The Weakest Reed

He will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle.

For those unable to put the oxygen mask on yourself first

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I remember it as an old-fashioned bike painted shiny black and it was heavy. Or at least it felt heavy to me. I was probably eleven and the bike was made for a man, not a child. The problem of the bike’s weight was compounded by the large kiddie seat molded from grey plastic that was firmly bolted to the back. If I sat down on the bike’s seat my toes couldn’t quite reach the ground, so to ride it I had to balance on the pedals while standing, swinging my body from one side to the other over the metal bar in the middle. Everything about that man-sized bike was unwieldy to my child-sized self. It wasn’t a bike I rode for fun, it was the one required to perform my assigned duty of picking-up my little sister from daycare.

To ride this beast of a bike, I’d throw one leg over the middle bar to get on and then kick my feet against the ground a few steps to gain some momentum. Once it was moving forward, I’d hop up, one foot and then the other, pushing the pedals down hard to keep going. I’d carve a swervey, tippy line down the busy road, kicking up dust as I hugged the shoulder trying to avoid getting into the cars’ way. On the downhills, I made an effort at respite by sitting while I could. But the up hills were really a trick. Even on days when the sun’s rays didn’t beat on my neck, I’d get hot prickles of sweat from the exertion of pushing that heavy bicycle up the hill. It was a cumbersome and awkward venture, one that always made me self-conscious of who might be driving by.

When I’d reached the daycare, I’d loaded up my pudgy, baby sister into the child’s seat. If I didn’t have an adult to help me, I’d have to balance the bike against my hip to keep it upright while twisting and bending to lift and heft her up, buckling her in. Then I’d start the process all over again, getting on and moving the three of us now- the bike, the wriggling toddler and me-down the road. Tipping and turning, it was perhaps sheer will rather than strength or skill that kept us upright. I was never quite in full physical control of that bike. I was aware it could have easily come to a disasterous end if I lost my balance, me or my sister propelling through the air, scraped skin bloody with road rash and pocked with implanted gravel. A few times, I remember slipping off the pedals, trying to catch the bike’s weight against my body before my sister hit the ground.

Fortunately nothing worse than bloodied knees were the casualties of those clunky, ponderous rides. It wasn’t really a venture designed for a child. But really, looking back, there were a lot of bikes I was asked to ride that weren’t actually fit for a child; adult-sized responsibilities that shouldn’t have been mine, burdens too heavy for a kid to gracefully bear.

I was the type of kid who took responsibility when it was given to me, clasping it as if it were a gift. As the oldest of five kids, it felt good to be useful. When my parents were pleased with me, I was pleased with myself. Each time I was asked to do something, I saw it as a sign that I had some value to others.

I must have been good at taking responsibility because soon enough it was given to me a lot. As early as I can remember I was often left to care for other children, first for small spurts of time and later for much longer. Hours grew to long days and as years went by, I remember times when one day would pile on top of another, sometimes without knowing when to expect the adult to return. There was a lot of waiting. I remember often feeling the strain of anxious tension, a child carrying a heavy load, wondering when I’d be free to hand off the responsibility, throw off the weight and be released.  I would long for someone to say, “You don’t have to worry, I’ll take care of that.”  But it wasn’t just being relieved of responsibility that I ached for.  It was for someone to say, “You don’t have to worry, I’ll take care of you.”

I don’t think it is wrong for children to be given some responsibilities or for siblings to help care for each other. But something changed in me, I think, when caretaker stopped being an activity and it started being an identity.

Just like that cumbersome bike sometimes felt like it might crush me, I think that the disproportionate sense of responsibility I felt when I was little outweighed my sense of self. As the child’s job of becoming who I was became eclipsed by my duties to others, “you are responsible” started to become a bigger reality than “you are Rachel.”

Eventually when we get older, we all bear more responsibility which can be difficult but ultimately fulfilling when developed appropriately. Most of us, like weight lifters, have built up the ability to bear that weight slowly, over the course of several decades. But when it happens too young, we develop inappropriately. We bear more weight than we should on our child’s frame and our disposition towards responsibility distorts.

