The Child

When I was a teacher on my first ever teaching assignment (on payroll and not as a student teacher) I had an obstinate little child whose name was a derivative of the name Eve, an irony which I appreciated since I was teaching at a Catholic school.  This little child, but four years old,  gave me a run for my money. She was the one who whined, who constantly broke the rules, who already had a reputation among the other teachers as a handful, and who never listened to a word I said. Definitely not the ideal student for a first-year teacher trying to impress. However, Eve was my favorite student.

Eve came to me at a time in my life where I was growing in my relationship with God, fighting to believe in His unconditional love for me. I was meditating heavily, per the advice of the confessor I had left behind in Charlottesville, on the story of the prodigal son. I used to go to a fairly secluded beach about five minutes from the school where I worked and walk aimlessly along the shore. It was an interesting experience because I realized when I tried to place myself in the shoes of the prodigal walking back home I couldn’t make it all the way back. Too ashamed of who I had been and what I had done, full of doubt at a loving reception, I could not approach the center of intimate family life. I could not approach the table even for the promise of the feast.

I believe it was because of this that God gave me Eve. Eve reminded me of myself in the context of my relationship with God. Obstinate, disobedient, but also frustrated because no matter how hard she tried she just couldn’t be as good as the other kids. Eve would often act up, disobeyed the classroom rules (often including my direct instruction) and exhausted my patience. It is really hard to have a child look into your eyes and do the exact thing you are telling them not to do. Not only does it undermine your authority, I knew as the adult that these rules were ultimately for her good and were designed to help her flourish in the classroom. I could only imagine what it must be like to be God since salvation is even more important than learning your colors and alphabet, but also because when you truly care about someone and want what is best for them it cuts to the quick when they don’t trust you.

My daily experiences in the classroom changed my reflections on those evenings where I’d meander down the shore of the beach. I eventually stopped focusing on myself as the prodigal on a tough journey home and tried to focus on the Father in the story. It framed everything in a whole new light. I saw a Father who never stops seeking His child. I saw a Father who runs out to meet the son even when it would have made him look ridiculous to his household. I saw a Father who was generosity itself. Most of all I saw a Father whose love was constant and truly unconditional. And the growing trust slowly changed the scene. First I imagined the Father running to meet me. Then I was able to meet the Father outside of the house and offer an awkward apology. Eventually, I made it back to the table and to my surprise  I was not seated as a headstrong woman in my early 20s but as a very little girl marked with the insignia of the family (given from the Father to the son in the parable) because I too had been dead and now I was alive again.

With this interior change, I found a new patience to draw from when it came to dealing with Eve. As time passed we found a way to make it work in group lessons, you could even say we bonded, and she started to exhibit a curious new behavior. Even though she was behaving better during lessons she would shrink into private tantrums more often when she couldn’t do something, particularly when I was present. I asked my more experienced coworker to weigh in and she explained, “She worries that when she fails you’ll be mad at her.”

My coworker’s words struck me because I realized that God had placed me on the other side of the very scenario I had been struggling with, casting me in the role not of the one who needed to trust but of the one who desired to be trusted. While I was fairly surprised that I’d reached a point in the school year where Eve would seek my good opinion, I understood completely. Now that Eve wanted to be a part of my class she was having trouble trusting me to love her as her teacher, thinking I would prefer the best rather than a student like her who struggled.

I instinctively knew I needed to speak to Eve to help build that trust so one day in after school care I tried to give her a sort of secularized version of what God had been saying to me and it came out as follows, “you know I am so proud of you Eve. I have seen how hard you have been working and how hard you try. And I just want you to know that whether you succeed or fail I will always be glad to have you in my classroom.” In that moment I believe Eve realized what I admitted to you all earlier, that she was my favorite student, because she deserved love the least yet needed it the most. And with the smile she gave, I thoroughly understood God’s enduring love for me because for the first time in my life I understood the core of Divine mercy.

To this day I am convinced that the story of the prodigal is not a story of the son, but the story of a Father because only after trusting the merciful Heart of the Father can you become the child.

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Wishing everyone a Blessed Feast of the Epiphany and a Happy Birthday to my Granddad!

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Unsolicited Life Advice For My Brother Graduating College

While I could never choose a favorite sibling I have to confess I have different soft spots for each of the ones I have. One particular soft spot I have for my older younger brother, the brother who is older than everybody else but younger than me as I am the firstborn, is the fact that he is technically the sibling that made me a big sister for the first time.

And for the sake of tradition I thought I would celebrate his graduation from college with an old staple from our childhood: some bossy but well-intentioned, usually unsolicited and often uninvited life advice from a sister who has three years of extra wisdom to impart:

Dear Brother,

Graduating anything always triggers pictures of adulthood, reminding you of what you’re leaving behind and leaving you feeling unprepared no matter how much you prepare. But don’t be afraid.

I think the great mystery of life is that the fundamentals about you don’t really change, you keep a lot of the same personality, feelings, and perceptions that you have always had, but your experiences broaden, your confidence grows, and pretty soon you’re surprised that without ever meaning to you’ve actually grown up.

And as you take this next step forward you’re going to be given a lot of advice on how to lead “successful” life.

This advice is well meaning, but nothing can ruin a life quite like worldly notions of “success.” What I mean by that is all too often success in is measured the wrong way and becomes synonymous with things like an impressive career, prosperity, and having what your friends have in every aspect of life from the material things to personal relationships, as if attaining these things were the only way to create a worthwhile legacy and impact the world for the better.

