We all know the red pencils. Those dreaded Wrong-Answer-Marking instruments, their arrow-sharp points making bright tracks across the white expanse of our grade-school tests or our high-school expository essays which would catapult us to honor roll stardom. We recall the moments when our math teacher paced in between desk rows, licking her finger in what seemed like undisguised delight as she unstuck each page, handing the work back into our waiting hands, and we nervous-tapped our own plain number 2 pencils in trepidation, wondering how many red strokes would be slashed across our offering.
Recently, I watched a real-life red pencil moment. It happened like this:
She was an older woman who stood a little below the height of the much younger acquaintance of hers, looking up a bit as she shared what she had viewed, how it had moved her. It was just one of those click-bait YouTube videos, the kind that you half-watch and then inexplicably find yourself wiping your eyes while peering about the Starbucks to make sure no one witnessed your emotion. But in this moment, the younger woman listening to the elder wasn't actually listening. Her first reaction was not to absorb, not to understand how the words had encouraged and lifted. Her initial instinct was to correct the woman's facts, to make sure she understood that there were errors in the video! There were mistakes! They must be righted! I watched the one-sided exchange, my face growing warm and my glance lowering to shield myself from the confusion and hurt I'd seen creeping into the older woman's eyes like water-filled clouds. The factual errors being pointed out with the red pencil of the younger woman's words? They did exist. They were real. Yet they didn't change the message of the video. The meaning and the heart of it were still exactly the same. Those errors could never have been mentioned at all and it wouldn't have made a difference. The focus could have been on the moment instead of on the mistakes.
Over and over again in my own daily actions and reactions....and more and more littered across social media, this is the norm. People MUST prove their points. They MUST correct any post, monitor any conversation they see, sharp red pencils ready to circle any real fault or, more frequently, even a perceived one.
But what would happen if we paused first? What would happen if we asked ourselves, "Would anything really change if I left this alone? If I put down my pencil?" If the answer is no, we can step back. If the answer is yes, we can speak up. If the answer is unclear, we can engage in the practice of waiting: Waiting for a situation to finish its course and for a person to come to a conclusion all on his or her own. Here's the beautiful truth of human nature: What happens when we wrestle with facts and data and yes, emotion, and change our minds about something? Without anyone trying to convince us of it? Without someone else's agenda steering our direction? The end result of that wrestling, our decision? It sticks. It stays. It becomes part of our very selves, knit into the fibers of our muscle and the firings of our brain.
What would happen if we all stopped defending our turf?
What would happen if we all set down our phones and looked into eyes?
What would happen if we stopped virtually arguing and started talking as neighbors, as friends, as humans who respect each other?
What would happen if we thought our words through and remembered that, in a world where nothing is private, where every Monday night meal and possibly broken toe and screen-shot text message is posted online, that there are talks and moments and words that are meant to be between two people? That we have lost the sweet, sacred intimacy of those moments when we throw them out for all to see.
We are fighting the same fight. We are just using different weapons. But let's stop using those weapons on each other. Let's use them FOR each other's good, for the good of our beat-up and bloodied world. In our fight to show love to the neglected and hurting parts of our population, let's not hurt and neglect each other in the process.
Let's love each other well today. Let's love each other in the quiet spaces where no one else sees. Let's love each other in the loud spaces where everyone is watching. Let's dust off that old-fashioned word "neighbor" and put it back on the table...the round, wobbly coffee-shop table, the fork-scarred dining room table, the TV tray, the plastic patio set, the wine-topped communion table. Wherever we gather, let us do it in real life and in love and in goodwill to all who circle our table today.
Let's engage in the practice of Not Always Having To Be Right. Let's learn again the ancient and powerful and often painful process of waiting: Allowing others the space and air to come to their own decisions. Allowing the truth to come to the light. It will. It doesn't mean we never, ever speak out. It means we teach ourselves to weigh, to think, to sit with the outcome, to count the cost to our relationships. Sometimes it will be worth that cost to say those words. And sometimes we can shut our lips tightly on the words we so badly want to spill out.
What if we smiled with our kids and chuckled with our friends at the not-entirely-accurate YouTube videos instead?
What if we put down the red pencil, just for a moment? As a mother and a teacher, that red pencil is often gripped like glue into my hand. But who knows what my putting it down might let me pick up instead, what love and laughter and lightness might enter into my open hands today.
"Because we fail to listen to each other's stories, we are becoming a fragmented human race." Madeleine L'Engle