I’ll be the first to admit I was driving a little bit fast. And the road was icy. But my sister didn’t have to keep complaining, asking me to please slow down. I’m a safe driver. Experienced.
That’s when a light blue Ford Tempo cut into our lane. His brake lights flashed. I couldn’t stop. Swerved to the right but clipped his bumper. And we were spinning.
Whatever it was, it would work out. I’ve been in so many accidents, and I’ve always walked away.
This time, I was walking along a driveway. Didn’t know where I’d left the car. Knew that my sister was fine. A man, standing in front of the garage, told me I had died. He seemed to sense my shock. Let down his guard and admitted that there might be a chance to go back. But there would be brain damage, memory loss, incoherent speech, no way that I’d ever live independently.
Or I could stay.
I couldn’t imagine staying. Missed so many people. Was willing to go back no matter the cost. Needed to go back. There were still so many things I had to do in life. Things I’d done before and wanted to do again.
So I went back, and I did them.
I went on all the slides. And had pillow fights. Ran in the park. Dug huge holes. Buried my legs in the dirt on a sunny day. And laughed. So much laughter.
There was joy in my innocence. And there was pain.
I saw people I knew. Recognized their faces. Sometimes remembered their names. But most didn’t know me. Didn’t say much. Smiled like they couldn’t think of anything else to do. Didn’t seem to like me. Some just never came. And I couldn’t understand where they were. No one would tell me.
It was just past 4 in the morning. I couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t keep my face dry. Kept on reminding myself that it had just been a dream.
I saw people I knew. Recognized their faces. Sometimes remembered their names. But most didn’t know me.
I tend to live in my head. I plan. I question. I dream. I replay conversations. I practice presentations. I worry. Sometimes, while composing a response to an urgent email, I’ll suddenly realize I’m in a crosswalk, that there’s a car coming toward me, that the driver doesn’t see me. I stop thinking and react (not necessarily in that order), but then I wonder how I got there. Where did I just come from? Where was I going? And I remember. That email!
Living in my head works for me. I like to observe. I like to dissect. I like to wonder.
But something I’ve learned, observing others – not everyone lives and thinks as I do. Middle school students, for instance, spend a lot more time in their bodies. Which can be a problem.
I envision an engaging theological discussion. They want to run and scream in the gym (preferably while throwing dodge balls at each other and with the lights out).
I plan a time for students to share the truth about what’s hard for them, to listen in silence, to pray for one another. They instinctively understand the sacredness of the moment. But for them, it is difficult to sit and to focus for much more than a moment.
I ask a question about a Bible story. A student raises her hand and quotes a line from a Veggie Tales cartoon version of that Bible story. Half a dozen middle-schoolers begin singing the theme song. Some of them dance.
Something I’ve learned about me. Living in my mind does not necessarily make me a more patient person. And I’m not alone.
Contemporary Christianity has lots of adults like me, but it also has lots and lots of middle school students. Several studies show that we can expect to lose at least two-thirds of these students before they turn 20. Which is a problem.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this problem. Observing. Dissecting. Wondering.
In the 2nd century, a significant number of Christians were influenced by Gnostic thought, a kind of religious philosophy that separated the spiritual (good) from the physical (not good). That’s a simplistic (and short!) overview, but I’ve found my mind returning to Gnosticism again and again and again as I consider this problem. Our problem.
It is a problem that sees someone like me as spiritually mature, as more Christ-like. It is a problem that sees middle-school students as immature and, therefore, not at all like Christ (or not enough like Christ). We demand that they keep their bodies in check: don’t look; don’t taste; don’t touch. But they cannot help themselves. They are overwhelmed by music, hungry for experience, delirious with sunshine and wind in the leaves and open sky.
We want them to sit down. To sit still. To sit quietly. Just for five minutes. Please.
We let them play games. But we sometimes intimate that it is a reward (and a privilege). That it can be taken away. I’m serious. Listen to me. Stop that. Stop. Go sit against the wall. Hand me the dodge ball, please. Hand it to me. Thank you.
I hear myself.
And I recognize, sometimes, that I am part of this problem.
I have conceptualized the Christian life, diagrammed it neatly on a virtual blackboard: a chalk-drawn picture of a man, standing on a cliff, faced with a crevasse he cannot cross. I have imagined that if I leave the body behind, my mind might find a way to float over that deep, dark hole.
