Thursday, February 13, 2014

Troubled Thoughts on Meaning Well

My friend "Jan" and I have had many conversations about how we respond to mean people who say nasty things.

I freeze in both mind and mouth. These people always catch me unprepared, and I can never think of anything to say.  I stare at them with wide-open eyes and think shocked and frozen thoughts.

Jan, on the other hand, fires back with sizzling zingers that put them in their place just like THAT.

I have told her, many times, how deeply I envy her.  What vindication and justice and joy that would be, it seems like, looking on, to be able to not only think of just the right response, but to SAY it.  Just like THAT.

She has told me, many times, that she envies me my silence because it saves me soooo much trouble.  Oh my, I have no idea, she says, what it's like to have these words come flying out of your mouth and you can't pull them back in and then you are STUCK with the consequences.  It's horrible.

But that's not really what this post is about.  It's only an intro to say that Jan has always been like this, as evidenced by a little memory she posted the other day:

They say children are cruel but I believe adults are crueler. My first experience was in the bathroom of our newly remodeled church (no more outhouses !!!). The all day meetings were on a hot summer Sunday and I was restless, had my shoes kicked off... Mom whispered in my ear 'go run out on the sidewalk and then wash your face and come back.'. I remember standing in the bathroom fascinated by the locks on the bathroom doors (I was barely 6). This little old lady (who probably was only50!!!) came in bent over and peered at me with her piercing blue eyes 'and who are you?' I'm Jan. 'do you have any brothers or sisters?'. No. 'well you know, only children are spoiled!' having enough of being reminded of my rotten place in the religious sector of large families(4+) I remember saying Yes I am spoiled and I STINK too. She cornered my mom later and let her know what a failure she was not to have had more children. Dad laughed and laughed and laughed when Mom told this on the way home that evening-I remember him saying to Mom ' she has no clue what your life is. ' I always gave that woman a wide berth ...

Well.  That story really troubled me, not because of Jan's sassy comment to the lady, but the fact that someone was that cruel.  A subsequent conversation with Jan confirmed that the woman was someone I knew, one of those industrious, earnest types to whom the world is a pantry and they are the designated keepers of it, to dust off the tin cans and line them up alphabetically, toss the outdated cake mixes, set the mousetraps, and line up the edge of the Saran Wrap just right.

I will call her Hazel.  She was also a minister's wife, which adds more tainted cabbage to the already sick feeling in my stomach. [Locals: it's probably not who you think it is so stop speculating.]

Even if you didn't know Jan's mom, you can easily imagine the heartache and wrenching, repeated pain of being a Mennonite wife and able to birth only one child.

And here this earnest woman berated her for not having more.

Hazel meant well.

We know this, right?  And we say it, or I do, in an attempt to give grace when it's very difficult to do so.  Oh, but, --sigh-- I'm sure she meant well.

She meant well and her tongue pierced to the part of the heart that hurt most.

She meant well, but when do any of us intend to be mean?  When do we ever intend to be unkind?  With all of our concern and our trying to fix our little worlds, we always mean well.  And yet what galling pain we inflict.

While I don't think I've done Hazel's level of damage, God and plenty of others know of the grievous errors I have made, as a minister's wife and in other roles as well, speaking into situations where I felt I should DO something, and mucking it up much worse.

So I want grace for that.  In fact, I desperately need it.

I look at Hazel and others like her and I think, "But they should have known."  But what does that mean for me and what I should have known??

I pray for wisdom in these things, and to keep from creating this sort of carnage.  The best preventative seems to be to avoid that unctuous earnestness, that bustling about one's pantry and setting the tin cans in line because it must be done and if you don't, no one will.
And yet, how many dozens of past acquaintances could testify of my doing just that?

Maybe I should be grateful for the moments when I'm frozen into silence.  At least I'm not destroying anyone then.

Am I responsible for what I should have known?

And: I probably won't know unless someone tells me, so how can I be a safe person to tell? 

I am trying not to obsess about inadvertent harm I might have done, but I just find this a troubling subject all around.

Quote of the Day:
[At Dad's, in December]
Paul: Pure water will NOT conduct electricity.
The BIL who grew up in Mississippi: But what about when Ah'm up on the roooof weldin' and it starts rainin' and all of a sudden Ah'm gettin' juiced??


