My friend Susan is facing her third bout of cancer. Her hair is still growing back from the chemo following her first recurrence. Cancer has ravaged her body both inside and out. Side effects from medication have brought a fifty pound weight gain.
After Susan and her husband have spent an evening out, they return home and share an exchange of words that never varies.
Larry: You managed to do it again!
Larry: You were the prettiest one there.
This is a man who knows how to love, how to encourage, how to build up what disease has broken down.
During the month of April, Small Steps for Catholic Moms focuses on courage. Elizabeth Foss writes today about encouragement. She begins by defining both courage and encourage. The definition that most resonates with me is that encourage means to inspire with hope.
When I think back to the many friends, bosses, colleagues, mentors, and teachers who encouraged me, I think of individuals who inspired me and gave me hope.
I remember my high school English teacher, Miss Kaye Hughes. She had a simple formula for drawing out the very best from us: She treated us like we were smart, thinking people. And you know what? If you are treated like that long enough, you start to act the part. Miss Hughes inspired me.
I remember my first boss in the world of Big Business. As a higher ranking manger, he viewed my success as his primary job. He was my most vocal cheerleader and champion. He gave me courage.
I remember the principal I worked under when I began teaching. He did his job with the passion of a novice teacher coupled with the wisdom of a veteran. Despite decades in the trenches, he was always able to look past the rolling eyes, the sloppy handwriting, the kids straggling in late for class. The joy he found in his subject matter and his love for the art of teaching called out the best in me.
I've read that Michelangelo could look at a block of marble and see the finished masterpiece. His job as a sculptor was simply to free it. He was a man of vision.
Last night I sat on the bleachers and watched boys’ baseball try outs. Coaches stood by with clip boards and pencils watching nine-year-old boys miss fly ball after fly ball. Although there was one shining superstar in the pack, for the most part, these coaches didn't have much to work with.
Good coaches succeed none the less. Like Michelangelo, they picture the finished product. They pull from youthful clumsiness the grace of an athlete. They take awkward posture and dicey gross motor skills and somehow fashion a batter and a catcher and a pitcher. They have to see what isn't there and build up what is missing. They have to have vision, and they have to impart that vision to their players.
So it is in parenting. We have to envision the finished product.
Sometimes the masterpiece is well hidden. Sometimes our tools are unwieldy and dull. We whittle ineffectively here; we lop off an unexpectedly huge chunk there. Sometimes – many times, in my case – the block and the tools are just as they should be, but our vision is cloudy.
Parenting takes vision. And faith. And hope. And love.
I have looked at my infant children and marveled at their tininess, their vulnerability, their helplessness. I have looked at my older children and often seen them as finished products when they are still so very young, so very unfinished.
Last week I heard sordid details about a father who relentlessly battered his children emotionally. I knew one of the children. His life ended tragically, and numerous people still struggle to pick up the pieces from his untimely death. As I listened to this sad, sad tale, I wanted nothing more than to go home and hug my kids.
When I returned home, the hour was late. I was tired. The house was a bit of a wreck. Usually all this is the perfect prescription for crabbiness and nagging. Not so last week. I surveyed the scene and said to myself, “In an hour or two, most of this will be set right.”
I hugged my kids, asked them about school, shared a few laughs, gave them a job or two to tackle. In light of the story I had just heard, no haranguing would take place under my roof.
When Tim was five or six and had just started studying piano, a new piece would sometimes overwhelm him. One afternoon he struggled and struggled and struggled to no avail. He burst out crying.
I had just finished loading approximately a zillion loads of clean, unfolded clothes onto the couch. I sat next to Tim and told him how disheartened I was by the laundry.
“I can’t do it all, “ I remember sharing. “But I can fold one shirt.”
It was a moment of grace. Believe me, I can go all Tiger Mother on my kids and have done so more times than I care to recall. But this time, Tim pressed on, not because he was prodded and bullied, but because he was heartened, because he was suddenly more courageous, because he could take that small step.
One of my most treasured psalms is “Without a vision, the people will perish.”
May God continue to renew my vision that I might encourage those entrusted to my care.