This is a post about hope and I want to start out by saying that because I need to lead you to a darker place before I “turn on the light.” In a few days, I will reach one of those “major milestone” birthdays. I am looking forward to it! It’s the one where, in the old days, before we HR types scared everyone to death about getting sued, you could decorate a person’s office or cubicle in black balloons and crepe paper, placing some Geritol in the community pantry, while strategically positioning a few canes around the office to hilariously kick off the next decade of your co-workers life. I am sure in some (many?) work settings folks still do this and I salute you (if you exercise good judgment and know the person will take it well.)
Whether I see the black balloons or not, I am taking this moment to look back. The Psychology of Aging textbooks I read in college said I would do this- they were right. As I wax nostalgic, I find that my thoughts gravitate to another time-namely my teen years- when I was nearly a polar opposite reflection of who I am today. I want to share a bit with you about that difference in the hope that someone who reads this, and who may be closer to that kid than to the aging dude I look at in the mirror these days, needs to hear about how far one can travel along the road to hope and happiness. The road is accessible to everyone who persists…grows and opens themselves up to something bigger than a 15-year-olds limited view of the world.
The creative adult is the child who survived.
One of the starkest tragedies of our lives is that we are horrible predictors of the future. This affects us in a myriad of mundane and profound ways. We can be hurt by this in the way we choose our kitchen tile or cast our vote, by our inaction around saving and multiplying our money from a young age or when we fail to see the good things happening around us or, tearfully, when we give up. Even when we don’t do something as extreme as giving up permanently, those of us who fall prey to a life without hope can find ourselves existing day to day, as Andy Stanley explains, as a “languishing life preserver.”
I had a co-worker come around the corner yesterday and show me a picture of a beautiful boy somewhere between the age of my youngest son and that 15 year old me I just mentioned who had just killed himself, We prayed for the family of that kid even as we asked ourselves what could be so terrible and so broken in him that he felt like there was no hope? This teammate and I share a faith connection and we feel we know there is Hope, but we also know there are people who don’t feel as we do. She has had faith much longer than I have, I have found it much more recently, so I get where this kid was on a level that she may not fully grasp. I remember my 15-year-old self and how I allowed my creative brain to imagine all the ways I could put an end to my hurt and suffering.
When we are 15 we have this thing happen to us that is meant as a gift but can be so easily perverted. This gift is independence. Our brains were designed to start thinking independently, abstractly and creatively at this time in our lives and our emotions and hormones are injected into our systems on supercharge mode. This combination creates puppy love for some that may feel like the love of a lifetime as well as the unrequited longing that feels like the pain will never end. This combination can create dreams of being a neurosurgeon that drive science fair wins as well as it can build a rejection and abhorrence of all things “school” for someone who can’t seem to get their academic groove on. It is a wondrous aspect of growing up, but also a difficult one, even for the future neurosurgeon who probably puts way too much pressure on herself to be perfect and imagines every low A she receives to be the “gateway to total failure.”
If it sounds like I get this it is because 15-year-old me found himself on the dark side of the gift. That kid thought there was little to no hope for the future. I remember him so well. He used to withdraw to one of his fortresses of solitude, a tree, the rusty piped shower, the roach filled bathroom or under the covers of his mosquito infested room and think “there is no future for me.” I saw the happy families on TV, men with their vibrant houses, full of kids who loved them, beautiful, hilarious, intelligent wives and I thought “that will never be me.” The windows in our house at the time did not have good screens or even glass in many cases and the warm Florida air would bring the mosquitos into my room. I would form a mosquito tent with my sheet as they buzzed around me hungry for a taste of my blood and wonder if I would survive the night without going stark raving mad. While the kids who were in the same classes as I was, worried over their grades, I worried about the electricity being on the next day.
When I got up in the morning, clothing selection wasn’t too tough because there were only a few things I would wear. My mom did a great job of finding clothes at the Big S, I would call it, to somehow mask the name of Salvation Army, yet my wardrobe included girl jeans and girl shirts that looked “just masculine enough” but buttoned on the wrong side because boys my age back then wore out their jeans before they could be donated. As I got ready for school, many times there was no toothpaste, so brushing wasn’t a thing that slowed me down, even when there was I didn’t care about using it. My teeth were crooked. I remember my “nemesis” at school had braces, a sign of affluence I tried to punch out of his (what I imagined as his) cocky head once only to fail in humiliating fashion in front of what felt like the entire middle school.
I sported warts on every finger of each hand and on my eyelids and nose. I was slow to develop and I would glance around at the mustached and brawny boys wondering why God decided to leave me prepubescent for my entire life!? A few of these kids would push me around at the bus stop and call me names like Dorky (their favorite by far). Some of the kids in school would give me money for pencils or paper, while others would tease me (and some of the other kids from the free lunch line) and throw change in the urinals to see if we would retrieve it. I would sell said free lunch for a quarter and keep the milk so I could trade that for a “milkshake,” which was nothing more than ice, chocolate syrup and low-fat milk-but it felt like I was “rich” when I did that. The kids I called “rich” lived in houses the size of my inlaws bottom floor apartment today. They were, in fact, not rich, but middle class, back in the days when the divides were not so extreme. It wasn’t all bad, some of these middle class, NASA-job-parented kids, were my friends and one even invited me over to his pool, where I was able to teach myself how to swim out of sheer fear of drowning (of embarrassment.)
