I recently wrote about a professional development activity at my school —”finding your why”— based on the work of Simon Sinek. The principal led staff in recording life moments that left us changed, somehow. These peaks and valleys don’t have as much to do with who we are and what we do, but why.
Here’s one of my childhood valleys, and how it shapes my why even now.
The setting is my birthday. I believe I was turning ten (double digits), or maybe it was twelve (the last birthday before becoming a teenager); it’s odd that I can’t remember, because I didn’t have many birthday parties. I don’t know exactly why my mother decided to throw this one, but it seems turning ten or twelve is right.
I just remember . . . well, here, see for yourself:
More and more people cram into our small living room. Extended family members, some kids from the neighborhood, a couple of friends from school and church. Mom has balloons up, has put out party hats and noisemakers. A stack of presents in brightly-wrapped paper grows larger. I haven’t received this many presents for my birthday before.
I don’t even know what to do with myself, what to say to everyone. What are they going to do besides eat cake and watch me open presents? Is this going to be any fun for them? I grow more uncomfortable each minute. When the doorbell rings, I run to open it, to have something to do.
And there he stands.
I can’t believe it.
“What are YOU doing here?” I shout.
My party guests turn to see what’s going on.
He looks down at me with those glittering, snake-green eyes. He’s not smiling. “Your mother invited me.”
Oh, she’s right here beside me.
“Come on in,” she says to the meanest boy in the neighborhood.
I can’t stand him.
He’s maybe thirteen, lives next door with his dad, and when I’ve been outside playing with my sister or other neighbor kids, he’s made fun of me, called me names. He threw my bike once, took a ball and wouldn’t give it back. He acts like he hates me and I’ve never done anything to him; I try not to get near him.
AND HERE HE IS AT MY PARTY.
AND SHE DIDN’T ASK ME.
“Mom!” I suddenly quit caring that everyone else is watching. I stomp my foot.”Why’d you invite him? I don’t want him here! It’s not fair!”
The boy looks like he really doesn’t want to be here, either.
Go! Just go! I want to scream. My heart pounds hard.
My mother looks at me. A long, dark look, her brown eyes nearly black. Her face is tight.
“He’s here because I want him to be. You. Will. Be. NICE.”
She ushers him into the crowd of guests, introduces him.
I am stunned.
I almost can’t enjoy the cake, the presents, or any of it, partly because of him, but mostly because of her.
She didn’t tell me, then, in front of our family and friends, that his mother had left his father, that he was having a hard time living with his dad.
I saw a hateful bully; she saw an angry, hurting boy. Who probably felt unwanted before this party.
I saw injustice; she saw a chance for grace. And redemption.
I saw myself; she saw another.
When I saw this boy again, he didn’t call me a name. He didn’t try to terrorize me. He greeted me, not in an especially friendly way, but at least with some decency.
He never mistreated me again.
I think of “Sleeping Beauty,” the only story I remember my mother reading to me when I was little. How the fairies came to bestow their gifts on the newborn Princess Aurora, how an uninvited evil fairy, angry, shows up to curse the baby to an early death, how the last fairy intervenes and lessens the curse.
My mother intervened to lessen the curse.
For him. For me.
This one tiny episode is among my life’s greatest in seeing the story behind injustice, a deep lesson in empathy, in forgiveness, in choosing to take the high road even when you’re hurt. That what’s fair is not always what’s right, and that what’s right isn’t always fair.
A valley that shapes my why, even now.
And maybe this memory calls me to write it for another reason. Maybe because, in real life, good people, like good fairies, go wrong sometimes, and it helps to remember them the way they were.
Before the greater valleys to come, before the brokenness.
That’s what this birthday party has become to me now—a fragment of the good, to keep.
“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”
-Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms