Among the handful of phrases a stranger should NEVER utter to a child is,
“I am bad.”
The Mandarin words spilled gracefully off my tongue.
It’s not what I meant to say it, but I was nipping at the heels of mastery with my takeout order moments before (all of four words). Why not, I reasoned, continue my winning streak with the girl waiting next to me? I couldn’t understand what she said first. But, really, it didn’t matter.
I was on a roll.
Moments later, I rushed home in the rain – balancing beef noodle bags and my umbrella with an overinflated ego. I boasted this communicative conquest to my hungry kids. They eagerly translated my mis-inflected fail:
“Um, Mom? You didn’t say ‘I don’t speak that well.’ You told her you were ‘BAD’! Nice, Mom. Let’s eat!”
This is not the first time I’ve tripped over my own stellar self-evaluation. It’s on loop in my life-pursuit of purpose. I revel in “arriving” for a few moments, and then proceed to do something stupid.
Here’s a sample of my resume:
- Achieved second-year “pro” status as camp counselor. . . until I lost a camper in the Wisconsin’s North Woods for six hours. (This is why I always appear older in pictures. At 22 I grew gray hair, all in this one day.)
- Shook up rhetorical academia lecturing on the potency of credibility – while wearing two different shoes. (In all fairness, it was an 8:00 AM class, and I was in a hurry that day.)
- Demonstrated domestic proficiency: Newly married – and anxious to prove my skills – I spent an hour ironing out the pleats in my husband’s pants. This is because perfectly placed creases on the front of dress pants aren’t supposed to be there. There was also a money-laundering incident that involved a Kenmore and his wallet . . .
- Cross-cultural competency: Keeping your guest’s teacup full is a cultural nuance in Taiwan. So, I poured hot broth (also in a silver pot) into my friend’s tea cup. She didn’t even ask . . . This, after I allowed my child to eat a mango in front of her, with its skin on. Mission accomplished.
It’s a pattern: Just as I gain momentum, humility ensues. It taps me on the shoulder whispering “OVERRATED” in my ear.
I suspect I’m not alone.
I used to dread these speed bumps. But here, at this mid-life intersect of aspiration and reality, I’m seeing an upside: In a world of self-inflation and validation, maybe the occasional sun on our Icarus wings is exactly what we need. I don’t say this lightly. Often, there are side effects. My recent run-in with Matthew five left me grounded, under a pile of feathers and melted wax.
I’d flown past these words a million times, like a field trip release waiver – en route to something more spectacular: Leprosy, beheadings, paralytics puncturing ceilings . . . or the paradoxical parables. Next to these the “Blessed Are’s” * seemed 101. I eclipsed this stuff long ago, after years of Sunday school flannel-graphs and sleepy sermons. (Not recommended for flannel-graphs: John the Baptist’s end.)
I was easily 8-0:
“Poor in Spirit” – Who doesn’t have room for improvement?
“Mourn”– I am sad, sometimes.
“Meek”– I try not to raise my voice, or step on bugs.
“Hunger and thirst after righteousness”– Check, Christ-follower.
“Merciful”– Stellar volunteer record, once a month.
“Pure in heart”– I don’t really know what this is, but it sounds like me.
“Peacemaker”– Summer break children’s “referee.” Overqualified.
“Persecuted”– In some countries, I would be.
This time through, though, I slowed down a bit. (I was preparing for a group discussion minutes later, and I didn’t want to look bad.) As I ran down my low-bar checklist, I heard the whisper again:
Basking in the afterglow of self-inflation, I’d soared dangerously close to the sun.
Then, a reality nosedive.
Jesus’ words paint a portrait of humanity and purpose: Eight broad brushstrokes of not what-we-do but who-we-are. Character purpose.
It looked nothing like me.
At best, I’m a blurry Polaroid of the original – not even a numbered print. I’m the girl who equates ordering takeout with second language proficiency; the overrated one who truthfully, but unknowingly boasts, “I am bad.”
In the posts that follow, I’m going sweep up the debris of complacency. I want to linger longer at the “Blessed Are’s,” * instead of bustling by. It’s what must be done with a masterpiece, until it seeps into your soul.
As I stop and stare, may it be so with my own.
[This is Part 6 of the On Purpose Series.]