Are Your Crutches Disposable?

What is a crutch? It is something that holds us up when we cannot stand on our own. Physically, emotionally, mentally. We all have them. But a crutch can be a good thing or a bad thing. Where the line is drawn is often vague. A simple question to ask ourselves is, do our crutches help us get somewhere we could not otherwise get on our own? If we are able, but unwilling to move forward without them, then they are enabling our weakness. We would be stronger if we could let them go and walk on our own.

My son, at two and a quarter, decided, by himself, to give up his paci because pacis are for babies. This was something that he had leaned on for comfort and calm his entire life. He had never spent a night without one. But, realizing that he was big and strong and didn’t need it for the same reasons any longer, he let it go. Not entirely without struggle, but most things worth attaining do not come without struggle. Similarly, I, after ten years of relying on nicotine for stress relief and relaxation, have learned that I am capable of handling stress in different ways. Better ways that do not harm me physically. And I have let it go. Not perfectly, and again, not without struggle, but I now no longer lean on that crutch for stability.

There are so many things in our daily lives that serve as crutches to help us avoid the pain and struggle of learning to walk alone. Television, alcohol, video games, social networks, you name it. As infants, none of us can walk without a crutch or a prop of some kind until we learn to stand stably on our own two feet. This is true of emotional stability as well, but unfortunately we have many emotional infancies. Moments of rebirth or redefinition that require us to prop ourselves up till we regain our footing. And those props often become so familiar and comfotable that we have a difficult time letting them go and learning to be stable again. And then, sometimes, certain things happen that leave us crippled in such a way that we cannot stand on our own without the aid of something or someone else. And that is okay. Recognizing weakness that cannot be worked through alone is a brave and noble thing. One that we should never be ashamed of. On a recent trip to the zoo, my son saw a crippled man walking with braces because his legs were bent. And, in typical toddler fashion, he loudly exclaimed, “Mommy, what’s that?” Rather than shush him as many parents are apt to do, I told him openly and within earshot of the man that those were crutches that helped the man walk because his legs were hurt and he couldn’t walk on his own. Amazingly, the man smiled and the look in the his eyes could only be described as relief that someone had actually acknowledged him. And I found myself wondering how it must feel to walk through life with no one meeting your eye because they are ashamed to acknowledge your handicap. How often are we ashamed to acknowledge each others weaknesses. To look one another in the eye and affirm, non-verbally, that we have nothing to be ashamed of.

So which are you, the man walking with a cane not because he needs it but because he finds it debonaire while everyone else finds it ridiculous? Or the man who has a handicap he cannot overcome without the help of a crutch, but with which he can accomplish so much?

Unlikely Friends

I am a people person. Far more than most. Although, I think getting older has made me a bit more cynical or selective about who I chose to befriend. But I recently found myself wondering if that is a good thing. Shouldn’t age and wisdom teach us tolerance and open-mindedness rather than keep us bound to the immaturity of judgementalism? All people, from all ages, walks of life, classes, and cultures have something to offer. We can all learn from each other if we are open enough to receive the lessons. Even from people we deem to be beneath us. Perhaps especially from them. I have learned more from my son in the two years he has been on this planet than I have from many of the “intellectual” adults I have encountered. I have learned more from old people who many would call out-of-touch than I have from some of the hippest acquaintances I have made. Some people who I may have initially thought too immature to contribute much to a balanced friendship, end up being the light-hearted relief that I crave in the middle of an otherwise stressful time. Others, for whom everything seems to come easy, who have never had to fight for their supper and electricity, may once have spawned jealousy in me, but lately inspire gratitude for the richness that the struggle has brought to my life.

Unlikely friends

This awareness of the unseen value in friendships that we might not have initially given much of a chance, came yesterday as my husband was making plans with a relatively new friend. Without being asked, I volunteered that I was not very fond of this friend. My husband was quick to point out that I used to say the same thing about another of his buddies who’s friendship I now consider myself lucky to claim. If he had not prodded me to overcome my initial judgements about that person, I would have missed out on a valuable, affirming, kind relationship simply because I was too closed minded to be accepting. Patience with people is an immeasurable virtue I am only beginning to comb the depths of. Acceptance of differences is what connects us with people unlike ourselves and these people then bring balance and change to our lives in ways our other similar, like-minded friends never could have. Friendships come in all kinds of packages and sometimes it’s the oddest looking ones that have the most valuable contents.

