Someone asked me today, "What startles you?" I was asking people for topics to write about, and this particular question piqued my interest, even though I'm not sure what was meant by 'startled.'
So, what startles me?
Meanness startles me. No matter how many times I encounter it, I'm always taken aback by the things people say and do to one another. On the internet, first of all: I have the bad habit of reading the comments under articles I read on-line. Reading the comments is sort of like slowing down to watch the aftermath of a car crash on the highway; it's always disturbing, and I'm sorry that I did it. But on-line meanness is not the only kind that startles me. I'm often startled by the meanness of teenagers in their interactions with one another, even though I know in my heart how insecure and unlovely some of them feel, and I know where those words come from. I'm startled when I hear stories of that bring out our lack of regard for one another. I remember once going to the capital to advocate for funds for education. In a conversation with a legislator from southern Minnesota, I stated that children are one of our best investments. He looked at me and said, "not all of them."
But you know what? Goodness also startles me. I remember once taking a large group of children from a summer program to a nursing home nearby. I saw a young African-American girl bend down to hug one of the elderly residents, and I was startled. I once saw a woman walk into her dying mother's room in a hospital, and kiss her on the cheek. And I know a man whose wife contracted polio when she was a young mother many years ago. After her recovery, she contracted post-polio syndrome, and was confined to a wheelchair. For many years her husband and she went to church together, went to concerts together, and went to plays together, because he lifted her into and out of her wheelchair, and into and out of their car. He still walks bent-over, because of all of the years he carried her. Goodness startles me. Goodness startles me, the small acts of kindness, the large acts of heroism.
And tears -- tears startle me.
A man considers with gratitude his long life and his good family, and the possibility that this life may be coming to an end -- and tears spring to his eyes. A woman remembers how her mother held on to her and let go of her at just the right times, and as she thanks God -- tears spring to her eyes. A woman remembers painful moments from her childhood and the goodness of her life right now -- and tears spring to her eyes.
Perhaps tears startle me most of all, how they come at times of great beauty and great sorrow and great joy, or when joy and sorrow and beauty are mingling. When I see tears suddenly I feel as if I am standing on holy ground, as if the veil that separates us from God has been torn, and I can see beyond the meanness to the goodness of life.
What startles you?