20/20 in 2020

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My husband and I have a long-running joke between us that he could paint the house purple and it would take me a few months to notice.

I don’t see everything.

Once, one of our children got multiple piercings on body parts that were not covered by clothing, and I didn’t realize it for a couple of weeks.

I miss details.

It’s not that my vision is poor. I mean it is (-7.75 for those who know what that means), but my glasses correct me to 20/20.

My vision is fine; I just don’t see stuff.

For example, we can drive down the same street every Saturday for five years in a row and one day I will ask my husband, “Is that a new gas station?” He’ll say, “No, it’s always been there.” Or, he’ll say, “Doesn’t the road feel great now that they’ve resurfaced it?” and I’ll say, “They resurfaced it?”

Now, I might be able to blame a little of this on the cell phone. I mean, my husband often drives, and I’m often checking texts, getting navigation, or responding to messages, so I might miss some things because I’ve got my face in the screen, but guys, the piercing incident happened way before iPhones. I barely even knew where my phone was back then.

The fact that I miss so much probably has more to do with my laser focus on the mission — a last vestige of the soldiering life.

[If you are new to my blog and don’t know what I mean by ‘soldiering’, you can get a quick snapshot by clicking here. Or you can type ‘soldiering’ into the search bar at the top of the page.]

One important skill of soldiering is to be able to tune out distractions so that you can focus on the mission. The brain can’t attend to every stimulus it is exposed to all at once, so a soldier learns to zoom in. She can see an enemy approaching at a great distance while filtering out a whining dog at her feet. She can detect an approaching storm that will necessitate a tactical shift, while overlooking the construction crew working on the highway she’s driving on. Her mission is survival, so she prioritizes necessity and imminent threat.

For much of a decade, during my soldiering season, I was laser-focused on survival. I saw what was necessary for that mission — feeding my family, putting clothes on their backs, and getting them to doctors, therapists, sporting events, and concerts. I also attended to my students– planning their lessons, grading their papers, and writing their college recommendations. If my child or my student brought an issue to me — put it right in front of me — I saw it as part of the mission. I would work to solve, soothe, or fix whatever was broken and then get back to whatever I was working on.

I saw little in my periphery, little that wasn’t pointed out, little that lay hidden beneath the surface.

Now, I’m obviously not a trained soldier; I was just pretending to know what I was doing as I marched through some very difficult years. In the face of uncertainty and possible harm, I strapped on my backpack and started kicking butts and taking names. I turned my eyes to problems and crises in an attempt to control my surroundings, but I missed so much — some of the greatest threats to our family and their well-being. An untrained soldier might manage to survive, but she’s likely to mess up all kinds of missions along the way.

In these last five years, during my recovery from soldiering, I have dropped my weapons, taken off my backpack, and slowed my pace, but I’m still trying to adjust my vision. I still tend to scan for danger or obstacles rather than giving a more realistic assessment to a situation.

Just last week, I met a new student with some significant learning challenges. Even after decades of working with students with all kinds of learning profiles, I was intimidated. He’s got some real barriers to learning and all I could see were the obstacles we would have to overcome so that we could complete the learning tasks in front of us. I was looking at those challenges, and my anxiety started to rise. How would I be able to work with this student during the last hour of my day when I was already fatigued and facing challenges of my own?

My focus on potential problems was for nothing. Not long into our session this teenager and I were laughing, learning, and listening to one another! What I had seen as potential disaster ended up being a very successful hour of instruction.

In my attempts to survive by hyper-focusing on potential dangers, I’ve missed a lot, but shift is happening. I’m beginning to see more clearly. I’m beginning to understand that the period of uncertainty and crisis is over — my strategy of scanning for danger is no longer necessary.

In 2020, I’m praying for new sight. I’m praying that I’ll see what’s important, that I’ll notice what’s essential, and that I’ll comprehend what has meaning. I’m praying that I won’t focus so hard on potential danger but that I’ll keep my eyes wide open to possibility.

I’m praying for sight, but I’m also asking for vision. I’m longing to see what’s right in front of me while also being able to dream ahead. I long to see clearly enough where we’re going so that I follow the path that will get us there.

And in 2020, I want to understand that there is really just a more connected here. It’s a here where I see the pain of the person in front of me, even when she is doing her best to hide it, where I hear insecurity when I’m presented with bravado, and where I acknowledge the actual fragility of the bravest of soldiers.

May 2020 be the year that we clearly see one another and acknowledge that we’re all trying real hard to do the best that we can.

Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.”

Mark 8:25

Take a deep breath

Yesterday I met a young man who needed some help on his Master’s thesis.  He’s studying minute differences in language structure between the group of languages that English falls into and the group of languages that Arabic and its various dialects fall into.  Before I could help him, he had to give me a tutorial on the linguistic principles that he has been studying. I will claim basic understanding — that is all.

We met at a Dunkin’ Donuts and sat side by side on stools with our laptops open discussing complementizers, noun phrases, and the grammaticality of each sentence.

We drew a couple of glances from other customers.  A middle aged white woman leaning in to look at the laptop of a young Saudi Arabian man, squinting and thinking, then typing and laughing, might not be the normal clientele for a Dunkin’ Donuts on the south side of Ypsilanti.

We were united in purpose for two and a half hours.  His adviser had made suggestions on his latest draft and he had to submit his changes by the end of last night.  He had done his work.  For each of the professor’s suggestions, he had already drafted his solution, but he wanted to check with a native speaker of English to be sure that what he meant was clearly conveyed through what he wrote.

The kid is brilliant.  He is employed by the Saudi Arabian government who, he said, gave him two choices, 1) go to the United States and get your master’s degree in linguistics and we will foot the bill, or 2) no longer be employed by us.

His choice was not as simple as it might seem.  His mother has diabetes and he is her only child.  He has been separated from her for three years. Each night we stays awake until 4:00am so that he can Skype with her.  He said it was a condition of his coming here.  He smiles and doesn’t seem to mind; he clearly loves his mother.

If he can just finish this thesis, get an acceptable score on the GRE, and get accepted into an American PhD program, he can go home next month to visit his mother. Wow.  That’s a lot to do in your native country, in your native language, in your native culture.

The stress he is under was palpable.  Several times during those two and half hours I said, “We’re fine, we’re fine.  We have plenty of time.  Take a deep breath.”  He follows directions well. We got through every last section, every last comment.  I left him at the Dunkin’ Donuts knowing that he would pour over that thesis from beginning to end for several more hours before he would be willing to submit it to his professor, before he would Skype with his mother and then take a much-needed rest.

He’ll rest for just a bit, though, because the GRE is on Thursday and he hasn’t really started to prepare.  And then there is the business of being accepted into a PhD program — no small task.

So much weight on him. So much weight on all of us — the graduate student, the young mother, the executive, the pastor, the teacher, the soldier. If we could just ___________________ then we would be able to ______________________.

“We’re fine, we’re fine.  We have plenty of time.  Take a deep breath.”  We’re not alone.  We have each other for encouragement, for coaching, for laughing.  And we are all sitting in the palm of His hand.

I Peter 5:7

Cast all your anxiety on him for he cares for you.