It's tough to be a man. Not that women have it easier than men, but that the natural tendencies of men tend to bring out contradictions between intentions and results. For example: a wife comes to her husband in tears about how someone at the office has been treating her, and the husband, wanting to come to the rescue of his wife, will instinctively want to give her a list of ways to fight back, or ways she should be acting in response to what is happening. The result of all this helpfulness is either the wife will react defensively in which case an argument may ensue, or the wife may just "give up" emotionally with the feeling that her husband is "out of touch" with her. For his part, the man is confused and is usually left wondering what went wrong.
Whether it is with a spouse or with children, men want to be the hero who comes to the rescue, but often ends up the villain perpetuating and reinforcing whatever problem was brought to his attention to begin with. He may even become part of the problem, even though this was most assuredly never his intention. What really is going on? How can a man break the cycle?
I am well versed with these questions because I am well versed in being a man of the male variety in my own home. Whether it is with my own wife or one of my two daughters, I have found myself frustrated by being caught between the desire to be a real help to my family, and sorely failing. When they are feeling down, it seems I cannot find the right words to cheer them up. When I try to shake them up, they look at me as though I were from another planet with no connection to them whatsoever.
Though I have heard the words and read many articles over this, it has taken many years of marriage and countless interactions to finally sink in: before you can really help anyone, they need to know you understand.
It's not that you agree with them, but that in some way, you come around to their perspective and begin to see the place from where their own emotions are being developed. You begin to see why they are frustrated, and see in a way that you understand. You being to see why they feel the way they feel, why they say the things they say, and why they do the things they do. You somehow get to this point, and then communicate to them that you understand. "I get it" is the message you want to convey.
From there, you now have the opportunity to talk with them instead of talking at them. Now you have the possibility of coming along side them to be an encouragement to offer hope, rather than an outsider who throws comments and advice at them to do this or that. When you truly understand someone, and can communicate that understanding to them, you are perceived as someone who is working along side them, and they will see you as someone who is lending your strength to theirs to move forward. In short, when you understand first, then you can offer hope.
Being able to communicate you understand is not easy. It the difference between yelling at someone and trying to direct them out of harms way, and actually coming alongside them physically, wrapping their arm over your shoulder, and lifting them up as you help them limp along out of harms way. Understanding, at it's root, is compassion; co-suffering with someone else, and leading them to a better place. Understanding the value of understanding is one thing, and putting it into practice difficult. However, when you practice understanding with regularity, you will find the relationships you have now will become much deeper and stronger than you thought they could be.
Last night we had family game night and played the game of LIFE. While not going into all the details of the game itself, there are at least two points in the game where a fork in the road appears. Go one way, and one thing will happen. Go another way, and another thing will happen. What will also happen is that other possibilities of going down one path will become possible, while simultaneously denying the chance that the opportunities of the other path will ever happen. It is a choice. During the game, we can see what will happen and each player gets to choose which scenario they want to play out, however, life is not always so clear.
I have been told, and read in various books by some pretty great leaders, that a man is influenced by the people he meets and the books he reads. What never occurs to some is that the people we ultimately meet, and the books we finally read, are choices that are up to us to make.
Being one of two parents raising two daughters is not easy. Even with the great strength of my wife, together we sometimes feel we are falling short in some areas. We want to raise our daughters to be able to think for themselves, but to do so with the values my wife and I share so that their choices will reflect those values. To a large extent, we exercise great control over their environment, but have given them great latitude to explore, learn, and experience life within those boundaries. The day will quickly come though when they will slip beyond those boundaries into the greater untamed environment of the world we live in, and I think to myself, "How will I prepare them for that day?"
You see, a choice is a fork in the road. It represents a decision to be made, whether to go this way or that. Some choices are obvious when compared to a predetermined set of morals, values, or standards. Other choices are more difficult, and cause us to see and even explore the blur of grey that separates what was a black and white decision before. I want my daughters to understand the choices they make are important, because with each choice a pattern is being forged in their minds. It is a pattern that seeks to be revealed, and eventually one day will tell them who they are.
While certainly, on a purely objective level, anyone is capable of doing anything, there remains that pattern of choices behind us that lays the outline of the choices to be made before us. That pattern can tell us whether or not we are the type of person who would ever do such and such a thing. Most people will immediately recognize that at any moment the pattern can be broken and a different path chosen, but such words are of no comfort to a life lived, a rutted path carved deep, and a way of learning that dictates how things are supposed to be done.
I want to make sure my daughters understand all this. I want them to know that a choice to tell a lie today will make it easier to tell a lie tomorrow, and how a lie many years from now can cause them great harm. I want them to know that the day they slip the boundaries of the protected environment of home, they will come to many different forks in the road. While they will grow to crave and greatly desire the chance to make those choices and decisions in their own lives, what I want them to understand most is that each of those choices will belong to them not so much as a freedom, but as a responsibility. It is a responsibility to bear the consequences and outcomes of those choices personally, to understand that the choices made can also have a great impact on others, and to either enjoy the benefits of good choices or suffer under the weight of bad ones.
Our house has recently become a way station for lizards. You know, the small Anole type lizards you see scurrying around outside? Well now we have them in our house. What is more, these little green travelers are here by invitation. You see, my daughter loves catching them, but keeping them healthy and alive can be challenging. In the past, we have allowed her to catch them and keep them overnight in her little lizard habitat, but in the morning she would have to release them. I could always tell it was a little bitter-sweet for her to let them go, but it was best.
