Finding Grace by Jennifer Sullivan

Jennifer writes: I don’t know when I became so judgmental.  Was it in grade school when I realized there was such a thing as competition?  Or was it junior high when I became so insecure after being judged by others?  No matter when I decided that Judgment was necessary in my life, I thought I had worked really hard since then on getting rid of it.  It turns out, that Judgment had partnered with Cunning and stayed hidden from my introspective inquiries, until I became… a mom.

As soon as I saw the positive sign on the pregnancy test, every decision I made was about protecting and offering my daughter the very best—no matter what the sacrifice.  That is what being a parent is all about right?  I have not thought twice about what I have changed in my life since the arrival of my daughter.   But with my 100% or nothing philosophy, Judgment sneaks back in with another of its friends: Guilt.  If I falter and perhaps am not as fun or as patient or as attentive trying to balance the different needs of a four-year-old and a newborn, I spend those moments and the evenings before sleep criticizing my inadequacies. 

Perhaps subconsciously to balance this and regain some points, I also find myself making assumptions about the parental actions and decisions of friends and strangers.  Will they ever put down their cell phone and look at their child?  If their child speaks in this manner, how are his parents speaking at home?  A wonderful place to go to make myself feel better is the park across from our home.

I live in a young working class neighborhood where almost every house has at least one child inside.  Therefore, the park is usually full of kids—sometimes with their parents and sometimes without.  We visit the park almost every day, and this summer we enjoyed a rhythm of ending our nights there.  As a mom trying to shelter her child from the adult world, I enter the park cautiously.   Usually, it is a nice place to be, but sometimes teenagers are speaking to each other with various obscenities or taking provocative stances, or the way a younger child is behaving is not something I would like imitated.

On one particular night a few weeks ago, we were on our way to the park; I had bundled up my infant in a wrap and my daughter had hopped on her bike.  The sun was already going down so I knew it would be a short trip.  Perhaps it was the cold weather or the angle of the sun, but something made me feel I should be more observant.  We arrived and my daughter hopped off her bike.  I surveyed the group: teenage boys playing a slightly rowdy game of basketball, a boy about four on top of the slide with his dad off to the side watching him, and a family of three we have grown to know and like. 

I was still uneasy and trying to figure out why when I realized there was something different about the single dad.  Sure he wasn’t dressed like me, but it wasn’t that.  His mannerisms and reactions to the boy were just ‘off.’  I watched as his son raced around the park hitting this and banging that.  The father had almost caught up to his son when the boy slammed his hands on the seat of my daughter’s bike.  Then the boy spotted me. 

I had just sat down on a bench to nurse my little one when he bounded over, the dad calling after him.  The boy stopped just off to my side and stared; his entire demeanor had changed.  I calmly and kindly attempted to engage him but he did not speak.  He continued to stare, but not at me; he stared at my beautiful, lovely daughter.  “Elliot no.  She is going to feed now.”  The father had hung back and again called to him, but the boy just stood absolutely mesmerized staring at my daughter.  He then came right up to us and ever so gently pulled up the blanket around her.  Once he felt she was covered, he took a step back.  Again I tried to engage him, but he still stared.  Then this wonderful, amazing moment ended and he took off running again.

I held this silent boy for sometime in my mind, carefully turning the situation over and over.  I had judged the father, and I also had judged the son.  In that moment, the boy taught me that all things are not what they seem.   He reminded me we each have a path and our stories are not the same.  Instead of passing judgment, I could have surrounded each person with love.  How else can we find happiness if we cannot elevate the other?  We must also look past our weaknesses, move forward, and enjoy this life fully by discovering our own grace.  I can only strive to do the very best in each moment and that is all.  Then I must remember that everyone else is doing the same.  I have come to realize that life is about balance and grace, not perfection.  We would succeed as parents if the lessons we offer our children were about acceptance, forgiveness, and love.  I must promise them this.

‘To do our best’ means that at all times in our everyday life we should probe our minds so that we don’t feel guilty about our mistakes, even though others don’t know about them. If we do that, we are truly doing our best.  His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

But what we can do, as flawed as we are, is still see God in other people, and do our best to help them find their own grace. That’s what I strive to do, that’s what I pray to do every day. Barack Obama

Jennifer Sullivan is a recent LifeWays graduate and currently a Masters student in the Great Lakes Waldorf Teacher Training.  She is a work-at-home, stay-at-home mommy of a four-year-old and a ten-week-old.