Monday, August 16, 2010

Sticks, Balloons, and Hang Man

This morning I compared two different messages presented in sacrament meeting as I sat in church with my family. The first came from the pulpit. A member of the high council had been asked to address the topic of “What would Jesus do?” The second message was being delivered simultaneously by my oldest son and oldest daughter who were sitting just to my right. Together they were irritating each other by drawing stick figures on the back of the folded meeting program. Oddly, the graphic representation looked nothing like the message from the pulpit. Yeah, big surprise, I know. Welcome to parenting.

I’m not exactly sure of the sequence of events that escalated the family feud on a pew, but from what I am able to reconstruct, it happened like this. My daughter asked my wife for a pen so she could keep herself entertained after the sacrament had been passed. Having received said pen, or weapon as it were, she began to draw. Seeing that my daughter was having a good time, my son thought he would contribute some of his own creativity to her illustration of what I thought was an interesting and well delivered message from the assigned speaker. I suspect that my son may have briefly commandeered both the paper and the pen to make his move.

I observed as one stick figure was added to the other and the two figures began to have a conversation. Remarks were ballooned adjacent to their heads like you would see in a comic strip. A nice volley developed as balloons began to fill the page and I could tell there was a little heat coming from the paper. Well, he said this and she said that, and before you know it, someone had a weapon. I don’t know if the potato gun came first or if it followed another weapon of choice, but shortly after the exchange went from words to weapons, there were a large number of other stick figures who appeared on the scene. The new mob, which appeared to have been drawn by my son, led to cartoonish cannons and shoulder mounted fire arms that resembled bazookas. A few more remarks were ballooned on the page, and then some of the remarks escaped the drawing and came from the author’s mouths. Those balloons weren’t so visible, but their emotions were. “Hmmm,” I thought. This is interesting.

I don’t know that either of my children was necessarily guilty or innocent. They just were. They were my children and they did what siblings do best – they annoyed each other relentlessly. “Nice,” I thought. Here I am being inspired and the two of you are blowing each other up.

The little feud drew to a close as my daughter, bound and determined not to be outsmarted by her older brother, was fired upon by her father. She had just drawn an even larger cannon with two more stick figures. The figure at whom the cannon was pointed at was labeled as my son. The figure adjacent to the lit fuse was labeled so that I knew it was her. I could tell that the look on her face was not deliberately maniacal, but it was the look of, “Now I’ve got you! Take that!!” That’s when I asked if I could see the folded paper and I added a third label. I simply wrote, “Jesus,” off to the side and handed it back to her.

My daughter’s expression of accomplishment deflated like a balloon without any remarks left to hold the air in. She’s pretty bright and she got the message without me having to add another balloon. She sagged a little and then started to repair things. Before the cannon had a chance to fire at said brother and recipient of focused animosity, she intervened and protected his stick figure by building a wall in front of him. She then cut the fuse to the cannon with a pair of newly drawn scissors. In a manner of speaking, she saved the day. Having three people in the picture made all the difference, at least for her.

I don’t know that either she or her brother had listened to much of the talk, but she and the speaker came to the same conclusion – when we keep Jesus in our lives it affects all of our decisions and leads us to greater happiness. If we let Him, He will show us to a better way. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6)

This little exchange led me to think of another lonely, solitary stick figure of a man. I am thinking specifically of a simple game of hang man. Perhaps I assume too much if I believe that most people reading this post have played this game at some point, likely when a beloved Primary teacher or Sunday School teacher was absent and another poor, unsuspecting soul was asked to substitute at the last minute. How many times have you been in such a position and had to punt for a lesson, hmmm? Don’t worry. Your secret is safe with me. All the same, the poor little guy who is the object of the game did nothing more than you by showing up to class, and yet he becomes a victim of a unique type of abuse, namely a lack of communication.

In case you haven’t ever had to punt for a lesson, and you have not yet felt the magic of relating to this nostalgic example, let me briefly sum up the rules of the game. One person has something on their mind. In an attempt to be obvious, they give a clue that “something is up” by drawing a hangman’s noose and by drawing a line. In reality, they draw several lines that represent the letters of a word that they are thinking. That is the signal that they game has begun. Then it is the job for the other person, or persons, to guess what is on the mind of the person who provided the noose. Correct guesses allow appropriate letters to be filled in above the lines, saving our little bystander for another round. Incorrect guesses send our little friend in a sticky situation to the gallows where he his hung because someone couldn’t guess what someone else was thinking. Great game don’t you think?

How often do we draw a line on the ground, taking a position of defense, and then expect the person we are having a disagreement with to discern what we are thinking without any additional information. “Someone is going to hang for this, and it’s not going to be me,” is something that goes unsaid but seems to be implied when we play this game. It is also often followed by mobs and weapons, even if only on the stage in our minds.

A close friend of mine said she prefers not to play these kind of games. “No subtexts, please. If there is something you want to tell me, just say it. I don’t want to guess.” Knowing this type of openness was welcome helped me to be even more honest than I was before. I have tried to apply this principle in every aspect of my life, and I am finding it works.

In light of these examples, another set of stick figures comes to mind. They are everywhere. Perhaps you have seen them most recently traveling on the rear of a vehicle with tinted glass. Usually there are two larger stick figures positioned on the rear window that represent a mom and a dad. Then there are a varying number of smaller figures that follow which often represent children. I have also seen a number of dogs join the procession, and one car that had several bicycles that followed. To each, his or her own, I guess. The point that I would like to make is that the stick figures all seem to be happy. No one is firing cannons or bazookas. No one is getting hung. For some reason, everyone on the rear of the vehicle seems to be onboard with the idea that a family is a pretty great place to be. Life is good.

Within my own stick figure experience, I find that I am happiest when I get one thing right. It’s when I put the sticks down and increase the balloons that I am happiest. Open communication always makes things better for me. It isn’t meant to be a game as much as it is a gift. Open-fire with a bazooka does very little to make me feel good, even if it is as harmless as a few remarks on paper. When I choose to hold back information that could help resolve hurt feelings, I am really setting someone else up for a game of hang man (may he rest in peace) and that’s just not fair. However, when I choose to fill my balloons with honesty and a willingness to work things out, that’s when I remember that Jesus is there on the sidelines, not only as a referee, but as my coach. He is always willing to show me a better way if I am willing to let Him.

So why is it that, like this morning, a sermon can be delivered to me directly, and yet I have to learn the hard way by playing cruel games? Not sure. But I’m starting to figure things out, and I like how it feels. I like the feeling of peace and accomplishment when I face my fears and communicate how I am feeling to resolve my concerns. All I need is the right kind of balloons. No weapons are required – no heat, no noose – just enough faith to overcome my differences.

No comments:

This is not an official publication of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I am solely responsible for the views expressed here.