One of the books I read and reread as a youth minister was David Elkind’s The Hurried Child, which was his take on adolescence in the 1980s. My guess is it still holds up pretty well. One of the things I took away from that book (or at least I remember it coming from that book — I didn’t check my sources tonight) had implications beyond dealing with teenagers. We have words, he said, for what is important to us. The converse, he pointed out, was also true: we don’t create vocabulary for what doesn’t matter. His example was middle school. We have elementary school and high school, but we don’t have a good word for what happens in between; we just call it middle school, a phrase teeming with un-imagination.
It’s not difficult to understand his point. If there is a hell, I’ll bet it’s a lot like seventh grade.
We also lack vocabulary for that with which we have yet to come to terms. I’m still looking for the word that describes those whom I have gotten to know through cyber-space and whose relationship I value, yet I have never seen (Simon Carey Holt and Bill Kinnon, to name two). Friend is not the right word, neither is acquaintance nor colleague. I want to do more than add an e or an i to make up the new word. My vocabulary has not caught up with my life.
Tonight over dinner, Ginger and I came up with another idea in search of a name. The conversation centered around a review of my book. It was written by Gio, a guy I met when we both volunteered for the inaugural Wild Goose Festival. I picked him up at the airport late one night. My list of people to collect didn’t distinguish between contributors and participants; all I knew was he was coming in from New York and needed a ride to Shakori Hills. Over our two summers at the festival, we chatted here and there, but never got to know each other much beyond our ride together late that spring night.
We are also both a part of Mike Morrell’s Speakeasy network, which offers bloggers the chance to review new books. The bloggers get the books for free; the authors get some grass roots publicity. I have been on both sides of the equation, and I find being the critic the more difficult because as soon as someone invites you to be a critic it’s hard not to hear that as an invitation to talk about what’s wrong with what you’re reading, rather than a chance to find solidarity.
One of the first paragraphs in his review says:
To be honest, I wanted to dislike this book from the first page of the preface! (the first paragraph is in dire need of a paragraph break). But the more I read, the more I warmed up to the author’s casual prose. He writes comfortably (albeit clumsily at times) as though we’re in the most natural of places for him – sitting about the dining room table.
And then, a few lines down he continues:
Indeed, perhaps his book would not have impacted me as it did if it were written any other way. Perhaps this, in itself, was what he might describe as an important slight difference. What seemed enormous to me in that first paragraph shrank in perspective, while Brasher-Cunningham’s stories – and the heart behind them – rose like dough from the page (what is this, like, the 5th food analogy? I’m writing a review on a book about food. Deal with it!).
I said to Ginger that I loved the shift in his writing. Somewhere in between those two paragraphs he moved from seeing my clumsiness to hearing the stories, from talking about me to reading along with me. And Ginger said, “We need a word that says when you quit being a critic and become a participant” — except participant wasn’t the word she wanted. We had a good time going back and forth about what the word we were looking for involved: compassion, alliance, listening, incarnation, connection. She even sent texts to our friend, Terry, whose pretty good at coming up with words.
We didn’t find it. I don’t think it’s there, though when Terry wrote back, “Quit being pond scum and become the water beetle making small ripples to keep the pond clean,” he was on to something. We still need the word.
We need the word because we need the attitude. We need the call to encourage and support, even in the moments when we feel compelled to say, “This is not your best work,” or “I didn’t get it.” We need the word because we are called most of all to find ways to connect, not to critique; to find ways to express solidarity rather than superiority. I could hear Gio’s point about my opening paragraph because I felt heard by the connections he made in other places. I felt heard not because he said nice things but because he was willing to draw connections to his own life, to do more than give it an American Bandstand rating (“I’ll give it a 75: has a good beat; you can dance to it”). He interacted, he engaged, he listened, and then he responded.
Compassion meets engagement meets incarnation: compasscarnagement?
We need to keep looking.