. I got frustrated. I thought to myself, “Just put your head underwater already!” I had to be patient, calm and encouraging.
We went to where it is shallow enough for Ellie to stand with her head above water. Her confidence grew. She started to swim on her own. I showered high fives and encouragement. In 30 minutes she went from existential crisis to swimming on her own and doing flips under water. Add more encouragement.
We headed back to deeper water. Ellie swam. From me to the wall and back – 15 feet each way. Then she regressed. “Daddy, hold my tummy,” she asked. I did. And as she was swimming, I took it way. A new meltdown. Again, I was frustrated. I thought to myself “What happened!? She had this.” I decided to comfort her. It was late. She was tired. She had her win. We celebrated the win.
The next week at the pool, she started off timidly. She needed me to be within a foot of her as she clung to the wall at the start. In two hours, she grew. At the end, she was diving head first and swimming 20 feet. She didn’t regress at the end. She finished at a high point.
Learning can feel like drowning. Scary to the learner. Frustrating to the person leading them. Leading people who are learning takes a balance. They need to be encouraged to take the risk of drowning. They also need enough support to feel safe. Safety builds confidence to push to competence. Celebrate the competence. Competence builds confidence. A virtuous circle begins.
The learner will get tired. They will plateau. They may regress. They will need support again. They’ll need compassion when their fear exceeds their faith in themselves (or those around them). After a respite, the learner will need deeper water, support, encouragement and celebration until they are good at it. And then they’ll still need support to get even better.
A leader is buoyed by the people they lead.
Lead poorly and sink. Lead learners and swim.
As with anything worthwhile, it’s easier said than done.
Reid said, “I normally don’t have a loss for words.” I replied awkwardly, looking for something to say. “Today’s a good day for no words.” Reid was at the Peace Rally the night before. He drove out of the parking garage, where one of the snipers was setup, 25 minutes before the assault on the police and protesters began.
It’s the day after five police officers were killed in Dallas. My wife, Jen, and I were at the noon prayer vigil at Thanks-giving Square in downtown Dallas. This is where we met Reid. The grounds were built 50 years ago. It was intended as a place for the city to come together, to remember, to be thankful after the city and country were torn by the assassination of President Kennedy. Here we were. Together in the hot Texas sun. Staring down the barrel of a problem we dreamt we had overcome. Half a century past. The problem still present.
One thousand people came together to find hope and healing; to give thanks for life we still had after seven people’s lives were taken in race-related violence over recent days. We held hands at times. We prayed. Some hugged. City leaders called and prayed for an end of anger and hate as instruments of resolution. They exhorted for the end of denial. They encouraged acknowledgement: “We have a problem.”
We as a society want to be done with this issue. We want to leave it in the past. But wanting doesn’t make something so. Anyone who’s trapped in an unwanted situation knows and feels this. Unacknowledged problems rot the homes in which they live. Shame, pain, anger, resentment, and rage grow in the face of denial.
The problem is not going away. Arguing about it deepens division. Casting judgment hardens animosities. Placing blame creates burden. Avoiding it out of fear gives it the room to quietly creep closer to our front doors.
Race as a problem is beyond us. Fighting problems fight back. This problem exceeds our labels, our categories, our unions and our divisions. It exceeds our knowledge. It exceeds our abilities.
What you resist persists. What you fear appears. Yet, what is revealed is healed. It’s time allow our problems to rest in the light, revealed.
These are matters of life and death. We can try to fight off death and darkness. Or we can seek to grow effortlessly in the light, like trees bearing fruit, increasing life. It’s time to focus on increasing life. Life matters.
Today is a good day for gratitude for what we have and what others have given.
Today is a good day for quiet acceptance.
Today is a good for being together.
Today is a good day for believing, trusting and acting like there is a God. A God who is bigger than us. A God who is stronger than us.
Just like this problem is.
What if we come together, quietly, and listen and look for wisdom and strength? Can we be weak enough as individuals but strong enough as a faithful people to find the power to overcome? I don’t know. But I believe. And I hope. And I love (except for when I don’t).
Today’s a good day for no words.
English: C.A. Holliday Unit, a transfer unit Español: Unidad C.A. Holliday Exposure: 1/3200 sec Aperture: f/5.6 Focal Length: 105 mm ISO Speed: 400 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I spent 2 days in Huntsville. Standing on concrete. Hands through the bars that secure 7’x9′ rooms containing two bunks, a small seat and a steel toilet. I heard stories from men in their 20s through their 80s. Black, latino, white. All putting their faith … possibly in blind desperation … in God. A Vietnam vet who claims innocence. A recurring petty criminal. A man who made a mistake in judgement and is desperate to restore what is probably already lost.
I sat in the mess hall. The food is inedible by most standards. A large room with concrete floors worn down by millions of steps and the diluted bleach water that washes it daily. Stainless steel tables and short stool seats. I spoke to people whose spouses moved on. To people who shared wisdom (Listen to a woman, she’ll tell you everything you need … just let her talk and listen). And people who shared hope of a plan for the other side, owning a business, restoring relationships with their kids.
I stood in the prison yard. Shaken by the faith of men whose daily lives are dim and dingy; life lived walking single file in the shadow of walls painted white, yet not bright.
“How much longer you have left?,” I ask. “Until God is through using me here.” Men singing hymns and worship songs a capella. Harmonizing Amazing Grace, hand in hand with men who got caught. Prayers and praises. Men with damp eyes, stirred by their love of their brother and their Father.
The God of the Israelites is a God of those in bondage. Many who went with me inside the walls felt convicted about their lack of faith compared to the men we met. I realized that the faith of the prisoner made sense. No cell phones, no internet. No project timelines or budgets. 3 meals, confinement. Ambition fuels frustration in this place. Faith soothes. Of course God soars in prison for those open to Him.
The people have the freedom to worship and show true gratitude for what they have. They learn the power of His forgiveness in the face of the hard unforgiveness of society.
We chase dreams that are illusions. Seeking what we see as wise, all the while being fools. They have only God to chase. Yet, do I want that for myself. No.
How much of testimony is it that I’d rather die to the sin of the world and its wealth of distractions and baubles than find the love of Christ renew itself daily in my heart, birthing, immaculately, graceful salvation. Freedom can be found in captivity. It just depends what’s holding you captive.
Note: Prison is an phenomenally ugly place filled with pain, addiction, abuse and violence. I saw that, too. This post is about the glimmer of light I saw while in a dark place. I found one of the most uplift moments of my life in the prison yard. This doesn’t diminish the massive damage perpetuated by a dysfunctional system.
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