Recently, I was at the car wash vacuuming the crumbs and gathering random rubbish out of my vehicle. I was appalled at the mess that had built up, creating a layer of broken toy, winter glove, and granola bar wrapper rubble that had become a geographical layer of debris.
As I pondered what I would say to admonish my kids so the car didn’t get this messy again, I noticed something was in the pocket on the back of the passenger seat.
I stuck my hand in and discovered a couple of old paper napkins and then, thanks to my darling children, a rubber SNAKE.
Right as I pulled it out to process what it was, the woman next to me who was wiping her steering wheel accidentally bumped her horn and HONKED. That was one too many jump-scares for me and I whacked my head on the car ceiling.
It took more than a moment, but I did recover enough to see the humor in the situation. What are the odds an unexpected rubber snake and a car horn would coincide with that kind of precision? Knowing the surge of adrenaline I felt in the moment and my sudden, awkward attempt to engage in both fight and flight simultaneously, I feel fortunate all I got was a bump on my head.
Later, when I told my about my misadventure, my kids were amused but also perplexed.
“But Mom,” they said, “You aren’t afraid of real snakes. Why would you freak out over a fake one?”
This is true, I acknowledged. I like all kinds of animals, even ones I wouldn’t choose to have for a pet.
I also really like their dad, but if he accidentally startles me, I shriek. It’s the surprise that’s the problem, and that overrides the source for a moment. The Book of Psalms says people are “fearfully and wonderfully made,” and part of that seems to be quick reflexes for self-defense, even if the need is based on a misguided perception.
All this got me thinking. Just like we can’t tell our own brains to settle down in the moment we are startled, we really shouldn’t try to tell other people what is or isn’t a problem for them.
At best, it is rude and drives a wedge between the upset person and the would-be comforter. At worst, it is denial that allows serious problems to continue, unchecked.
All throughout the New Testament, Jesus is surrounded by folks who just don’t get it. He’s got everything handled for the rest of eternity, but people are still getting worked up over storms at sea, lack of adequate bread and fishes, leprosy, palsy, blindness, death of loved ones, and lots of other things that may or may not be their business at all.
He never once suggests that any of these people simply calm down, or tries to tell them their perceived problem is no big deal. Instead, he wept for their suffering, knowing he would also bear it. Then, he set about solving the problem.
Extending that kind of patience and empathy to others requires deliberate effort and doesn’t always come naturally. I am intrigued to note the concepts taught in the book “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk” echo a lot of this kind of Christ-like compassion. It’s a concept that works for everyone, of any age.
So your kiddo is coming unglued because she didn’t get the blue cup?
No need to be dismissive or argue that it doesn’t matter. Validate how much she likes that blue cup and remind her she’ll get to use it again soon.
Defaulting to thoughtful empathy is vital in every situation, whether talking about rubber snakes, systemic racism or anything in between. It’s a lesson that everyone squabbling in online comments sections seems to have missed.
Insisting something is not a real problem or mocking those with genuine concerns neither helps relationships nor addresses the concerns. Listening, however, can go a long way to bringing people together.
Meanwhile, if you see me in person, speak softly as I am still coming back down from my fright. Also, new rule: no snakes — of any kind — in the car.
Contact Sally at firstname.lastname@example.org.