Embracing the Clichéd

In today’s society, where individualism is hailed as one of the highest virtues, we are often afraid of being too clichéd. The phrase, “That’s such a cliché!” is used as an insult. But sometimes I find myself wondering, is it really such a bad thing to be somewhat predictable, normal, or even unoriginal? Some things are clichéd for a reason. Because they have stood the test of time and multitudes and still hold true. I’ve taken flack from plenty of friends and sometimes my own alter-ego, for my desire to move to the suburbs. And I must admit, the individualistic, young, and still edgy side of me cringes at the idea of moving into a cookie cutter, “stepford” neighborhood, with picket fences, matching roof lines and tiny trees. But not all the suburbs are so scary. And some things are more important than being in the middle of it all. Like my son’s education. I certainly see the value in sticking it out and fighting for better education in the city rather than fleeing, but I will not use my son’s future as a weapon in that battle. And then there’s crime. Does staying put and risking the robbery of my possessions and possible harm of my family help bring crime levels down in the city or should we just move to where it is safer? But considering these things makes me wonder if I have been too quick to judge others in the past. Most of the suburbanites have probably had similar lines of reasoning that brought them to where they are today. Most of them probably have histories and lives every bit as interesting as mine, or more so. And yet I have been guilty of looking at them and thinking, “What a cliché!” We are taught from such an early age to never judge a book by its cover and yet we fight judgementalism well into adulthood and old age.

Yesterday, as my son and I were downtown enveloped in a sea of people who had gathered to celebrate Independence Day, I found myself looking around at all the faces and imagining the stories behind their eyes. We are all on wildly different journeys, and yet, too often we tend to approach people as though they should be in the same place we are. The whole event for which all these people had come together was, in and of itself, an incredible cliché. Americana at its finest. There were flags and people in patriotic attire, face painting and glow sticks, catfish and burgers, and an orchestral band playing “Yankee Doodle.” There were kids everywhere and frazzled parents trying to keep up with them. There were lawn chairs and lovers making eyes at each other. And of course, there were fireworks. But there was something beautiful and calming about the cliché. So many different people, from different walks of life and in different places in their journey, coming to celebrate the same thing. And celebrate it in the same way it has been celebrated for generations. It may be a cliché, but it is a damn good one and I’m happy I was part of it.

There are hundreds of paths up the mountain,
all leading in the same direction,
so it doesn’t matter which path you take.
The only one wasting time is the one
who runs around and around the mountain,
telling everyone that his or her path is wrong.
~Hindu teaching

Stop Teaching And Listen

It is so easy to look at the behavior of a toddler and condescendingly shake your head and think how silly they are, when, in reality, many of their desires and actions mimic our own. We’ve just become better as masking the silliness of it. But it struck me the other day that maybe we’d all be a bit happier if we stopped trying to mask our own silliness and sought to learn in such an independent and experimental way.

Allow me to illustrate. Last weekend, I took Aiden to the pool on both Saturday and Sunday. The difference in him was so stunning and remarkable from one day to the next that it was hard to believe that Sunday’s child was even the same boy. Had I not witnessed it with my very own eyes, I would not have believed. Saturday’s child was anxiety ridden and whiny. He clung to me like a chimpanzee repeating the same constant refrain, “I wanna get out!” It wasn’t until we gave up and went to the baby pool that he finally began to relax and have a good time. Whereas Sunday’s child was jumping off the edge of the pool into my arms, getting fully submerged, and crying, “I do it again!” He never even mentioned the baby pool. But what was the difference? Had some magical developmental switch been flipped that suddenly bestowed bravery on him? I think not. The difference lied entirely in my approach to him. On Saturday I simply undressed him and brought him into the pool with me and went straight out toward the middle. And, because I had read in some parenting book or blog that it was wise to do so, I held his nose and dunked him completely underwater. He emerged coughing and sputtering and even more terrified than he had been previously. He had no control over the situation or what he did and how he felt about it. Whereas on Sunday, I listened to his ever-present mantra of, “I do it myself!” and let him take the lead. I got into the pool by the steps and never told him one way or another what he should do. I left him walking around the steps on the concrete (watching carefully of course) and let him see me enjoying myself. When he determined for himself that what he was watching looked like fun, he got into the pool on the first step. I proceeded to lure him with a ball, just out of his reach, till he was standing, of his own volition, on the “deep step” where the water reached up to his chin. Then he surprised even me by stepping off of that step and letting his feet dangle in the water while he held onto the edge. Later, after seeing the other kids do it, he decided he wanted to jump in, but absolutely could not do it without both of my fingers and “no dunk.” This quickly morphed into one finger and then no fingers, full dunk, followed immediately by “I do it again.” The whole way home from the pool all he could think about was sharing his accomplishment, “I tell Daddy I dunk!”

