This has been another hard month. I don’t feel it to be hard. I just know objectively that it is. The typical challenge of balancing my work with the children’s needs and the management of a household has been intensified by the onset of a serious medical condition in my family. I now enter that phase of elder care, which I understand is more or less bound to bankrupt the average household. I have become the much-begrudged adult child, compelled to make decisions for other people’s lives and regarded in the fog of suspicion. My intentions are now under scrutiny; my time is usurped; my efforts are thankless. I’m not complaining really. I am just describing.
In the midst of things, I have managed to take my older son to the seeming ends of the earth to visit potential high schools. I am managing a Destination Imagination team for my fourth grade son’s class. I am teaching six courses, and my home is relatively clean. I am running a weekly lecture series, I volunteered at the Church this month, and no one has missed any meals. I even managed to sew a blanket for a friend’s new baby. There are many more serious family, medical, and economic issues that underlie my day-to-day, but along with everyone else, and perhaps a little more so than some others, I just accept that I am amazingly over-extended.
I have also acclimated to a general operating assumption that it can always get worse. I tell students this, and encourage them to just take the next step. Each day, just handle what comes before you, I suggest, and plan ahead as far as your vision allows. But, do not wait for the time when life has improved to feel joy. For, there is always something to be grateful for in this moment that, when taken away, one would wish to have back. There is something comforting in accepting the mind’s gradual understanding that one can only fix one’s own expectations and attitudes, prepare for the worst case scenario, and be grateful for anything more.
So, why did I cry last Saturday when I opened my mail to find a letter from the school principal, scolding me personally by name for my children’s tardiness? It was an incidental thing. Maybe many similar letters were sent to parents such as myself. I don’t know. What I do know is that I received it almost as a referendum on my life. I felt like a first class failure. It didn’t matter that four nights a week I teach until almost 10 PM, and the kids ALWAYS wait up for me because that is when we laugh and cuddle and catch up. It didn’t matter that I wake up every morning an hour before school starts to cook breakfast. It didn’t matter that I struggle to wake up the kids, sometimes bringing their clothes warm from the dryer so that they don’t have to feel the morning chill. It doesn’t matter how I plead with them to get in the car. They arrived at 8:02, which is two minutes too late, and I am a very bad mother. In that one-hundred and twenty seconds, I manage to mess up the school, the other kids, the teachers, and my very own children.
Now, I want to pull back from the ledge here and acknowledge that this is probably how my exhaustion and frustration manifest, that is, in some deeply internalized self-critique. I get that this is probably unhealthy. I also want to acknowledge that the letter was not entirely excoriating. It was matter-of-fact. However, so what? It made me feel really shitty to receive that letter, addressed, as it were to ‘Dr. Weaver,’ complete with handbook citations. I know when we are late; I don’t like it either; and I am trying my best.
My response to this letter, of course, included setting the alarm now ninety minutes out from departure. And, I have taken earnestly to heart the truth that tardiness is a disruption, which when habituated can be a problem. But, I have also considered why the letter crashed into me as it did. You see, it pointed out flaw with no sensitivity to circumstance, and it made no inquiry to our well-being. The same point could have been made by a letter of outreach, which inquired if there was a reason for lateness, or whether the school could support us in any way.
I realized that the smallest difference in tone would have made the biggest difference to me. A show of concern and kindness, especially when one is going through rough passes, may make the difference between total despair and life. I know that may sound extreme, but it is the case that we never know what our neighbor has seen or felt or dealt with quietly that week or month or season. Giving one another the benefit of the doubt and speaking with concern to assist one another as whole persons in this life – these are not difficult things to do. They are literally no more difficult than making a choice to be kind or patient or helpful.
I realized that I try to do this with my students, and that may make me lenient. Do I care if some try to play me for the fool? I treat my kids kindly, which is perhaps why they are late occasionally. I wonder whether kindness is seen as intellectual weakness or lack of rigor or woman-mindedness. Whatever it may be thought to be, I hereby declare, I care not. In this world, so fraught with division, enmity, and ideological rigidity, I am beginning to see that opting for a disposition toward assuming the best of one another is a very fine gift we can give, especially in light of the maxim that one another’s lives can always become harder. Kindness is a precious gift, but it need not be rare.
Natalie Kertes Weaver, Ph.D., is Chair and Professor of Religious Studies at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. Natalie’s academic books include: Marriage and Family: A Christian Theological Foundation (Anselm, 2009); Christian Thought and Practice: A Primer (Anselm, 2012); and The Theology of Suffering and Death: An Introduction for Caregivers (Routledge, 2013). Natalie’s most recent book is Made in the Image of God: Intersex and the Revisioning of Theological Anthropology (Wipf & Stock, 2014). Natalie has also authored two art books: Interior Design: Rooms of a Half-Life and Baby’s First Latin. Natalie’s areas of interest and expertise include: feminist theology; theology of suffering; theology of the family; religion and violence; and (inter)sex and theology. Natalie is a married mother of two sons, Valentine and Nathan. For pleasure, Natalie studies classical Hebrew, poetry, piano, and voice.