“Behind the closed door,
Something waits, something hidden;
Future lies beyond.”
My parents have told me that when I was a very small child, I would happily go to anyone. My brother and sister would cry when handed off to strangers, but I was a very sociable baby. Even when I lived in Japan, I always wanted to be around people.
As I grew older, I began to discover a frightening trend among adults. Most adults were terribly dull and some were even cynical. I didn’t know the word cynical back then, but I knew what cynical looked like. Cynical didn’t want to come out and let snow fall down from lumbering pine trees onto it’s head. Cynical didn’t think that losing a tooth was interesting. Cynical thought sledding off the roof was a bad idea. Cynical didn’t smile all that much.
Now, mind you, I didn’t know why so many adults were this way, but I saw it and it scared me. Almost everything I did was accompanied with this ever-present mantra, whispered to myself: “This will still matter when I’m an adult.” Being impressed with realistic computer games was going to matter. Being amazed by the night sky was going to matter. Discovering new things in the woods was going to matter. Creating worlds with paper, cassettes and piles of snow was going to matter. I didn’t want them to stop mattering. I didn’t want to lose the love for life that everyone else who made the trek to adulthood seemed to forget about.
I entered junior high and suddenly discovered that some people were mean. Not just the mean that cuts in line or takes your cupcake, mind you; I discovered a mean that was willing to hurt, both physically and emotionally, to put itself ahead. It was a terrifying thing to discover, especially for someone who blindly loved people. Trying to understand that sort of meanness was baffling, and it set me unwittingly on my first steps towards cynicism.
I responded very badly to meanness. I didn’t quite understand why people were mean, but it was a frightening experience. It felt very much like a wicked, wicked game, and it felt like we were playing for survival; so in junior school, I learned how to fight back. Being the runt, I sharpened my wit and hurled insults instead of fists (threw a few of those as well, unsuccessfully). But I was raised in a good home and didn’t have much background in meanness, so I eventually just sat in the back corner, silent and baffled at what was happening to these people who I though I loved.
Then came hormones. Suddenly people were lovely again–specifically girls. Dating became the medicine for rejection. I could ignore the rejection from everyone else just as long as I had the picture of my Venus in my wallet (well hidden from mom and dad, of course) and a note from her in my pocket. In fact, no one else really mattered all that much compared to the woman of the hour; friendships were few and far between, parents were inconsequential, siblings were annoying. Not surprisingly, most girlfriends got burned out. Dating me was a full time job, what with the jealousy, intensity and three-hour phone calls. And since my world revolved around them, when they broke free from my orbit, I went crashing into nothingness with a severe sense of vertigo.
This narcissistic trend of finding acceptance and purpose in relationships continued well into college. It wasn’t until the summer before my senior year that I woke up and smelled the proverbial coffee. It happened in Maine, probably the best place of all for something good to happen. I spent a summer teaching teenagers and came away with a lot more learned than taught: I discovered the reason why people are mean.
Now, I know that there are people who are mean for the sake of being mean; I don’t even bother myself with those people. I do not understand them and may not ever understand them; they don’t even understand themselves! Maybe I’ll write another story on my sixtieth birthday about them (maranatha!). But I discovered that many people who are mean are actually just hurting. Like a porcupine, they bristle their quills when they’re threatened and because they’ve been hurt before they constantly feel threatened.
This was such a revelation to me; because in my own pain from previous hurt, I had become the self-centered creature I couldn’t quite describe as a child and had forgotten about the people all around me. I let the pain someone else inflicted on me turn me into something that I didn’t want to become. Part of loving people is becoming vulnerable; in fact, the closer you are to someone, the more vulnerable you are to them. Each time you are rejected, the less of yourself you offer the next time.
Of course, habits are hard to break; I still loved the ego trip that dating brought and found myself falling back into that line of thinking. But I was eating candy when I needed to be a chef. Making meals for everyone instead of sucking on sentimentality. It was time for change. Instead of looking around for acceptance, I started to give acceptance in the most unlikely places: to those who most considered unlovely–those who were sitting in the back of the room baffled at what was happening to the people they once loved.
Now, more than ever before, I am discovering that there is so much hurt and far too much silence–in our churches, in our families, in our marriages. All this hurt is turning people into cynics and creating a generation of cynics. People being hurt by people who have been hurt, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. Something has to change.
When I was eleven, I sat on the wooden ramp at our church, looked out across the gravel parking lot with my forehead against the railing and whispered the mantra again: “Loving people will matter when I’m an adult.” It may have gotten lost there for a few years amidst the pain and the ego; but let me tell you, it’s a good thing to remember on your thirtieth birthday.