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February 11, 2014 |

A Bar and a Pole

BY Jen Hatmaker

suppose most kids have a Christmas list a mile long, but Remy Hatmaker only had two things on her wish list: monkey bars and high heels. It is literally all she spoke about for weeks. So for $38, Brandon built her a set of high and low monkey bars and we got her wedge shoes that she clomps around in like Imelda Marcos.

Around the same time, she got her “first new room” in our farmhouse. It is cute as a punkin, and the piece de resistance is a fireman’s pole in which to exit her loft bed. It is the envy of the entire family, and I’m not ashamed to admit that all seven of us have slid down that thing a zillion times.

Because these are her favorite things, she made a list of activities she planned on enjoying. I hadn’t seen this until my friend was checking out the house last week and came out of her room saying, “Uh, Remy has some…interesting activities on her list.”

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So my daughter will be visiting the bar and the pole in her high heels.
Parenting: NAILING IT.
After I ran for my camera because this is GOLD MATERIAL, I got to thinking about her list. It didn’t look good. It didn’t sound good. It appears we are raising a gin-swigging stripper (with a surprising reading and art habit and a mysterious activity called “house”). Jumping to conclusions would be so easy.

How often do we hear or read something, or we’re told a juicy bit about someone, or we make assumptions based on loose observations or fill in the blanks information that isn’t actually true? All the time. I cannot tell you how often I project feelings and attitudes onto people because it is what I think they think. It is especially easy to pull one piece of information out of context and spin an entire yarn with it, creating a whole persona, an assumed worldview with only one small piece of the puzzle in hand.

The internet has become so mean. I don’t know if the web has made us nastier or simply displayed what has always lurked in the lowest forms of ourselves. People have written the worst things about me you can imagine, describing me in ways that would drain the blood from your face, and they have never even met me. Or they’ll take one 1100-word blog and draw conclusions about every corner of my life: parenting, discipleship, theology, everything.

Lest I martyr myself, I’ve done the exact same thing to others.

What would happen if collectively we decided to give one another the benefit of the doubt? What if we agreed that there is always more to us than one essay, one conversation, one moment, one admission? People are nuanced and complex; we are not just the organizations we lead, the coalitions we identify with, the drums we beat, the churches we belong to, the friends we keep, that one thing we said or did.

When stung/surprised/confused by something I read or heard, years of dramatic overreactions have taught me I have two choices:

Go with the knee-jerk reaction. Just open mouth, let words fly. Every vague feeling, all the emotionally charged words that flood my mind…just let loose. Conclusions? Jump to them. Don’t let it all settle. Don’t think it through. Don’t ask questions. Better yet, talk about it disparagingly to others, because the only thing better than thinking badly about someone is talking badly about them to others. Imagine that me and mine have it all right, all the time. We cannot be led. We cannot be taught. We cannot be stretched. We cannot be wrong.

Assume I know everything that went into this: all the feelings, all the opinions. Paint with the widest brush possible. Write them off, obviously. If it was something directed at me, don’t take the humble approach. Don’t turn it into a productive conversation. Just go all defensive lineman and the sooner the better. Time cools indignation, so better strike back while the iron is hot.Reel in my indignation and go down in hot, angry flames. Feels so good on the front end.

Or:

First of all, wait. Just wait. The first response is so rarely the best one. I burn hot and fast. I cannot trust my initial emotions, because they exist in the fight-or-flight part of my brain where instincts overcome reason. They see “bar” and “pole” and spaz out, creating something out of potentially nothing, or at least something less than the Defcon 4 it seems. I have a 24-hour rule on all things emotionally charged: no responding, no pontificating, no gossiping, no lines in the sand, no conclusions. Just sleep on it. Revisit it again tomorrow; it is almost never as dire as I originally thought. I am able to find the nuances, hear the subtleties, tamp down my visceral reaction, act sane.

Begin fresh the next day with this: Benefit of the doubt. I will assume the best here and move forward accordingly. This position creates space for respectful dialogue, sincere questions, valuing people over principles and building bridges rather than widening divides. We do not have to burn everything to the ground every time we get our haunches up. It would be so refreshing to become a people of reasonableness again. Grownups are able to come to the table respectfully; children pitch fits, lash out, take their ball and go home.

I have never regretted a humble response. It injects respect into charged conversations, taking the wind out of angry sails and setting a new table for the discussion. It can make friends out of adversaries and blaze a new path forward, creating a road where there appeared to be none. It is so disarming, and we need fewer armed people in this violent world.

Of course, we will sometimes come to a crossroads where a relationship is simply unhealthy and we have to walk. But let that decision come after laying down our arms, walking in the way of humility and respect and empathy first. Let us surprise each other with grace, emulating our Savior who blew past stereotypes and assumptions and gathered around the table with sinners, outcasts, misfits, all those “others.” Let us shock people like Jesus did, inviting ourselves to the home of the tax collector, defending the accused with gentleness while everyone else holds rocks, sharing a cold cup of water at high noon with someone tangled in sin and despair, refusing to disparage though it is the easiest, most popular option.

Benefit of the doubt to strangers we perceive as adversaries.

Benefit of the doubt to individuals rather than guilt by association.

Benefit of the doubt to folks from other ideologies, worldviews, value systems.

Benefit of the doubt to our spouses, choosing grace, grace, grace.

Benefit of the doubt to our children; shock them with mercy.

Benefit of the doubt to our pastors. They are just people.

Benefit of the doubt to our friends. Assuming the worst is the worst.

I literally dream of this. I dream of this table where people pull up chairs and pass the bread, slow to speak, quick to listen. What a beautiful community that would be where we assume the best in people first, extending respect, withholding judgment. It would be so contagious, so disarming. We could rise up to our best selves and in doing so, raise others up too. The lowest common denominator need not be our measure. Every bar is not a bar, and every pole is not a pole.

At the very least, it is the community I’d like to nourish here at this little blog and in my little life. I’d like to imagine that We are a Basement People, and perhaps we could create something beautiful to bear witness to. We can speak kindly and patiently. We can bravely cross lines and find common ground. We can suspend assumptions and do the hard work of communicating instead. How lovely to lavish that on others, and I suspect that we send that outward long enough, and we’ll find it coming back to us in waves of grace that speak of heaven and bind us together in unity.

Can we do this? Do we need to make amends with anyone and start anew? What else can we do to make this our way?