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. I am glad you wrote this very difficult and honest post. Unfortunately I have been both Jan and you. I still fight hard to hold my tongue and mostly succeed but I am confident I win no points for what I think at times.

  3. Your words have been my own at one time. This is the direction I went:
    May you experience peace in the words as I did. Many blessings.

  4. Oh, how I remember. The car ride home from church is always an encounter with truth. One discovers very well how your fellow church members feel about you and your family.

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  6. Thanks for this great reminder of what our words can do to others. We can either build someone up or cut someone down in a matter of seconds. And sadly the hurt can last for a very long time.

  7. Your pantry image is just so smart and straight to the point. My Psych. 101 analysis? Anabaptist daughters (esp. first borns and ask me how I know) are told that they are responsible for being perfect and keeping the rest of the world perfect, too. It's hard to shut that off. So my proposal is that we all agree to cut our daughters some slack and it will be easier for them to pass on the favor.

  8. Ps. But I don't cut much slack for "meaning well". Rude is rude.

  9. Dorcas, you are absolutely right. This is a troubling subject and a problem that most of us struggle with, one way or another. An old proverb declares "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me." I think that's patently false. Cruel words cut and demean, piercing deep into sensitive souls.

    You quoted your friend Jan as writing, "They say children are cruel, but I believe adults are crueler..." Well, maybe. But I'm not so sure. Fallen human nature can be incredibly heartless, children included. Etched in my memory is the malicious public ridicule directed against our then nine-year-old son by his fellow Sunday School classmates.

    But before I tell that story, here's a short background: At the time, our older son (I'll call him "Tom" for now) was nine, his brother ("Joe" for now) was six, and our daughter was five. Joe was afflicted from birth with Down's syndrome [Google it for pictures] and had the characteristic facial features, a distinct walking gait, and other physical clues that betrayed his severe developmental disability.

    Our family had just returned home from church one Sunday and I was fixing lunch. Tom came into the kitchen and soberly asked, "Mom, what's a freak?" After a careful explanation I said, "Why do you ask?" He told me that just after his fourth grade boys' Sunday School class had been dismissed that morning and some of the boys lingered in the hallway, they saw Joe coming down the hall led by a volunteer helper. After a bit of impromptu whispering, three of these nine-year-old peers stood together in a group and chanted in unison as Joe walked by:

    "There goes a mentally retarded freak.
    Two! Four! Six! Nine!
    He looks more like Frankenstein;
    Tom's brother."

    Again, I'm not so sure that adults are more cruel than children unless you move to the higher level of the piercing, scourging, and agony of the crucifixion of our Lord, or the horrific list of persecution in Hebrews 11:36-37, or the cruel martyrdom of the early Christians--all perpetrated by adults, of course.

    Note that these sufferers did not answer back. Jesus prayed "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do," and many of the early martyrs sang and gave away their shoes and outer clothes on their way to be burned at the stake. However, that kind of intense persecution unto death is, I think, in a different category than what is being discussed here.

    So getting back to the point, one sentence in your post said, "Hazel meant well." But these three boys chanting their hurtful ditty did not mean well. Their vicious verbal attack was deliberately designed to scorn and humiliate another child. Fallen nature is what it is; and it showed itself here in outrageous, unprovoked cruelty to a friend.

    So as not to leave you hanging, Joe is now age 47 and lives in a 24-hour-care supervised group home. But he lived with our family until age 19; and I wish I could say that this chanting incident was the only emotional trial that either of our other two children suffered unjustly. It was not.

    On the bright side, though, James 1:2-3 tells us, "Consider it all joy, my brethren when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance". We can all take great comfort in knowing that God uses adversity, including cruel words, to accomplish His purposes in our lives and conform us to the image of His dear Son. His grace is sufficient.

  10. Thanks for all your comments. Rebecca, I am also coming to your conclusion that "meaning well" isn't enough. And I enjoyed your "Psych 101" analysis.
    Ruby--my heart went out to your and your children as I read your story. I feel a need to apologize on behalf of the human race, or the church in particular, that your son was treated like that in Sunday school. And yes, that was deliberate cruelty.