My wife and I were sitting with our 5-year-old son and going over his US states flash cards.
When we flipped the card for North Carolina, my wife read their motto.
To be, rather than to seem.
Or, for you Latin lovers: Esse Quam Videri. Don’t ask me how to say that.
It was one of those moments when you feel you’ve heard a whole sermon in 2 seconds.
This motto seems like the opposite of our society.
Recently I was working out with a friend at a public gym. We were about half way through, sweat dripping, lungs pumping, when a girl walked in across the room and sat down in front of a mirror. She sat for a minute and then stood. I noticed in my peripheral that she wasn’t moving. When I looked over she had her hip popped to the side and her phone lifted for a selfie. She stood like this for probably 2 minutes.
A few more seconds passed and she lifted her bag to her shoulder and walked out of the room. I can only hope she worked out before or after that photo shoot. Even if she did, the purpose of her visit to this room was to get the picture of herself at the gym. To seem, rather than to be.
Seeming is the shortcut, the cheap way, the empty way, and it almost never leads to the recognition you crave. When it does, the recognition is quick and cheap. On the other hand, sleep is sweet when you focus on being and let the seeming take care of itself. No one has to know you’ve done well if you know for yourself. And the inverse is true. If you know you haven’t done well, no amount of praise from others will give you peace.
I’d rather be the kind of person who shows up with quiet results than the person who announces their method but never has anything to show for it.
Take a picture of the sun dropping down and burning the cloud bottom with starshine fire. Orange and amber blazing in furious beauty whether you watch or not, but tonight you decided to leave the house for tacos so you saw it and it burned a hole in your heart. It’s just a sunset. Take a picture. You’ll remember it.
And why will you remember it? Why will you bottle up meaning and squeeze it tighter, as if you could stop the sand of life from falling through the bottom of your palm? Because you know everlasting things don’t have the monopoly on meaning. A pregnant womb; a crawling child; a tree in spring—these leave as fast as the come yet their meaning pulsates through the galaxy of the heart forever.
So take a picture and put it in a box and forget it so your kids will find it 2 months after they bury you and feel the same wave that shot through you that night when you clicked the shutter. You bottled it up by instinct, mostly for you, but now it’s for them. They’ll see it and know the beauty you saw wasn’t in vain. Then they’ll throw the picture away because you can’t keep everything.
When that picture degrades in the landfill and the memory of that sunset goes back into the earth, perhaps the universe will notice that you appreciated that night and did your part to expose the lie that meaning is only real when it lasts forever.
“I don’t blame you one iota for feeling as you do. If I were you, I would undoubtedly feel just as you do.”
This is from Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.
The only reason that you are not a rattlesnake is that your mother and father weren’t rattlesnakes. You deserve very little credit for being what you are, and remember the people who come to you irritated, bigoted, and unreasoning deserve very little discredit for being what they are. Feel sorry for the poor devils. Pity them. Sympathize with them. Say to yourself, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Three-fourths of the people you will ever meet are hungering and thirsting for sympathy. Give it to them and they will love you.
How can a society as advanced as ours remain so uncivilized? How can we be so content for hate to abound?
If we spent one tenth of the amount of time trying to understand other people as we do trying to reinforce ourselves, we would have a drastically different America. As it is, we are addicts—always chasing another hit of affirmation to make us feel okay and secure.
Some talk about civil war like it would be a good thing—like we could get the results of it without seeing our sons and daughters die. We think that’s possible because of the environment we’ve been raised in. Few who love ordering steaks would be willing to see the cow upside down in the slaughterhouse, its blood running on the floor like a river.
Imagine implying something so foolish as being willing to kill your neighbors when you’ve never even asked them why they feel the way they do.
What if we sought growth as much as reinforcement? What if instead of denigrating those who see things differently, we listened to their story? What if in our zeal to do anything for our country we were bold enough to do the task we most dread—change our minds.
The problem is, understanding takes effort and time and we’re lazy and in a hurry. “You’re what’s wrong with our country” feels better and is faster than, “Thanks for sharing your perspective. Just so I can understand, can you explain this part? I haven’t heard that yet and would love to learn more.” Who has time for that?
America will never be uniform in its ideologies and policies. There will never be a day when all problems are solved. But there can be a day, and it could be as soon as tomorrow, when understanding fills our interactions, when sympathy is extended as a habit, and when we fight for service and brotherhood instead of fighting for our own way. The day could come when our rally cry is no longer “this is MY America” but “this is OUR America”—a day when we are most troubled, not that the world around us is changing, but that voices around us remain unheard. A day when, for the first time in our history, we truly see liberty and justice for all.
Our problem is widespread, but the only place change can happen is in the minds of individuals. Some of the most powerful and disarming words you could say are, “I may be wrong.” They are also some of the most truthful.
I’ll leave you with the often quoted but never worn out prayer attributed to St. Francis.
Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
I recently visited the classroom where I went to the first grade. It was a red brick building on historic Route 66 in Amarillo, and it still is. Apart from the white walls now being blue, almost nothing was different after twenty-two years.