As we grow, we get so used to feeling that disproportionate heaviness that it feels strange to be without it. We find ourselves as adults taking on more than we should, even taking responsibilities for things we shouldn’t, threading more and more weight onto our barbell until we experience that familiar almost crushing experience that we did in childhood.

Our outlook on the world and our place in it also becomes ill-formed. We develop a perspective that is so used to looking out for others that it seems wrong to sometimes look out for ourselves first. I’m still pretty sure if I were in a plane accident with my children, I’d be almost physically unable to honor the flight attendants admonition to please put the oxygen mask on myself first.

And if that’s not enough, it feels even stranger still when somebody else tries to watch out for us. I feel a deep sense of discomfort every time someone offers to help me.

I saw tweeted the other day the question: Who were you before someone told you who you should be?

Who was that me before Responsible and Caretaker became my identity? I was creative. I was a child that saw fairies in the moonlight and tiny worlds in the woods. I was convinced that nature sprung to life, dancing and singing, when we weren’t looking.

In going through boxes of my childhood things, I found evidence of poems and songs and plays that I had written in those early years. Before I learned to be the bearer of heavy things, I was fanciful. I was lighter before I had to develop those responsibility-wielding muscles. I had time to fill my head with “to be” lists rather than “to do” lists. I was a bleary-eyed dreamer who saw the future in softly-lit, glowing possibilities instead of a sentinel who had to keep perpetually open the watchful eye of responsibility.

Yes, I’m describing a cotton candy world that is airy-fairy and sentimental. But I was in grade school! That was what I was supposed to be like. I was supposed to be like a child.

Previously, when I heard people speak of having faith like a child, I understood it to be an intellectual simplicity. It seemed I was being admonished to push aside rational or scholarly concerns and just accept what was being told. This always disturbed me.

But now that I have children myself I think about having faith like a child entirely differently.

When I am with my children, they do not doubt that I am the one who is looking out for them. (Psalm 91)

That I will come for them when they call. (Micah 7:7)

They take for granted that it is my job to supply their needs, not their job. (Philippians 4:19)

When we go out, they just assume that I know when it is time to come and when it is time to go from a place (though they might complain a bit). (Psalm 121:8)

And that I will carry them when they get tired. (Isaiah 46:4)

They trust that if they get lost I will come for them. (Luke 15:4-6)

And they actually think it is silly and ridiculous if I try to give them a load too heavy for them. They assume it is a joke, in fact. (Psalm 68:19)

In Matthew 25, Jesus says, starting in verse 25, “I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants.”

Jesus knows that children would not doubt the way He is about to describe a loving Father! LISTEN to this verse with faith like a child.  Let this sink in today:

He goes on to say in verse 28, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

I am praying for myself and for any who read this who feel themselves loaded heavy, burdened low– that we would have faith like a child today. That we would be confident in our Father who has made it his job, not ours, to daily bear our burdens (Psalm 68:19).

I love this passage in Psalms in particular in the King James Version. It actually reads, “Blessed be the Lord, who daily loadeth us with benefits, even the God of our salvation. Selah. In this version, the picture is not just of him taking on our burdens, but actually loading us up with benefits! This is the reality of life with Him that I want to know. Not only does he ask us to cast our burdens on Him, but then he gives us an easy yoke and a light burden. Admittedly, in past readings of the passage in Matthew, I’ve thought to myself, “Well geez, if you’re such a powerful and mighty and loving God, can we just skip the burdens altogether?” But today as I reflect on the KJV of Psalm 68:19 I’m letting myself wonder if this is, in fact, the kind of burden He had in mind: He daily loadeth us with benefits! Could it be? And how does this change everything!?!

Sometimes I wonder what I might have become if I could have been childlike a little longer. Would I have developed my creative gifts more? Would I have thought of myself as a writer instead of perpetually sublimating that part of myself to being a caretaker? If I hadn’t grown up under a heavy load, would I have stretched higher to achieve greater success in other areas of my life? A part of me still grieves these paths not taken. But I also know that I am the child of a God who redeems, who restores lost years (Joel 2:25).  For me, that is part of the reason I’m writing again.

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