My 13-year-old daughter and I are usually a fast-moving pair, weaving in and out of large crowds with ease. But right now, we move slowly and painfully, as she labors to learn to maneuver life on crutches after severely spraining – and possibly fracturing – her ankle.
Being forced to move at a painfully slow pace in public spaces teaches you a lot of lessons about yourself – and about others, too.
From the bookstore to the grocery store to the local coffee shop, there are two very different types of people we encounter, as my five-foot-nine seventh-grader slings herself forward, slowly and steadily, clanking along on her steely silver crutches.
Many people who encounter us have an empathy that absolutely radiates. They study my girl’s pained, methodical movement, wincing along with her.
They pepper her with questions as they shoot her brave smiles. “What happened, sweetie?” they want to know. Some of them shift their attention to me, too. They see me, hawkishly scanning the path ahead of her for any sign of danger – including perils like toddling children, barely visible pockets of water, or carelessly strewn scraps of trash. “It’s hard to watch your child on crutches, isn’t it?” they ask understandingly.
They tell my girl stories – of their foot surgery, or of some pesky body part that just doesn’t quite behave. The stories are sometimes unnerving, but they still make us feel encouraged, somehow. Others bring their spirituality to share, adding, “I’m sorry. We will pray for you. It’s hard. Hang in there”
Then, there is a very different pack of people. These are the ones who give us darting sideways glances, and then quickly turn their carts, cutting us off so they do not have to be stalled by us. Some are so frantic to beat us that they even risk bumping my girl’s shaky ankle, as they quickly shift directions. Others go so far as to drag their young children in front of us, using them as shields to cut us off.
While the first group of people eagerly seeks out our eyes, this second group works hard to avoid our gazes. They pretend they don’t see us – because if they do, then they might have to slow to our pace – to allow us in front of them, or even to (horror of horrors!) offer assistance.
It’s tempting to rage at this second group of people – especially when their shopping carts or racing feet come too close to my fragile, teetering girl. “Have some compassion!” I want to yell. “Don’t be a jerk. You’re about to hurt my child!”
And then I remember how quickly my girl and I were moving in the very same places just a week ago. I recall how we, too, zig-zagged wildly in and out of identical store aisles, frantically grabbing lunch or dinner items before dashing off to some sports or band practice – or maybe (cringe) even to church. If we saw the needy faces of others in those hurried moments, we pretended not to notice. We were, we felt, on more “important” missions.
I don’t want to fall into this frantic, self-obsessed sort of behavior. And yet, all too often, this is exactly where I land.
I see – now more than ever – that in our family we behave well when we have margin in our life – extra time to get where we need to be and to accomplish what’s necessary.
But in those too-common moments when that cushion of extra time has disappeared from us? We often act exactly like all those frantic, shifty-eyed cart pushers, steeling ourselves against the struggles of others and using our carts as time-saving weapons.
How might we do better?
How do we focus on others when we don’t feel we have time to give? How can we create enough margin in our daily schedules so we aren’t at risk of missing opportunities to show kindness and empathy to people who may be struggling mightily?
And, when we still don’t have the time, how do we fight the urge to think our schedule is more important? How do we beat back our fears about being late and what it means?
How do we make the time for kindness – to fear missing an opportunity to help more than anything? And how do we behave – even when we are busy – like we always, always have enough time for people in the most need?
True generosity means we give when we have little to share. I want to love and share with others in ways that are wildly extravagant. Loving people with the time I’m given is an absolute calling – and it’s most important to give when we have the least.
I’m not there, yet. But with grace and the help of others (always), it’s a place I hope to increasingly move.