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Seeing With the Heart

A boy hit Lee at the park last week. Lee was climbing up a ladder into the play structure, and the little boy blocked Lee’s way, stared him down, and then hit him with his baseball mitt. Lee blinked in shock and then started to cry. 

I tried to grab that little boy’s shirt. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but I was angry. I wanted to slap him across the face and say, “That’s what it feels like, you bully. How do you like it?”

The boy was probably two or three like Lee, but Lee is small for his age. 

Before I was able to do anything, the boy’s mother swooped in saying that she’d take care of it. 

You better, I thought. I fumbled for the correct response. The wise one. “What’s his name?”

“Damian.”

“I’ve never had this happen to me before. I just don’t know what to do.” 

It was awkward. She was embarrassed. And I was angry. Angry at that boy and angry at myself for not protecting Lee. 

I’ve encountered this boy at Central Park before today. Last time he ran up to Lee and head-butted him. The same boy. The same aggression. But I’d forgotten, and today he was wearing glasses. I didn’t recognize him until it was too late. He had an older brother there too, and the father was lounging on a blanket under the trees. I assume it was the father, though he didn’t seem very interested in his children. He didn’t engage in disciplining Damian. When it was time to go, the father took one of the boys to his car. The mother took the other to hers.

“That was not right for that boy to whack you,” I told Lee on the walk home. “He was being a bully. He was not being kind.” I didn’t know how else to explain this situation to Lee. Lee had been unjustly hurt. And how do you explain that to a two-year-old?

As the rest of the day unfolded, I analyzed and re-analyzed what had happened. Lee must have been analyzing the situation too because he told me several times, “Park. Whacking. Oh. Waa waa.” 

Why? Why did Damian do that? Did he have pent up aggression? Is this the kind of behavior he sees at home? Does his father and brother treat him this way? Does he watch too much wrestling on TV? Perhaps he’s a drug child or a foster kid or his family has gone through a shake-up. I don’t know. Maybe this is just how boys are?

I’ve just finished reading Tattoos On My Heart, by Gregory Broyle. It’s filled with stories about how the Jesuit priest, Father Gregory Broyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, has come to love the gangsters of Los Angeles. He has given worth to people who have felt themselves worthless because not only do their parents beat, abandon, and/or not adequately provide for them, but because the world has cast them off as criminals, people who belong in jail or on death row. They’re the outcasts of today. The ones that Jesus would’ve hung out with. 

Broyle cares for them, provides jobs for them, and forgives them again and again and again. He sees their toughness as a callus for their hurt. He sees their need to be valued. They are like children, big, tattooed, drugged-up children looking for their identities in gang banging. And Greg enters their world. He doesn’t shame them into right behavior. He doesn’t ask them to wear clothes that fit them properly or to quit smoking or to clean up their language. He doesn’t mind using some colorful language himself. It doesn’t matter. The main thing was the work of the heart, not outward appearances. 

Outward appearances. Now there’s a blanket I’ve wrapped myself up in. I want fair play, a quiet, pretty neighborhood, a painted and landscaped home, and sweet scents blowing in my window at night.

I don’t want the gardeners to weed-whack the edge of my lawn too far away from the sidewalk. I don’t want oxalis mixed in with my St. Augustine. And when the gardeners don’t do it right, I’m angry at them. I scowl at them from within my cool house as they blow the dust into my neighbors’ yards. They’re just mowing and blowing. They’re trying to get the job done as fast as they can. They don’t care about making it look good. Lazy!

I scrutinize the dog walkers who are waiting for their dogs to finish their duty. They’d better pick up that crap, I think, ready to blow the whistle on any delinquents. 

And those neighborhood youths who hang about Broadway park. I assume they’re there to inspect their handiwork on the children’s slide, which is now tagged with some profanity. Why don’t they get a job? Why don’t they use their time by picking up some trash around here? They’re bringing down the neighborhood. They make the place look bad. I call the police when Phil tells me that that scent I smell from their direction is marijuana. 

And those neighbors a few doors up. Why don’t they fix their sprinklers? Their dead lawn is a blight on the street. And the alley scroungers who dig through our trash looking for plastic, glass, and aluminum bottles to recycle. Don’t they know that’s stealing from the city? 