Two windows are on the far wall. I looked through those on a gloomy winter day when the teacher, Mrs. Bagwell, said “sleet” was falling. Sleet. I had never heard of it. Mrs. Bagwell was a good teacher—kind and comforting, keeping us on task, demanding respect but not fear. She smiled a lot.
On the wall hung a large laminated poster with three tickets for each student—green, yellow, and red. When a student misbehaved, he pulled a ticket. At the end of most days I was still on green though a few days I made it to yellow and one time got to red which ruined my day. Humiliation and penitence hung from my neck like an iron yoke when I realized I was one pull away from a visit to Mr. Pinkston’s office.
If you ever did visit the principal’s office, you would get a “tally” as a record of your visit which your parents had to sign. When Dad would see me after school, he would often joke, “Did you get a tally today?”
“No,” I would say, and he would chuckle.
One day he and I sat in the car after school waiting for my sister to come out of her building. He rolled down the windows and killed the engine. The autumn sun warmed us. Near us, car doors were shutting, kids were shouting goodbyes, parents were making small talk, and music was fading in and out as vehicles rolled past.
Dad tapped a rhythm on the steering wheel, obviously in a good mood as we waited.
“Did you get a tally today?” he joked without turning around. It came out of nowhere.
“Yes,” I said.
He stopped tapping. The leather seat creaked as he turned around. After a long pause he said, “You did?” pulling his head back in surprise. My heart climbed my throat as I unzipped my backpack and slipped out the yellow paper.
I told him the story, that there was an old, beat up Volkswagen Beetle parked in a yard next to the playground, just on the other side of a half-height chain link fence. The windows somehow held together despite being cracked all over. Its white paint was chipped and it rested on 4 cinder blocks instead of wheels. Some of the boys thought it would be fun to throw rocks at it, and since it appeared to be trash and obviously of no concern to the owner, I agreed with them. I threw one rock, maybe two, feeling less responsible since it wasn’t my idea.
The next thing I know I’m standing in the principal’s office with four other boys. This was not Mr. Pinkston who would pop his curly haired head in our classroom door often and say, “How are my first grade muffins doing?” No, this was the big boss. Not the administrator, the Principal. The principal had a Stalinesque mustache, only thicker and blacker, and I never saw a smile beneath it. He walked the halls with a productive frown. I feared him.
The five of us lined up in front of his desk.
“Which of you boys has had one of my spankings?” he asked. I felt like an ant hearing distant thunder, worried my whole world was about to wash away.
Everyone raised their hand—except me. He looked at me, and in his eyes, I saw my doom. I knew instinctively that if he was giving me a spanking that day it wouldn’t be the only one. I wondered who spanked harder, him or Dad.
After a few moments of choking silence he announced that he would only give us tallies, although every moment we stood before him he spanked us with his wooden brow.
Dad took the tally from my hand over the backseat and held the lid of his pen between his lips. “We’ll make sure this doesn’t happen again,” he said.
Mrs. Bagwell, our teacher, wrote four or five assignments every day on a big blackboard which we had to complete before lunch.
One day I was appalled to read Write the first 5 books of the Old Testament. I worked on all the other tasks, procrastinating, wondering how I would ever get such a monstrous assignment done before lunch. I watched with dread and amazement as student after student turned in their completed assignments and formed a line with their lunch boxes in hand. How were they done so soon?
“In the beginning,” I forced in my new cursive, “God created the heavens and earth. And the earth was without form and void…” I was the last one working before lunch. My stress was rising; the other desks were vacant; the lunch line was growing. Mrs. Bagwell looked over my shoulder, and when she saw more than two full pages of verbatim scripture, she burst into laughter.
“The assignment is to write the names of the first five books, Nathan,” she said compassionately, her hands on my shoulders. The other kids laughed too, but I was so relieved I couldn’t be embarrassed. She considered my assignment complete and hung it on the wall so it could amuse us the rest of the year.
I spoke publicly for the first time at the end of that year. My fellow students and I had to pick a historical figure, dress up like them, and write and deliver a speech on their life. I chose Ronald Reagan. When I found a picture of him on the sleeve cover of one of Dad’s books, I taped it to the window in our kitchen and traced over it as the sun set behind it and Mom made fried okra. When speech day came I put on a suit and tie and parted my hair against the natural grain to match Reagan’s.
Standing in line behind the stage, with all the students and their families gathered in the chapel, I was more excited than nervous. I walked out to a warm applause, blinked through the stage lights, read my speech, and walked off. To my surprise, Dad and Mom raved. They were so proud that they took me to Radio Shack and let me pick out anything I wanted, which was a multi-colored cassette walkman. I thought it was a sweet deal since I didn’t know to be proud of what I had done.
I’ve thought long and hard about why I remember so much of this first grade year and why the memories sparkle with significance. The answer has long eluded me, but I’m beginning to see it.
This was the moment in my life when I saw there is a larger world outside of me—that there are so many other children in this world with different eyes, different skin, different voices, different names, and different views of life.
I saw in this year that some teachers are nice and teach you about sleet and hug your shoulders when you make a fool of yourself, and some are stern and instill the fear of God in you as they scowl over their mustache in the hall. There’s a whole world of places to go, homes to visit, friends to make, games to play, and moving in from the tiny town of Wheeler made these experiences all the more vivid and influential.