I didn’t just tell you all of this because it is cute, although it undeniably is. I told it as an illustration of behavior. Many parents would look as this situation and tell the child some version of, “See, I told you! If you had just listened to me on the first day, you could have had fun then too.” But I think it’s the other way around. If I had just listened to him on the first day, then we all could have had more fun. Instead of trying to force my knowledge on him, I should have allowed him to learn it in his own way, in his own time. I believe this principle is true in most of our relationships. We need to learn to meet people where they are and not expect them to meet us where we are. How many of our relationships could be improved if we learned to listen to the desires of others and better communicate our own learning desires to them? Spouses, Bosses, Friends, Coworkers, Parents, Teachers, Boyfriends. But, when asked to learn a new project at work, too many of us are afraid of looking silly by saying to our boss some version of, “I do it myself!” (That is: “I actually learn much better and will retain the information longer if I can just dive in and experience it for myself.”) And so we let them teach us in whatever way is most natural to them and we learn only half of what’s expected. We’re too afraid of sinking to learn how to swim. And we’ve lost the gumption of our toddler selves that approached every new situation head on with a drive to learn by experience. I think we all stand to learn quite a lot if we would stop teaching long enough to listen.

“Our Kind”

Today I am humbled and inspired to gratefulness by an unexpected encounter that I had with some gentlemen working in the yard of the vacant house across the street.  When Aiden and I went outside to turn on the sprinkler and play in the yard, Aiden immediately became enamored with these workers and was desperate to investigate further.  “I go see them, Mommy!  I help!” 

I was hesitant because I didn’t want to get in the way or seem like we were gawking.  The men were not just doing yard work.  They were demolishing an enormous deck that enveloped much of the back yard.  I’m sure the last thing they needed was a two-year old staring at them, asking odd questions, and insisting he help, right?  But then I remembered the many other encounters I have had lately that have so inspired me to engage people . . . to give them the opportunity to share their lives, their passions, their work with someone who is excited to learn about them.  So I led Aiden by the hand across the street.  I was not disappointed with my decision.  The men, who, until that moment, had been quietly engaged in their back-breaking labor in 100 degree weather, stopped, looked up, and smiled.  They immediately began addressing Aiden as “little man,” inviting him to sit on their tractor and speaking to him about what it means to work hard.  It was like something out of an old southern novel.  I couldn’t bear to see them working so hard in this desperate heat, being so kind to my son without offering them something in return.  So I went home and brought back iced tea and popsicles.

I was greeted upon my return with phrases like, “Thank you kindly, ma’am!”  “You’re too sweet.”  “You’re gonna tempt me to go find an easy chair.”  As the conversation blossomed, I discovered that the men were brothers.  Two of TWENTY children born to their mother, who is currently 89.  There were 13 boys and 7 girls that grew up together in Pocahontas, MS.  The older of the two gentlemen, who didn’t look a day over 50, if that, said he was 70 years old.  And still working hard every day.  “What would I do with myself if I stopped?” he asked.  He recounted as he pried floorboards off the deck with a crow bar, sledgehammer, and brute strength how he was trying to teach his grandchildren to be eager workers, but “they just aren’t raised like they used to be.”  But he always let them help whenever they were willing.    The “younger” brother bragged about his family and seemed ashamed to need the help of his older brother, but explained that he has had health problems and just can’t handle it alone anymore.

The longer we spoke, the more filled with respect I was.  These men were humble and kind.  Lived a simple life, worked hard, and made no excuses.  They knew the value of family and earning their keep and would not give up even in the face of age and adversity.  Yet somehow I find myself worrying on a regular basis about things like money and time and health, when in reality we have plenty of all three.  It is amazing how perspective can change one’s outlook. 

As we were getting ready to leave, the younger brother mentioned off-handedly that he “thought sure it was [their] kind that lived across the street . . . black folk, that is.”
“But you know,” he said with a grin, “you’re the first people to come visit us in all the years we been workin’ this yard, so I guess you’re our kind after all!”