“Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.” Romans 12:15
One of the things with which I am most comfortable—something I recognize as one of my better qualities—is my ease at mourning with others, holding people when they are hurting or listening when their hearts are breaking. My ability to be present with people in their darkness most likely comes from learning through the many times others have been present with me and my grief; their care of me has in turn allowed me to see how important it is to do the same to others. Tears do not scare me; there is no awkwardness for me when reaching out to friends or strangers in their distress. Being with others through their sorrow is a gift I embrace, and when reading the second portion of Paul’s counsel—weep with those who weep— I believe I can say, “Yes.” But the first half of the verse? Not so much.
I confess here and now that I have much to learn concerning rejoicing with others over their good news. “Really Sheila? I’ve seen and heard you graciously offer congratulations or seem interested in my joys.” And you’re right; I do try to be aware of others and celebrate their victories and I can honestly say that my happiness is usually sincere when others share their achievements, their victories, and their joys. I keep my ungrateful cards close to my chest for I have learned that I will end up with few friends in this world if I do not cultivate a sincere cheerfulness when others win the jackpot. But there are times when I simply wallow in the comparison game.
Last week I found myself wrestling my ungrateful demon when all the back-to-school photos hit the Facebook universe, especially all the high school senior images. Kindergarten through 12th grade, there they were on full display . . . new backpacks and shoes, smiling faces, each one eager to meet their teachers, face new challenges, make good grades, and enjoy the ride. As an educator, seeing families and students who value and enjoy the school-experience is a gift in itself as the family connection is vital to school success. But as a mom I felt as those the smiling faces were mocking my pain and all I wanted to do was take my cup of coffee and crawl to my dark place and lick my proverbial wounds. Let the pity-games begin.
Because you see, last week my baby, my last-one-at-home, my man-child who turns 18 in 129 days, also experienced his first-day-of-his-last-year-of-school. Having had two older sons who joyfully (?) posed at each and every request (and who were active participants in a traditional high school experience), the experience of letting my youngest be himself has been hard, and when I ponder the perceived golden standard of school success, in so many ways my youngest doesn’t measure up to that ideal. During high school he has attended 7 different schools or programs, including three months in Montana and almost a year in South Florida. A talented athlete, organized sports lost its attraction in 9th grade. There were months of silence and open hostility, our home at times resembling a war zone. We fought to cram him into our ideal of success and then fell back when we realized that plan was our plan, not his. At some point we were handed Grace in the form of a 12-step program and my husband and I realized that perhaps we needed as much, or more, help than our son. We made the decision to do our own work. Committing to a weekly family program, meeting with others weekly as they traveled our path with us provided a path. We sought counseling. We prayed . . . a lot. We set healthy boundaries so our son could experience our love in a safe environment. We released him from the burden of being responsible for our happiness, realizing that is an unwieldy load for anyone to bear. And things got better and things are getting better. Just as I advise many teachers to always find the thing their students do well, I had to take my own advice and look for all the goodness my youngest offers.
Over the past year, as we’ve allowed our son to live with each and every consequence of his personal choices, he’s more times than not risen to the occasion, facing consequences with acceptance and responsibility, no longer playing the blame-everyone-else game of just a few years ago. He got a job, a hard, hot job, doing prep and dishwashing at a local seafood restaurant, working over 30 hours a week, getting himself there and back (he can walk – it’s 3 blocks from our house), and garnishing praise from his employer. (I had to recently drop something off and the kitchen manager came out to tell me, “I wish they all worked as hard and were as pleasant as your son.”) While assisting at our church’s service of feeding the homeless in our community, the organizer remarked on how gracious he was to the clients, treating them with respect and dignity.
My son makes me smile. He has a wicked sense of humor (at times too wicked) and he sends me texts and gifs that elicit raucous laughter, sometimes during meetings or other inopportune moments. He has good taste, using his hard earned pay to purchase clothes and shoes that he knows I’d never open my wallet for. And in spite of all the turmoil of the past three years, my son entered his senior year with enough credits to graduate. He never quit. (I was amazed when he had to take the state-mandated-graduation-requirement reading test after not being in an English class for over a year and solidly passed the first time; he said he didn’t see what the big deal was all about.) While he isn’t completing his senior year at the school of his first choice, he accepted that the school he did decide upon would provide the support and guidance he needs in order to graduate on time. We let him make that decision. He is still here with us in our home, never running away when circumstances and discord were at their darkest, and I can honestly say life with our son is better than it has been in years.
So back to last week. My son’s school journey that began in a Kenyan preschool has fast-forwarded to 12th. As I clicked through the
perfect photos of others’ offspring, Jealousy tried its best to blind me to the gift of my son. No, I didn’t get a first-day-of-school photo and there’s a good chance I won’t get a fancy senior photo either. As he reminded me a few days ago, “Do you know how many really good photos you have of me just hanging around?” He’s right; I do. His smile can light up a room and I capture those candid moments whenever I am secretly able to do so. Maybe those captures portray him far better than any staged photo could. As I pulled out and tried to play my disappointment card last week, God reminded me of all the good staring me down.
Are things perfect? Is our family perfect? Of course not. Except on Facebook, what family is? But is our family restored and healing one day at a time? Absolutely.
I long to be better at the rejoicing part so I will practice. As I practice, I recognize that I actually do enjoy seeing how my friends’ children have grown and changed and matured. I will keep work on sincerely congratulating parents when their children excel in sports and make the dean’s list and get accepted to an Ivy League, reminding myself that my youngest is his own person and follows his own path, a path that is his, not mine. I will stop trying to live vicariously through his choices or compare him to anyone, recognizing that destruction is the only thing that results from such pressure. Praying that as I learn to rejoice with those who rejoice I’ll recognize the goodness surrounding my family and know every day that another’s joy does not negate my own.