25 April 2007

The Beam in My Eye

Things have been rough around here. Our four children had to adjust to having their mother go back to work fulltime in September, their father find a job again in November, and both parents working outside the home until my contract ran out at the end of March. The children soldiered on with homeschooling and keeping the household running, something that was especially hard on our 14-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son.

In November, my dad was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme, a very aggressive form of brain cancer. My husband's father had been fighting prostate cancer for 6 years, and it had moved into his bones.

My folks have a wonderful support community. They are close with family, and have many friends willing to go the extra mile for them. My mom insisted that I focus on my family and my job, and that I leave the heavy lifting to those bearing lighter burdens.

My father-in-law was a different story. He's spent the last 30 or more years estranged from all of his relatives. He was estranged from my husband for 23 years, and only picked up the relationship because my husband started writing him. My father-in-law lived by himself in his camper in the desert, as far from human beings as he could get. When his cancer grew, he had no one to turn to except my husband.

I never met him. Although he twice consented to a visit from my husband, he was not willing to meet me or the children. He was a very unhappy person, probably mentally ill. He cut himself off from family and community every way that he could. He stood alone, allowing no one close except his little poodle.

He cared deeply for this poodle. One of the reasons that he consented to see my husband was that he was afraid of what would happen to his little dog when he died. He wanted to make sure that the dog had a good home, and he trusted my husband to give him one.

When my father-in-law's condition worsened, the little poodle came to live with us. He was truly alone then, and my husband and I worried about how he was managing, alone and ill in his camper.

He was not an easy person to help. He didn't want to accept help, and often balked at arrangements that he had agreed to earlier. He hated being caged up, and would check himself out of hospitals and hospice facilities when he couldn't care for himself.

While this was going on, my job ended and I came back home to be a fulltime mom. All of the unmet needs that my children had been holding for many months suddenly exploded out of them. My youngest was the most extreme in this regard, being extremely demanding and then bursting into long-lived rages.

Since infancy, this child has had a tendency to cut himself off and shoot himself in the foot when he gets angry. Right when my father-in-law was going through his most difficult time, my son was echoing his behavior right here in our house. I became fearful that my son would grow up to be as miserable as his grandfather.

During my working time, we fell into some bad parenting habits. We instituted negative consequences for destructive behavior, and we applied those consequences without trying to get to the root of my son's unhappiness. My son was quite willing to up the ante, and we were having frequent showdowns.

One evening, I got the message that my behavior was part of the problem, and that the older children were also sowing bad behavior in their little brother. I told my son that I was taking the negative consequences away. I wanted him to stop fighting with his siblings and to curb his destructive behavior, but I was going to stop punishing him for it. Instead, I would work with him to help him find constructive ways to handle his anger.

I got an extra snuggle that night at bedtime. Things began to turn around. I started seeing more of my son's sunny, helpful, cheerful, and creative side. His rages became shorter and less intense.

I learned a lesson here that I have learned before, but one that I forget during times of stress. I can't fix other people. No matter how much I criticize, argue, and even threaten them, they won't change unless they choose to. The more I criticize, argue, and threaten, the less likely they are to change.

When I start looking at what I can change in my own attitude and behavior, though, I create the space where other people can change. When I work on getting the beam out of my own eye, people are more willing to get the motes out of theirs. When I look at them with love and appreciation rather than judgment and criticism, they are moved to live up to my expectations instead of down to them.

Whenever I have a problem with my Meeting or with individuals in my Meeting, the best way for me to address it is to work on myself first. I need to examine my own hard judgments, my lack of charity, my impatience, my lack of grounding. I need to admit fault first (even if I think the other person is more at fault than I am).

I am often reluctant to do this, and frequently surprised at how well it works. Even in deeply polarized situations, the shift from judgment and criticism to love and compassion can melt conflict. It's like having a magic wand. Make that shift and zoop! zoop! everyone's back on the same team and working together to resolve the situation.

Jesus told us not to judge one another and to forgive one another when we trespassed against one another. I think that this is one of the more profound truths in Jesus' ministry and one of the most difficult to live. We humans are quick to judge others and slow to forgive.

It's important to remember that this Christian stuff is not just a collection of lofty ideas in a book somewhere. This stuff really works for creating the best possible world here and now, on Earth. It's not just for fancy dress parties and flashy public actions. It works in the lowliest, most mundane, ugliest personal disputes.

It works in our Meetings. It works with the most irritating and least spiritually adept attenders at our Meetings. It works with the folks who natter too much in worship, the people who say the wrong things, the ones who bullheadedly insist on pulling the Meeting in the wrong direction.

Most of all, though, it works in my heart, to make me a better Christian and a better Friend.

My father-in-law died early Monday morning. I feel deep sorrow that he spent his life planting ice and harvesting wind, but I am glad that he is at peace at last. I am grateful for the difficult lessons he taught us, and appreciative of his care for the little dog who now lives at our house.

Oh dear God, forgive us, as we forgive each other. Teach us to forgive and to extend that hand of compassion and friendship 70 times 7 times. If I learn nothing else in my life, may I learn that one lesson well: to love my neighbor as myself.


Chris M. said...

Zoop, zoop! We need that magic wand at our house, too.

Thanks, Heather, for telling these stories. I feel blessed to read them.

-- Chris M.

Liz Opp said...

Wow, Heather. This is beautiful and bittersweet at the same time.

My grandmother turns 102 this fall, and she has been miserable for most of her years, even when in good health. She cherishes the calls I make to her, and I would like to think I've been able to reach her in a way that her own daughter--my mother--can't.

I also believe that your husband's faithfulness to the leading or nudge he was given to write to his father will provide many more ripples in your own lifetime, and that of your children.

And I am glad that you also were able to open yourself to God for instruction on how to relieve yourself of your own blindedness--what a model of healing, forgiveness, and love you are providing your family... and a treasured reminder you are providing to me!

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

RichardM said...


I just wanted to thank you for this. I'd like to give it a full and thoughtful response but right at the moment I am swamped with grading final exams. So this quick note will have to do for now.