I don’t want the homeless people to come to our church. They’re all scammers anyway! I don’t want to get into the grocery line with the lady who’s using food stamps. I avoid the unkempt people waiting on bus stop benches and I avoid walking the streets west of Comstock. It’s dangerous over there anyway.

On our block I can tell you what the owners of each house should do to improve their homes, but I can’t tell you all the owner’s names. And why? Because I’ve drawn the line between them and me. I’ve decided I don’t want that. I’ll be better. No. I’ll look better. 

I will enter heaven having worked my estate to perfection. I’ll have made all the right investments for my retirement. I won’t have been a burden to others financially. I’ll smell of Secret and Crest and lavender lotion. I won’t be obese, tattooed, or pockmarked. I won’t have lung cancer or HIV or diabetes. And I’m sure God will see that and say, “My! What a nice person! Lets just skip that testing of your work by fire bit. Come on in!”

“Close both eyes; see with the other one. Then, we are no longer saddled by the burden of our persistent judgments, our ceaseless withholding, our constant exclusion. Our sphere has widened, and we find ourselves, quite unexpectedly, in a new expansive location, in a place of endless acceptance and infinite love.” (Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart)

Something has started to happen to me since reading this book. 

I caught a whiff of cigar smoke from the backyard the other night. Phil was back there with our neighbor and his buddies. They were playing board games and having beer. Instinctively, I shut the windows and started brooding. But something interrupted me, a memory. 

I remember catching a whiff of cigarette smoke when Phil and I were living in the back house. The people renting our front house had several co-workers over. They were smoking in the backyard. I later found cigarette butts in our planters. 

As the faint scent of smoke drifted in our windows, I worried about the harm this might do our 6-month-old Lee. I looked down on their lifestyle: eating out constantly, TV always on, shouting in the kitchen, barfing in the bathroom. Overweight. Overspending. And I felt no love for them. 

I was polite, if you can call putting pellet-sized snail poison around our garden and operating loud machinery in our garage when they had a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old polite. I was childless at the time, and didn't understand the challenges of having little ones. 

And when their lives fell apart in front of me, I had no compassion. I was relieved when they finally moved out, and I was angry at them when I had to pick up the mess that they’d left behind: water damage under the sink, ruined laminate flooring, crayon marks on the walls, debtors’ letters, traces of their faithless lifestyle, and piles of unclaimed possessions. Among the items were pictures of their children and the little bracelet that hospitals put on babies. That baby bracelet stopped my anger. There were children hurt by what went on in this house, both little children and grown up adult children, both fighting for love.

The wreck of that house was merely evidence for the wreck inside their hearts. And I missed it. I was more concerned with my future home and the cost of repairs than I was about those people’s hearts, about their isolation here in Whittier after having moved from another state and having no friends or family nearby. 

It’s easy to let people live in their own filth, both physically and emotionally, when I don’t have to live with them, or next door to them, or on the same block as them. But once their in my territory, it’s tougher. I want to escape to Friendly Hills. I don’t want to live with their mess.

I suppose that’s why hell in the Great Divorce is a spanning city where no one lives too close to anyone else. They can’t stand the sight of each other. They can’t handle one another’s filth. So they never go deeper. Never live with and forgive one another. They run off before things get too difficult.

“Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgement at how they carry it.” (Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart

Yes, I missed my chance with our renters. Perhaps I missed my chance at the park with that boy too. So that night, I prayed with Lee for the boy who whacked him. We prayed that he would come to know the Lord and stop being so angry. 

It’s a prayer I have to say for myself too: that I would come to know God’s heart so that the anger dissipates and I would see without my eyes. I don’t merely want to feel the pain of others around me, but bring them in towards myself and thus, God. 

“Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities under foot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. You will show faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham, as you have sworn to our fathers from the days of Old.” Micah 7:18-20

Comments

Unknown said…
Wow, thanks for your honest sharing. I've been thinking about some of the same things lately. Your post was very thought provoking.
Really made me think! Good job!
Grandma Seelye said…
I'm wiping away tears (not surprising)...first for Lee, and then for all that you shared about how God is leading you.I loved the prayer you had with Lee.

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