Watching her let a lizard go one night, I asked myself how I could make this bitter-sweet moment into something more. That night I sat and talked with my daughter about lizards, and just started asking questions. As she talked, it became evident that what she knew about lizards was very little, but that she wanted to know more was also evident. So, I went to my office in the house and sat at my computer. Reflecting back on my conversation I drew up a list of questions, or things we would like to know about lizards, and put them with blanks next to the questions. In effect, we came up with a "Catch & Release Report" that she could now perform whenever she caught a lizard.
With the first catch, we went through the process of measuring its length, measuring it on a gram scale, taking pictures of it, noting the time of day and outside temperature, and other factual data. There was also a couple of places just for observation and even a page where there was a blank outline of a lizard so she could color and put in details about the lizard she noted on her own.
My daughter is suddenly very excited about lizards. Before, she caught them because they were a novelty, and now that she is asking questions, her mind has opened up and she is seeing lizards in ways she had never seen them before. She is able to make comparisons in size, color, temperament, and physical details. She is learning. Why? Because she is asking.
This may not sound like such a big deal, but it is an important lesson for everyone in all walks of life, and in the Christian life as well. There is no end of learning until you stop asking questions. If you want to learn how to improve your relationship with your spouse, stop having all the answers and start asking questions. If you want to learn how to improve communication between you and a coworker or your own child, start by asking questions. It is such a small, little word, but has so much power when applied.
When you pray, stop for a moment and ask yourself: am I praying for what I want because I think I have the answers to my own problems? What if you stopped having the answers? What if you simply opened your heart and prayed along the lines of asking God for His answers to your problems? How would that change how you relate to God? How would that affect the way you live your life? Ask.
"What do you want to be when you grow up?" It is a question I ask my two daughters once in a while, and mostly around their birthdays. I want to see what they are thinking, and remind them that a day is coming when they will seek and hopefully find their place in this world according to God's will for their lives. I remind them that God has a plan for them, that God also created them with special gifts and abilities, and that these gifts and abilities were given to them for very specific reasons.
I often wonder how many people are walking around today having never realized their own potential. These people continue day after day to work in jobs they hate, or suffer through desperate situations they wish were different. Then I look at my two daughters and wonder if they will ever realize the potential they have in life, or if they will find professional happiness doing what they love and being paid for it.
I believe we are all created to glorify God with our lives, and I also believe that in order to do that we must live up to the potential for which we are all created; professionally in our jobs, as spouses to our mates, and as parents to our children. The first step is realizing that you were created by God, not some random evolutionary accident. Everything God created not only shows design, but also purpose. This means you also were created with a purpose, a reason for existing, and you have a special part to play in the history of the world.
The next thing we must all realize is that if God created you for a reason, then it is a waste of time to try to be like someone else. We see the search for individuality in youth, and in doing so they ironically end up congregating into groups where everyone tries to be like everyone else with a certain "look" that identifies them with their peers. The simple truth is that you are the only person in the world that can be you better than anyone else. Stop trying to be like someone else, and just be yourself! How often have we heard these words without realizing or understanding that being yourself is exactly what God has designed you to do?!
Like clockwork parts, we can peer inside and understand that each part plays a role in the function of the watch. Some play small roles, but none are so minor that the clock could function well enough without them. Some parts of a clock are on display, some are hidden, some move, while others provide stability by being stationary. Each of us is different for a reason. To criticize someone simply for being different than you is to criticize the work of the Creator who made all men equal and different; each with the equal potential to be the individual person they were created to be.
Ever know someone who never met a stranger? That is my oldest daughter. Ever since she was a baby, anyone could hold her and she simply did not seem to care or mind. Most children, when taken from their mother, will start to reach out and cry to get back to their mom. My oldest never did that. In fact, it actually became quite worrisome for me and my wife. Literally anyone could have walked away with her, and she would have gone with them without so much as a whimper. These days, I think we've managed to instill in her a healthy respect for strangers, but she still has the same personality.
When I think about what my daughter will be like when she grows up, I think back to when I was a child with a neighbor who was always very outgoing and friendly. She had a son my age, and whenever I would go over to his house she would answer the door and say, "Well look who finally arrived! We've been expecting you! Come on in and have a cookie. Where have you been and what have you been up to?" What a wonderful way to greet and be greeted. I always felt welcome there. I also remember the days after they moved away. Even with all the people who lived around us, I remember how empty the neighborhood seemed after that.
The world is full of people that go unknown. We pass them as we walk through the mall, we shop with them in stores, and we drive down the road with them without ever acknowledging them. It is the rest of the world we live in. It is a world full of people yet so very empty. It is a wall of relational separation. We do not know them. They do not know us. So, we will have nothing to do with them.
This wall of separation is what Jesus broke down many times. He went to the woman at the well and spoke with her. He spoke to a man who had climbed up a tree. Over and over again he went to the strangers of the world, looked them in the eye, and communicated on some level - "I know you."
I think it is a great example of what we might be able to accomplish as Christians in this world. Many times we do not know what to do or what to say or how to act when talking with someone we do not know, and that is part of the problem. Maybe it is just a sign of the times we live in, but the walls of relational separation between individuals in this world have grown thicker. The message we are communicating, whether intentional or not, is "I don't know you. You are not welcome here."
Next time, when God speaks to your heart about talking with someone, try to imagine how they might feel if someone they knew walked up to them and said hello. At that moment, just before you speak and just after you have looked them in the eye, think to yourself "I know you" and see where the conversation goes.