They called me names. They mocked my appearance. They scoffed at my opinions, disdained my attempts at humor. They sometimes threatened violence. A kick to the face broke my glasses once. They called it an accident.
Considering what I might do, I realized that I could leave. I didn’t have to stick around, and I didn’t have to take it; so I resolved that I would show up one more time, if for no other reason than to announce my intention to quit. Mind made up, I felt good. But that night, I made a discovery that changed the way I see. And instead of leaving, I stayed.
They needed me too much.
It was my freshman year in college. I was volunteering with middle school students at a local church. They were horrible, and they wouldn’t leave me alone.
That was the key to my epiphanous moment: they wouldn’t leave me alone.
Other adults in the room didn’t get punched in the back during worship. Other adults in the room didn’t suffer sotto voce critiques of their facial features. Other adults in the room – as far as student behaviors indicated – weren’t even visible.
It wasn’t fair.
That I’d been given so much power.
Edwin H. Friedman claims that “people can only hear you when they are moving toward you,” and for absolutely no good reason, these students had decided to move toward me. They had given me the power over what they heard and how they heard it.
If what has value is like a radio signal in a sea of static, then these students had decided that I was the signal. Other adults in the room were just noise.
I have to admit that, along with the students, I too suffered serious and prolonged bouts of immaturity. In other words, I recognized the power I’d been given, but I didn’t use it well. And the next year, a new group of volunteers – younger and demonstrably cooler – joined the work, so I had to learn to share attention, to be part of a team.
Fortunately, I mostly grew up over the intervening years without growing too “old” to relate. But that time of my life – that discovery I made on a Wednesday night in October, 20 years ago – pointed to a truth that has opened ministry doors in dozens of contexts.
What, exactly, did I learn? That negative attention is attention. When people are moving toward me, whether from loving acceptance or annoyed engagement, they are also attuned to the signals I send. They choose to hear me.
It’s a truth that has helped me to re-perceive what feel like attacks, to see them as opportunities for relationship, as indicators that I have value.
When a parent sends me an email, questioning my judgment, I can rejoice that this parent trusted me enough to start a conversation, to tell me what she really thinks, to give me the opportunity to respond.
When a retired college professor invites me to coffee, sits across from me, and proceeds to tell me why I’m an idiot, I don’t have to hear the isolated critique. After all, I don’t have to take it personally.
I get to.
He has a Ph.D., national recognition, decades of academic experience, and he’s decided that I’m worth his time.
When an elder at my church questions my character in an embarrassing, semi-public, quasi-accusation, I look up and see that she’s looking into my eyes. That she’s not angry. Just afraid. And that thing she just said might be more about her than about me.
What do I do? It depends.
Mostly, I try to receive the gift of attention as a gift, to truly be thankful for the influence I’ve been given, for the value that’s been communicated. I try to listen and really understand. I try to give back.
I’ll admit, it doesn’t always end in raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. But more times than I can count, that parent has volunteered to work in my classroom, that retired professor has shaken my hand and asked if I would be his friend, that elder – in tears – has called to talk about her son and to ask for my forgiveness.
And I pray: God, help me to have the grace to see a world filled with opportunity, a people filled with potential, fields white for harvest. Help me to love my neighbor as myself. Help me also to recognize when my neighbor is trying to love me.
Help me to love my neighbor as myself. Help me also to recognize when my neighbor is trying to love me.