Yet I would recommend entirely rejecting that outlook because that is the one that leaves people living in fear, stressfully trying to control every detail from their diet to their career path and competitively comparing their progress to their neighbors. And I would wish better for you because, contrary to what I would have had you believe during your formative years, I actually love you a lot and there is some big sister part of me that’s always looking out for you, even though I know you can take care of yourself. Your happiness is important to me because the only misery I want in your life is the misery caused by my own self.   

Therefore, I will admit that from my brief experience with adulthood thus far there is one thing I wish someone had told me as I was graduating: “don’t forget to have an adventure.”

By that, I do not mean to suggest that you should spend all your money on a trip to Europe. I simply mean that as you enter the workforce and begin to think about things like health insurance and a 401K, there is so much focus placed on getting ahead and securing the next step on the road to “success” that it can be very tempting to forget to enjoy the step that you’re on. In other words, you forget that even though you’re not technically a kid anymore, life is still the same giant adventure it always has been. You just have to take the time to look for it, since your to-do list will be longer than ever before.

But the incredible thing about life is that you live. No matter what happens somehow you survive everything that gets thrown your way, even the things that at first seem impossible. So worrying is basically useless and the time you would have spent worrying is better spent developing trust and gratitude, the two fundamental things every adventurer needs.

This is the attitude that truly determines success because not only does it lead to greater happiness, it also gives one the courage required to reject the temptation to measure happiness in terms of self-indulgence and end the lie that life worth is nothing if it does not contain a list of impressive accomplishments. It will give you the wisdom to realize the true paradox that an impact is made not through great achievement, but in those tiny little moments that at first seem insignificant but later turn out to be the moments that make life worthwhile. Mundane moments where you are given an opportunity laugh and be silly as you go about your daily routine. To appreciate everything you have as it comes to you. To share your unique essence with the world as you spread the love of God you’ve experienced in your everyday encounters with your neighbors. The ability to live life not as a competition but as the gift that it is, both to your own self and to the countless others you will meet. Because ultimately I know you will be successful for the same reason I love you, not because of the amazing things you do at present or will do in the future, but simply because of who you are. The wonderfully thoughtful and witty young man I have so enjoyed getting to know.

Congratulations on your graduation from college. This is a big day and we’re really proud of you.

Love,

Ellen

 

The Imperfect Match

With several friends and a sibling graduating college this year, I’m left rather blown away by how fast the time goes. This May marks my three year anniversary of receiving my Bachelor’s degree and that sentence makes me feel even older than I actually am.

I’d actually known the college I wanted to go to since my sophomore year of high school and I was so excited when I got my acceptance letter. My decision was semi-controversial because a lot of people wondered why I didn’t attend the prestigious college nestled in the heart of my hometown and almost felt it an act of disloyalty.

The answer was because my now alma mater was a basically perfect fit for my personality as well as my academic needs. However, part of the answer was also because many of the elitist people I went to high school with would be attending the hometown college, and I was tired of having classes with them. I bear them no ill will, I just found everything they did remarkably homogenous and it exhausted me. They dressed the same, talked the same, thought the same, had the same political views, attended the same country club (literally), had the same hobbies, played the same sports, and no one was brave enough to break the mold because they were so proud of fitting into it in the first place.

And when I visited the campus, which is classically beautiful and full of southern charm, I stopped inside the bookstore and before my eyes was a giant Clinique counter like the kind that is usually reserved for the mall. And in that moment, I knew I’d made the right decision not to attend because while their academics are impressive and they take care of their own, ultimately their core values and mine do not match up. This was abundantly clear to me as I saw that giant make-up counter next to a sea of Vera Bradley everything. Because while Vera Bradley might be universal in campus bookstores, why prominently feature a giant make-up counter?

Granted, most people let these types of things go, but I’m not most people. To me it just cemented the unspoken ideals of the school, and unspoken values are just as important as the spoken values outlined by any organization because I would argue they play a greater role in determining the environment in which you will be participating. And the unspoken values of this school was the pursuit of worldly perfection. A school for the elite, not simply those who want to become that way but those who were born that way and have been bred to perpetuate it. The girls at that school would need their expensive, high-quality make-up because they are expected to play their part of the genteel lady who is educated and groomed for the ivy leagues and who never has so much as a hair out of place. Not everyone at the school fits that mold obviously but they as a university greatly prefer those who do.

And I am certain I don’t fit this mold. I was certainly not raised to, because my parents were not interested in whether or not I was a perfect and elite person who only spent time with other perfect and elite people. Their primary concern was that I should always strive to be a good person, especially good to other people no matter their circumstances. And I had no interest in stepping on the assembly line of this university so that I could walk out impressive and perfect in the sight of the world, because I was worried I would lose my center. That I would get so caught up in being the type of person they wanted I would forget who I was or worse start to believe that I truly was perfect and elite like them. It was a risk I was not willing to take. As I said, I went to high school with this type of person and in my opinion as they live in their refinement they lose the one of the finest gifts life has to offer: gratitude. Because the trap of that sort of pride is that every gift becomes an expectation, something that you grow accustomed to or feel you deserve and you lose the joy of receiving it. You become like those people who can go on a weeklong, five-star vacation and opt to make fun of the one bad meal they had rather than discuss the amazing views of the ocean they saw every day. I think that’s why Americans are so agnostic/atheistic, because when there is nothing to be thankful for it is more difficult to believe that there is someone to thank.

And with these observations in mind, I attended my alma mater and enjoyed most every day with my imperfect match.