Yet I not only remember it, it matters to me. Why?
My guess is that as one part of my life experience was beginning, another was coming to an end. The part of the experience that always needed to be near Mom, dressing myself in her room in the early morning, eating the peanut butter and honey on bread she made me for breakfast, riding with her up Western Street as the sun gleamed over the horizon in the winter, saying goodbye as dropped me off and pulled away.
The part of the experience that knew almost nothing about this world and so noticed almost everything—not just the things that happened and people I knew but the impressions life left on my senses.
Hundreds of images flash through my mind, like how the sun in April looks so different than it did in October and how that affected my emotions somehow; like the grains in the paper we learned cursive on, the chalkboard after it was cleaned, and the laminated bears with our names on them at top of the wall; like the way heavy rainclouds in autumn darkened the lunchroom and drastically changed the mood; like the stairwell with a glass block window with a cross in it that diffused the sunlight all over the steps and has more than once been the setting of a dream in my older years.
Sounds play in my mind too, like the ring of the rubber kickball bouncing on the blacktop, or the thunder of the lunchroom table as 6 of us used our fists to smash Justin’s Cheetos at the same time (his idea), or the horrible music that issued from our kazoos in music class and the dissonance from the piano as our teacher slammed her arms onto the keys to get our attention.
I can still smell the metal on my hands after swinging, still feel the water on my chin as I bobbed for goldfish at the fall festival, still see Monty’s purple and teal Charlotte Hornets jacket. I noticed how Savannah had a long name which matched her long hair, how Bry’s name was as short as he, how Kiki twisted her mouth as she chewed her skittles. The fifth-graders looked like grownups, the gym was usually too loud, and strawberry milk existed—a fact I didn’t know until the morning we gathered around the flagpole to pray and I reached over it for the chocolate milk.
To remember the way the world used to feel is almost a shock. Grownups carry weights and complications at nearly every moment and kids don’t even know it. Children look up and see towering heroes, some happy, some grouchy, and all they want is grow up too, though they’re ignorant of what that entails.
They don’t know what they will have to leave behind. They don’t know that somewhere ahead there is a door they will walk through and that at this threshold they must abandon some of the innocence, some of the wonder, some of the magic, some of the hope that fills young hearts.
No one can tell them when they will step across, and they can’t predict it themselves. But someday, after they’ve gone through it, they’ll look back and know. They’ll see on that day that play, wonder, self-forgetfulness, imagination, and simplicity now seem childish and unnatural—a thing of the past.
They will have freed their hands because no one can hold everything at once. They need them now for heavier things, like jobs, school, careers, bills, and ambitions; like those friendships that you one day realize are over; like your first heartbreak; like a hard marriage; like struggles with parents; like the abrupt and bewildering loss of someone you love; like realizing that in this world of sunlit stairwells and hugs from teachers, there’s sorrow, pain, hatred, and darkness too.
If I could go back in time, what would I say to myself as a child? What would I tell that five-year-old in Wheeler shooting his cap gun and watching the tadpoles swim in the bird fountain? What would I say to that six-year-old at recess jumping from the swing and wondering why the sky is so blue?
I would be tempted to tell him to enjoy this part of his life, but this would be meaningless, because he already is. Hopefully I would think better of it and say nothing at all. Maybe instead I would watch him wander without burden around the yard, watch his amazement at every simple thing.
Maybe I would learn more from him than he would from me.
Can you teach me, young self, to be free again? Can you remind me what it was like to run around with your friends at New Year’s Eve parties and be free from the slightest worry about the next 12 months? Can we just play?
The nostalgia here stings, not just because these days are over, but because they show me that despite all I have learned as an adult about how to live this life, there are at least a few things I’ve forgotten.
The longing for home is expressed in the mournful song “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” You don’t know it’s sad until the end of the chorus, and of course I missed this when I was a child, thinking it was only a happy song about having snow and mistletoe and presents by the tree. I didn’t catch this was all a dream.
Where is home? What is it? It’s possible to be home and feel homesick. What then?
Life seems to be a trajectory of gain. Every year that passes you step further away from the dependence and simplicity of childhood when people told you what to do and where to be and how to dress, and you gain independence, freedom, new experiences, and the ability to choose. You choose your friends, events, playlists, and themes. You choose your movies, festivities, holidays games, or no games at all. You gain more than you could have imagined.
Yet in all the gain, there’s a loss—the loss of joy without inhibition.
It takes work to beat back that inhibition and find a way to revere what has been lost while relishing what is still good. It’s understandable to not feel up to that task in 2020.
Some Christmases aren’t going to feel like Christmas. It’s not just Charlie Brown who feels that way. Other Christmases, some sort of magic is going to break in and make the wall between heaven and earth seem thin, like the reality of God is closer than you imagined. Sometimes it will feel like home.
I don’t know where home is for you or how you can get back to it, but will you join me in not letting the dream die? It’s too deep, too human, to not be real somehow.
May you find the home your heart craves this holiday season.