So we’ve been foster parents for a few months now and we’ve had 7 placements. That’s 7 sets of kids to love, 7 sets of schedules to get accustomed to or create from scratch, 7 sets of tears to calm, and 7 sets of curiosities to safeguard against. Prior to becoming a foster parent I am a bit ashamed to say that I liberally projected my bad sense of judgment on parents with unruly children. In most cases I would look on with varying degrees of disdain as these kids climbed on or defaced things, disrespected people, or otherwise ignored laws of common decency. I mean, who gave these parents the license to reproduce? Surely this is the exact scenario that Darwin had in mind when he penned his theory of natural selection, right? So how are these parents reproducing and carrying on their blood line if their offspring are not able to function in society as they should? It sounds awful, I know. Even as I write that I am reminded of how shameful that thought is. So how has my short time fostering changed my perspective? Well sit down and let me tell you a story.
My experience thus far with fostering stands in direct contrast to the stereotypes. Keep in mind though that prior to the start of our journey in 2015 the only knowledge I had of fostering was from pop culture icons such as the 90’s movie Angels in the Outfield. Classic…
You can understand my surprise when these kids in crisis began staying with us and were well behaved, knew their manners, said “please” and “thank you”, and listened to instruction. It was a pleasant surprise, don’t get me wrong but a surprise nonetheless. You see, I was prepared to hold their hand every step of the way helping them process the many emotions they were feeling but knew not how to handle. I was prepared to potty train. I was prepared to wash their bed sheets every morning from unfortunate accidents. I was prepared to hear heart wrenching stories of pain, abuse, and neglect. I had been preparing for this for almost a year as I filled out the dozens of forms, attended a parenting course, and re-arranged our home and lives. I had been preparing for this like NASA prepares for a trip to the moon. What I wasn’t prepared for was to have my selfish nature challenged like I never have before.
I have never really considered myself to be selfish. In fact, in my many times traversing the Don Holt Bridge, just sitting there in traffic has given me ample time to reflect on where and how to improve, and what areas I consider to be my strengths. I have decided, after much internal debate, that I need to improve my level of patience. I like to joke around saying that I’m a microwave in a sea of crockpots. The world seems to take 8-12 hours on low heat to do what I want done in 4 minutes. One of my strengths though is that I find myself to be generally good-natured with a big heart for those who need a helping hand. It’s one of the reasons I enlisted in the Marines and now foster. I give generously wherever I can (whether that’s time or money) and it usually comes naturally. I say all that to admit that I never really considered myself as needing to work on becoming less egocentric. More patient maybe, but not more selfless.
That whole internal compass thing was shattered though when one of our current foster kids, let’s call him T, cried all night. We got him on day 1, and got just a pinch of sleep. On day 2 we both trudged through work with one eye closed followed by another all-nighter. I will say that Joy (that’s my wonderful wife) does a fantastic job at organizing kids and schedules. She would fight it tooth and nail out of her passion to fix the world, but she would be an amazing stay-at-home mom setting a perfect example of what compassion, love, and order look like.
I was very proud of myself for being the first one of us to successfully get T to sleep in his crib. For an hour and a half of sweet silence we enjoyed a brief moment of blissful time to ourselves. We spent that time organizing our lives and then hurriedly went to bed, anticipating the inevitable…which came too quickly. The whimpers came across the baby monitor like a warning shot over our bow. From 11pm-2:30am we both expended (mostly Joy) every idea in the book to calm T down. I have next to no experience with babies, so my proverbial toolbox is nearly empty. Sometimes when I’m taking care of a small child I feel like I’m trying to build a house with a wrench and a pair of tin snips.
It was about midway through this excursion that I lost it. I need my sleep and this kid is interfering with it. I need to be sharp for work and he’s making me dull. I need to have my wits about me for the many challenges that await me in the morning and he’s discarding them like branches into a mulcher. I mean, how in the world am I supposed to manage a family medicine practice when I’m passed out on my desk? I couldn’t sleep on the couch because T was being comforted not 5 feet from it. I couldn’t sleep in bed because our walls are thin and I somehow gain Spidey-like hearing at night. And so I copped a fit and slept in my car for a few hours. Yep, that happened.
And so now I am left reflecting, again, on my strengths and weaknesses. My stalwart and steady ability to be selfless is left broken in pieces while my weakness (a lack of patience) is left looking more evident than ever. Not my finest hour. But it’s in my worst that God is revealed at his best. It is through this whole encounter that I was reminded of a very important lesson that I all too often overlook.
Here’s what I know: There’s a story circulating around about a gorilla named Harambe who was killed at the Cincinnati Zoo because of a kid who fell into his pen. First off, why are we at all surprised that a large portion of our population would place a greater value on the life of a gorilla than a human child? I find that to be consistent with the viscosity of the culture I’m immersed in and I am sadly not surprised at all. But I digress.
The point of me bringing this up is not actually about parenting or even about child safety. It’s about the necessity for me to decisively remove any threats to my spiritual and emotional progress and/or learn how to manage them better. Things like anger, selfishness, and impatience. Circumstances in life will always bring opportunities to reveal my darker side. What matters is not my circumstances, but how well I learn to navigate them. When I find myself in the proverbial gorilla pit being dragged around by 400 pounds of selfishness, I have to do whatever it takes to beat it back. Jesus is recorded as explaining this concept 3 different times in two different books. Jesus wore many hats while he was here on earth, and “tough guy” was not least among them. In the book of Mark he says:
But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone hung around your neck. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It’s better to enter eternal life with only one hand than to go into the unquenchable fires of hell with two hands. If your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It’s better to enter eternal life with only one foot than to be thrown into hell with two feet. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out. It’s better to enter the Kingdom of God with only one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where the maggots never die and the fire never goes out.
Did he really just say that? I picture him here being surrounded by little kids and gesturing to them as he says in his best Godfather impression, “If you hurt them you’ll end up swimmin’ with the fishes”. But then he goes on to say that it is better to cut your hand off or to gouge your eye out with a rusty(I ad-libbed there) spoon if they cause you to sin. Does he mean that literally? Well, yes and no. What he is saying there is that we must go to the extreme in our efforts to become more Christ-like and remove that which stands in contrast to who Christ is. That means where there is anger, learn to manage it. Where there is selfishness, lift others above yourself. Where there is impatience, bury it. Where there is a gorilla dragging you through the water – shoot it.
As if that wasn’t clear enough, Jesus then uses this opportunity to remind me of yet another truth: life is just hard sometimes. He says:
For everyone will be tested with fire. Salt is good for seasoning. But if it loses its flavor, how do you make it salty again? You must have the qualities of salt among yourselves and live in peace with each other.
There are so many mic drops in here and I love it. Everyone will be tested with fire. So stop whining and learn from it all.
So how do I manage my reaction to circumstances better? I don’t have 3 easy steps to manage selfishness, or Josh’s quick and easy tips to eradicate anger from your life. All I have is what I’m currently working on, which is the idea that a branch will produce the fruit of whatever tree it’s attached to. If I remove the branch of an apple tree, it would asinine for me to expect it to produce apples. Likewise, if it is healthy and connected to the apple tree, it would be asinine for me to expect oranges. My faith walk functions in much the same way. The more connected I am to Christ (the tree)through prayer, reflection, reading his bestselling book, and my actions, the more fruit I (the branch) will produce. The fruit being patience, peace, kindness, gentleness, self-control, etc. You know, all those things that come naturally to me. It’s easier said than done, but like Christ not-so-subtly hinted at…do whatever it takes.
That’s it. There is no more to it.