At that age, I looked up to my other friends who lived on a sailboat in the marina, who had two parents and food every night, even though looking back I now realize they weren’t much better off than me, they just had two parents that worked and lived on a sailboat to keep expenses down. I remember being made to wait out on the deck while the family ate together. My understanding was that they didn’t want to make a habit of having to feed me all the time, they felt that was my family’s responsibility, and so I would usually just get a sandwich here and there during the day from the kids. It was also thier family time and I didn’t want to intrude anyway, but the dad was kind of like a lot of dads back then, he would come home from a long day at work and barely talk to me. I still have no idea what he thought of this kid that would constantly scavenge off his family? I am sure he had empathy beyond what was conveyed, he was a good dad and his wife and kids loved him.
So you get the idea, I had little hope at 15. The beautiful wife and the awesome house full of kids and in-laws were not within reach. I envisaged things like becoming a hit man or a soldier of fortune. I wasn’t bold or quite lost enough to take my own life, but I might be willing to risk my life to make a little money. I thought about joining the military, as so many brave people do, but all I could imagine was the bullies from Gomer Pyle’s barracks laughing at my pre-pubescent scrawny frame. When that path dead-ended, I thought maybe I could be a servant in some rich person’s home, like Alfred the butler from Batman or Florence on the Jeffersons?
This was also the time when my imagination took me down a dark road that took me nearly 30 more years to depart from the road of profound disbelief in anything greater than myself. I could no more imagine a future with God in it than I could imagine a future with a six-figure income and a gorgeous nurse for a wife. In my Flavor Aid (the generic version of Kool-Aid) and government cheese-addled brain, my father on earth left me when I was 6 and my Father in Heaven left me when I was 15. He left me there crying in the shower, with no shampoo and rusty water. He left me at the bus stop when the teasing started. He left me when I had to trade my Atari (my earthly dad sent down after we reconnected at 13) in for food money and pawn my bike to turn the electric back on. He abandoned me to the brace-filled smile of my nemesis as my punches missed wildly while he landed his fists solidly on my unbraced jaw. So I left Him-I left God in my room. I left him with the roaches and mosquitoes and the government cheese and I decided I didn’t need Him or anything like Him.
I know there are some of you who feel this way too. I know there are some of you who may be 15 or you may be much older than that, but you have decided life is better on your own, languishing without hope or in at least one boy’s case, life is better – ended. This is where my uncle found himself when he was fast approaching the age I am now. I’m not sure when he gave up on things, but he ended things at a much older age than the young man my teammate told me about. He left behind a beautiful family, all of whom are growing and thriving now and I am so very proud of. When I was 15 and he was a young dad he and his wife experienced a horrific loss, followed shortly thereafter by a succession of miracles that are his 3 kids. As a little kid and later a young man I watched in admiration as he built a life I could only dream of in the suburbs with what I thought was a great job, with a growing family and a beautiful home, hobbies and other interests. Unfortunately, over time that all slipped away and he isolated himself more and more. He went deeper and deeper into the pit of despair, and I never learned precisely why or if there was a why? All I know is that he, like 15-year-old me, and my teammate’s friend, must have felt he had no hope. He must have felt that life was better-ended. This was and forever will be a huge waste!
The kind of thinking I found myself in at 15 and the kind of thinking that young man and my uncle fell prey to is simply a lie. We are so quick to think things will never get better, things can never be different than they are right now and that just simply isn’t true. I have seen people bounce back from much more than my little soap opera described above. Severe physical or sexual abuse, devastating diagnoses, the brink of death and deep depression just to name a few. The short version of the story is this. My life on the outside from 15 until my early 40s was a race to gather all the things I thought would bring me peace, only to wake up finding I was living my life as languishing life preserver. To the outside world, it looked like I had achieved everything, despite my circumstances. The reality is I did manage to pull off some things unimaginable to 15 year old me, but that little boy never stopped trying to fill that hole inside him. I woke up one day with all the things and still missing the God that had my back while I had mine turned on him. Thankfully, some incredible people helped point me toward Him and away from languishing in a sea of my own “stuff.” I found community and then a Saviour.
Whether you are faithless and ready to find faith like I was, or you are just ready to take a step toward something better than languishing in your “stuff,” I implore you to make connections with other people. Find just one person or a group of people that understand community. Look for people that get that Life is Better Together. When you isolate yourself you fall prey to the darkest parts of the 15-year-old brain and its poor predictions of the future. I much prefer my soon to be black-ballooned brain, it knows that there is hope. It has faith in Someone far bigger than its mundane earthly ‘stuff,” it is forever-more poised to find others to make connections with. That brain is attached to a portly body that can give hugs and pray with people and better appreciate and love the family and friends it has assembled around it.
It may mean something to you that the portly body and older brain happens to live in a house twice the size as most of the ones the 15-year-old brain watched and pined after on TV. That house is filled to bursting with all the things and all the people the 15-year-old brain never thought it would have. That black balloon ready brain is ready for the next half of this adventure, thankful for all the people who were there along the way. That brain recognized the love of the family and friends the young myopic 15-year-old had around him at the time and every year since. That brain has accepted that the 15-year-old brain chose to close its eyes to the God that was at the bus stop and sent the bus driver who intervened. The brain has accepted that he was not all alone when the middle school teacher took him under her wing and made him her aide. This older brain of mine laughs when it finds itself bothered by one mosquito or one roach. This coffee-addled brain knows it needs a lot more forgiveness and grace than it was ever owed. This older brain knows and feels that there is Hope for all of us that is far greater than my young brain could envision and he prays that you find what he has found.
Whether you are despondent or just a little down, don’t give up on your best possible future, not only are you terrible at predicting it, more importantly, you have been created for so much more than you can see right now!