The Wisdom of a Lifetime

I read as a grade school kid in the 1980s a segment in the Reader’s Digest–it was probably from Campus Comedy–where a professor gave an essay exam in a philosophy class. The single question to address at length–“What is courage?”

The riveting conclusion still gets me. One student, taking a deep breath and pausing to steady their hand, scrawls across a sheet of loose-leaf paper: “This is,” boldly places a nearly blank page on the professor’s desk, and then walks out.

I don’t even remember if a follow-up sentence, such as, “That student received the only A” met my tear-filled eyes. I just knew I had glimpsed the unthinkable: not following the script and yet giving one’s audience the performance of a lifetime.

I have four children. Two of them read the script before they arrived and seem to know their part. They just see what it is I’m trying to accomplish, and they want to be a part of it. The other two thought the paper they got handed was a crafting item or spit wad material, in that birth order, respectively. I run out of ideas with them before they have even opened their sleepy eyes. This week’s awesome quip: “I’m going to get a substitute mom because I have no idea how to mother you guys!”

Added to the feeling of futility is this rising indignation that I shouldn’t have to deal with the tedium of making it all somehow work–living in someone else’s home, juggling the needs of four children, driving and calendaring and making appointments like it’s the answer to a test on, “What is insanity?”

I told my husband earlier this week that I don’t have time for all this crap–I have important work to do. I was tempting fate to remind me with some tragedy how important my work is. Ah, but I have a universe as patient as my husband. It just nodded and said, “I see you’re working through some feelings. You’ll get there.”

I hate waking up in the morning. I hate knowing that I have to set my dreams aside and attend to the fighting, whining, constantly stubbing their toes that is our morning routine. I had to get a mouth guard to keep me from grinding my teeth at night a few years back. I asked the dentist what they could do about me clenching my teeth all day long with kids. He just laughed. We both had three at the time.

My neck is probably two inches shorter than when I reached menarche because I clench my jaw so often that my temporal bone is reeling in my neck muscles at a rate of one inch every nine years. Even if I don’t develop old-person pendulous ear lobes, my shoulders and ears will meet by the time I’m 93. I am using acupuncture and mindfulness practices to disrupt that rendezvous. I’ll let you know how it goes.

So this morning I prayed for a thought to help me feel good feelings toward my children. Since emotions come from our thoughts, or what we believe about a given situation, I knew my kids weren’t causing my feelings of anxiety. Somehow me and my brain had planted the glowing, lead cannonball of anxiety in my stomach. I just hadn’t figured out a way to dislodge it. I ay in bed thinking incredibly useful thoughts, like, “Really, Elissa? Is this the best you can do?” Somehow that just doesn’t help.

I eventually got swept into the frays and small triumphs of the morning and forgot about my thought search.

We managed to get to church on time, and the bishop of our ward (our local leader) got talking about Fast and Testimony meeting. Usually held the first Sunday of the month, we were a week early for scheduling purposes with General Conference next weekend. I had remembered to fast because going without food or drink for a meal or two is my new mothering norm. I made it meaningful by praying for loved ones going through challenges. And by making two delicious dishes to share with the congregation for our “Linger Longer” afterward.

But I had completely forgotten we would be sharing our testimonies (the assurance we have received, through the Holy Spirit, that our belief in Jesus Christ and his church are based in truth). I felt like I had gone for that top step that isn’t actually there. Like I’d focused on the wrong thing (the food) and then wasn’t prepared for the moment at hand.

What happened next has changed the tone of my inner voice for the rest of the day.

A young man dressed in clothing that fit no norm I had ever seen at church
stepped forward and showed me what courage looks like. In a church where some policies, members, and leaders have left many LGBT (many now former) members, families, and sympathizers feeling alienated, misunderstood, and hurt, I watched a young man in heels and nail polish share that he was homosexual and had often felt rejected. He then shared his knowledge that he is loved by God and that this is the church for him despite the unkindness of some in his past. As he concluded his testimony and turned away from the pulpit to return to his seat with the missionaries, I leaned over to my daughter and whispered, “That is one of the most courageous people I’ve ever seen.”

The boldness of one of my fellow “classmates” in sharing his truth began to knock loose this notion in my brain that my job is to somehow manage children like boiling pots on a stove: Don’t let them bubble over, agitate them just enough to keep them from sticking to their container, and keep enough pressure going that they get done on time.

I glanced down at my son, who was busy rewriting the script he’d received. With the pew his desk and the floor his seat, he had a marker in his hand and a notepad before him. He was writing what appeared to be random letters in a grid. And that’s when I zeroed in on what he was doing.

He was writing! My son who refuses to do any handwritten work! The kid in therapy and getting an education plan and on ADHD and anxiety medication was writing like it was no big deal! I leaned over and whispered to his cousin that this was truly a miracle. Then I praised that kid in hushed whispers and made wonderfully goofy surprised faces because he’ll remember that forever.

Then the thought arrived to replace my “this is all you’ve got?” thought. I felt so much love toward this gentle and furious child who cannot deal with tedium like handwritten work because he has more important things to do, like “egg math.”

He wouldn’t even write the symbols in this math problem he invented last week.

Bold though his Crayola marker may have been, this moment would not strike most people as courageous. My throat now clenched with the effort to slow my tears. “It may not look like much to anyone else, but this is what courage looks like.”

God helped me arrive at this thought so that I could feel love toward my children, myself, and anyone else I am tempted to judge: This is what courage looks like. When I wonder if this is really the best I can do, I can say “Yes, this is the best I can do right now because this is what courage looks like.”

So tomorrow when I awake to a feeling of defeat, I have a new thought to greet me. One that won’t pin me to my paralyzing conclusion that I must be a terrible mother if I dread seeing my children again. One that lets me praise my smallest efforts until my best self emerges like a bright new day. “This is what courage looks like,” I’ll say. “And I don’t even have to know what another is working against; I can look at their efforts and know that in their own way, they are learning to be courageous.”

[I recommend this reading as there is a book called This is What Courage Looks Like, and I had never heard this part of the Rosa Park’s story. Also, the song accompanying this post is Rod Stewart’s, though it appears that like many other marvelous songs, it was written (or one at least very similar) first by Bob Dylan. A friend recently posted it to social media as a tribute to her son who just went to college. I connect the song to a memory from when I was my older son’s age. My kindergarten teacher, Carolyn Figal, had two grown sons. One, David, suddenly died of an aneurysm while water skiing. My mom attended the funeral where they played Forever Young. The words, “And when you fin’lly fly away” touched my heart even then.]

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