Lessons Learned from the Playground
A few years ago I had the opportunity to volunteer at an elementary school once a week during my lunch break. Each Tuesday when we arrived, a flood of first graders would race up and whisk us off to play soccer, football, foursquare, jump rope, or straight to the jungle gym.
As the weeks progressed, I developed a relationship with one first grader in particular named Guadalupe. Each week she would see me walk out to the playground and we would have the same conversation:
“Do you remember me?!”
At this point she would squeal, grab my hand, and lead me over to the monkey bars. Once at the monkey bars, she’d ask me to hold her waist as she crossed from one side to the other.
After a few weeks of this same routine, I decided it was time for her to start going across the monkey bars without my help. I knew it would be a process of helping her gain the necessary strength and confidence to do it, but she was ready. I was barely helping her at this point.
The next week as she was going across the monkey bars, I slowly let go. I was still right there, in case she started to fall, but I knew she could do it. However, instead of continuing across the equipment, she froze, and yelled at me to hold on with BOTH HANDS.
This cycle continued for the next several weeks. I’d try to let go, she’d yell at me to hold on. I wanted her so badly to be able to do this on her own. I knew she would be so proud of herself once she accomplished it, and that this accomplishment would open the doors to a whole new level of playground to explore and adventures to conquer. But I knew that as long as she relied on me completely week after week, she’d never develop the muscle strength and confidence in herself necessary to succeed.
One day as we were standing on the playground, I realized how much Guadalupe and I actually had in common. How often do my prayers sound a little like this:
“Heavenly Father, this is Rachel, do you remember me? Are you aware of what I’m going through right now?”
And how often does Heavenly Father patiently wait while I try to cross the monkey bars of life, waiting for me to take the next leap of faith? He knows the big picture. He knows what experiences I need to help me strengthen my spiritual muscles and increase my faith to help me prepare for the future.
I’m sure there were moments when Guadalupe thought I was abandoning her on the monkey bars. That was never the case, I was always right there, ready to catch her if needed. But also knowing she was capable of so much more.
Likewise, I think sometimes we feel a little abandoned when we are allowed to struggle and grow and exercise our agency. But the truth is, we are never actually alone. Our Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ never leave our side. But they do allow us opportunities to grow, to become more like Them. And as hard as that is, I’m so grateful They trust me enough to let me grow, and stumble, and pick myself back up.
Because this current set of monkey bars is just the beginning. I’ve got a whole playground to explore.
Thanks for the reminder, Guadalupe.
The 12th Mile
I was running down University Avenue in Provo, blisters on my feet, sweat pouring down face, trying my best to put one foot in front of the other to finish my run and make it home. My somewhat respectable pace had slowed to a crawl, and I knew I probably looked almost as miserable as I felt. In my less than coherent state, I was positive that everyone on that street was watching me, and wondering why I had attempted to go running in the first place. My pride was taking over, and I desperately wanted to hold up a huge neon sign that said, “Cut me some slack, I’m on mile 12!”
See, I was training for my first half marathon, and it was my last long run before the race, I had been training for months, and I needed to finish this run to prove to myself I could survive the actual race. But instead of focusing on how far I had come and what a huge accomplishment that should have been, I started to worry how I appeared to anyone watching me. I felt myself becoming more and more self conscious as I struggled with each step.
I survived the last few yards of my 12 mile run and made it home. But I couldn’t shake my thoughts from the last few minutes of my run. I thought about how desperately I wanted the drivers and other people on that road to know what I had been through. I wanted to prove to them that there was a reason my running looked so slow and painful. I wanted them to know that if they had seen me an hour before, I was certain they would have been very impressed with my form and pace. I wanted them to know hard I had worked and trained to become a real runner. I wanted them to understand. But to them, I was just a girl barely running at all.
My thoughts continued to morph as I thought about different times when I have felt like I was struggling to finish this marathon of life. I thought of some of my dear friends, and the struggles they have faced, unbeknownst to most people in their daily interactions. If they could hold up a neon sign it might read something like:
- My parents are getting a divorce
- I just had a miscarriage
- My little sister has cancer
- I just lost my job
- I’m struggling with depression
- I just broke off my engagement
- I can’t have children
- I’m struggling with my faith
I realized that we all have days when we are figuratively on mile 12, and we are doing everything we can to just put one foot in front of the other. It is taking everything we have to get out of bed each day, or simply show up.
I think we would do well to cut each other a little slack, and recognize that we are each fighting silent battles of the heart. And the last thing we need is people criticizing us for our performance or our slow pace. We need love and encouragement. We need people standing on the sidelines, cheering us on, telling us we are going to be okay. And that this too, shall pass.
I often think of a quote from a talk given by Elder Henry B. Eyring, a leader in my church. He shared some advice given to him as a boy, “When you meet someone, treat them as if they were in serious trouble, and you will be right more than half the time.”
What neon sign would you hold up right now? What silent battle are you going through that you wish was better understood?
I’ve often reflected on the thoughts that were going through my head as I was finishing that last mile. More than anything, I just wanted people to understand there was a reason for my current behavior. Since this experience, I’ve tried to apply this principle in my interactions with other people. There’s a reason why someone is grumpy. There’s a reason why someone is irritable. There’s a reason why someone is completely calloused and insensitive. Chances are, he or she is pushing through that last mile, doing the very best they can.
And while I may never know what they’ve been through or the reason for their behavior, I can choose to respond with love. I can choose to be that person on the sidelines, giving encouragement and support. I can choose to forgive when someone buckles under the pressure, lashes out, and perhaps hurts my feelings. I can choose to be a good listener. And I can choose to give someone the benefit of the doubt. I can be that person.
Care to join me?