“A box, inside of a box which is inside yet another box”, he explained to me with a dispassionate stare. He made no broad gestures with his arms, no sweeping movement of his head, not even a raised eyebrow came with his discussion. He wasn’t about to whip himself into a Pentecostal fury nor was he going to deliver his case with the conviction of a Southern Baptist preacher. He simply stated the undeniable truth about his organization’s place within the overall structure. He was both powerless and unwilling to change “the natural order of things”, and while he knew he was important he also knew he not essential.
These last few months have had me thinking about his cold commentary, his “box-in-a box” metaphor and his admission of importance minus the component of essentiality. Sherry and I have no doubt of our importance in Bethany’s life nor do we question the importance of hers in ours. What we wonder about is the “essential” part of the equation; Her life seems to far outpace ours in essential impact. Bethany is the small spark that seems to generate huge fires in the world around her. Sometimes, she proves a lightning bolt, other times she’s more a result of instantaneous combustion and in both cases the downstream fire is both catastrophic and essential. She manages to burn out all of the “dead wood” in the lives of those she comes into contact with.
She no doubt had an impact on the old lady that she’d slammed up against the glass wall in the mall. She surely had an affect on the cop who thought I was kidnapping her during a meltdown on a public sidewalk one day (he even got out of the car to see what was going on)! She’s had an amazing impact on the hospital staff where we do our all too routine “exams under anesthesia”. They keep her picture hanging on the wall in the nurse’s station and I assume its because they somehow love her beyond casual explanation? It could be because we’ve impacted the way they administer anesthesia to combative patients or it could be simply because her particular cluster of ailments have allowed us the distinction of being “silver patrons” for the finance arm of the hospital. Whatever the reason, they’ve felt the warmth of her little glow.
She’s the essential component in all these interactions; we simply play a supporting, yet important role. She carries no pride in that lead role, doesn’t ask for special treatment, requires nothing from us beyond simply finding, feeding, and fixing things that have gone awry in her world. Her particular “box” is one that defies logical placement within the other stacks of boxes. She’s the Matryoshka doll that happens to have so much decorative fuzz that it defies being “nested” like the balance of nesting dolls do. She’s the box that doesn’t easily fit within all the other boxes. This is her gift to us, her testament to a far more grand design in which wisdom is foolishness and foolishness is wisdom.
Her positive through negative influence was felt when she pushed a small child backwards and down onto his rump. The parent stood screaming at me on a city street about God only knows what. All I recall is his face in mine, the color of red, a good deal of screaming and much frantic arm waving as if I’d intentionally had Bethany strike out at his child. It came so fast that it was done before I realized it was happening; the star in the drama was acting “in the moment” and I was left to deal with the consequences. I’ve learned it best to simply look away, gather up Bethany and move on – I’ve tried explanation; I’ve tried “sorry’s”, I’ve even tried simply smiling and moving on only to find that none of these approaches assuage the anger of the parent. The kids are usually fine given that they’re clad in 12 layers of clothing and diapers; my only interest was to get Bethany away from his screams. No one deserves to hear those words, even if as words they carry no understandable meaning.
So, where does the positive come from then? It came through the old couple standing 20’ behind all this, quietly watching the whole scene unfold. It came with her gentle admonition, offered as I scurried to get away from the upset parent. “I can see what happened”, she said as she looked at Bethany with a deep and immediate understanding. “That little boy was fine and that man had no right to say what he did”. Then she went on to look me in the eye and say “God bless you and this child”. Five seconds of conversation. In less than 15 total seconds, Bethany had somehow managed to both change and affirm three lifetimes worth of experience. 185 years of combined learning, all touched and rekindled by the spark of Bethany.
Her touch in the lives of people is essential and the beauty of it is, you’ll never know why – you just know it is. Technically, she’s a “burden on society”. She produces no tangible goods, produces no economic impetus (other than for the hospital), hence she’s what’s known Biblically as “the least of these” in our society. She’s a challenge for those who work with her, an anomaly for those who medically define her, and a royal pain-in-the-ass for school administrators. She defies a clear categorization and is a career-wrecker for those who feel gifted and directed to move into areas of social work, education, and therapy. She destroys their hopes because she defies all the expectations we’ve devised to sort out “right and wrong, up and down, fair and unfair”. She burns our best developed plans with induction-furnace force, leaving a clean split of molten matter on the bottom and the slag of confused dreams and plans floating in a useless mass on the top. She refines us, and we hate her for it. Yet she still smiles, taps her teeth with a plastic toy in her right hand while reaching over for a good, hard pinch of someone’s boobs with her left. Bethany was essential in life – we, merely the enablers.
As enablers though, we have the experience of being important not unlike renaissance art apprentices, working under the master. The apprentices were given the opportunity to see the intricacies of how the master worked. The master didn’t explain anything, they just “did”. The apprentices learned by watching, by trying, by failing. As apprentices, Sherry and I fail frequently. We’ve been watching for the better part of 15 years, as did apprentices. They watched the master, how [he] lived, how he thought, how he dealt with anger, confusion, joy. They watched how he landed new business; they saw how he was regarded, whom he loved and whom he despised. They watched and learned a language that has a value greater than gold. We too keep watching and keep trying and in some ways, I think we’re on the verge of becoming masters, like Bethany is. We’re tired, nearly broken but now have the eyes of a master and if we can hang on a bit longer I believe that the master will release us – move us from important to essential in the lives of those around us.