I call it freedom.
Middle school students recognize the lie. They would not leave behind their bodies. There is too much fun to be had. Shouting, for instance. Rolling down a hill. Jumping into water. Climbing a tree. Running. Running. Running. Running.
I watch them. Sometimes I join them. And I wonder – as I’m running – whether the problem is the problem. I want them to grow up and be more like me. Quiet. Thoughtful. Polite. They want me to join in the game, to help keep order, to know where the Band-Aids and ice packs can be found.
We are so different. But on a Wednesday night, running through a darkened gym, I get hit in the head with a dodge-ball. And I realize that the real problem – if it exists – is that we do not spend more time together.
I have conceptualized the Christian life, diagrammed it neatly on a virtual blackboard: a chalk-drawn picture of a man, standing on a cliff, faced with a crevasse he cannot cross.
I’ve worked with youth for a long time now, and as fun and rewarding as the job can be, it’s often just work. Hard work.
Like the time – while teaching in a public school – that I returned from lunch to find that a student had broken into my classroom and urinated on another student’s project. Like the time one student hacked into another student’s school network account in order to alter a book report and leave a collection of threatening images. Like the time a student lied to me – in the face of four witnesses and a mountain of physical evidence – claiming he knew nothing about the broken lock, the ruined (and stinking) project, the compromised account, the death threats.
Sometimes you face a student whose will is stronger than your own. Sometimes you just feel stuck. Sometimes you think about a life where people treat each other with respect and wonder whether you’re in the right field of work, whether there might be enough time to go back to college and start over. Sometimes you just give up. Call the student’s parents. Ask for help.
Sometimes you find that their job’s even harder than yours. And that they need help too.
It’s in cases like these that I face a decision: 1) get rid of the student or 2) get closer to the student. Because that’s how it is in people-related work. You can get rid of the people. Or you can get closer to them. I don’t know of any other way to solve people problems.
And I wanted to get rid of the kid. That would have been easier. Simpler. Cleaner. But I’ve learned that you never really solve the problem that way. There’s always another student – even more creatively destructive than the first. So I’ve developed a philosophy of work with one important boundary. There is no such thing as a throw-away person.
Which is where the work comes in. If there are no throw-away people, then I have to figure out how to connect with the people I’d like to throw away.
In one case, I might have given a student a roll of paper towels and a bottle of Windex to clean up a project as best he could. In another case, he and I and his parents may have spent several afternoons negotiating a long-term behavioral contract. Those parents might have started having me over for dinner once a week for good food, a TV show or two, and regular conversations about how things were going in the classroom. Over time, it’s possible that I actually started to like that student.
It’s also possible that as the student grew up, we became friends.
There was a Bible quiz program in which he helped coach a team of younger boys. There was a work trip to the Dominican Republic. There was the time when he left college to volunteer in a drug rehabilitation program in Mexico, using his language skills and his limited medical training to help desperately poor people with serious addictions. I was proud of the work he was doing and of the person he was becoming.
It’s in times like these that it’s tempting to think the hard work is done, that now’s the time to enjoy the fruit of that earlier labor.
But the work’s never really done.
Sometimes you hear from the wife of a friend. Or see a newspaper article with that friend’s name. Or get asked to speak at a funeral.
Which is a completely different kind of work. Though the results are similar. I felt stuck (and a little bit lost). I thought – ever so briefly – about a life where I wouldn’t have to get close to people, a life where I wouldn’t have to lose them, a life where I wouldn’t have to hurt.
Unfortunately, my philosophy of work has another important boundary. There is no such thing as a throw-away experience.
Which is where the work comes in. If there are no throw-away experiences, then I have to figure out how to connect with the feelings I’d rather not have. I have to learn how to face into the experiences that bring suffering and pain. I have to learn how – each day – to keep moving forward in the work to which I’ve been called. To trust that I’m being shaped in ways that are shaping others. To know that this hard work is work worth doing. And to hope – always to hope – because there’s no other way I know to keep on going.
Sometimes, though, even that’s not enough, and the only thing that really helps is to call that friend’s parents. Because they need help too. And the work isn’t really mine.
It’s something we do together.
And to hope – always to hope – because there’s no other way I know to keep on going.