1921. Two little girls, sisters, warmly dressed, pose in a yard in New Bedford, Massachusetts. On the left is Ruth Simpson Ashworth bundled into a pram. Standing beside her is Barbara Simpson West.
82 years later this photo was given to me by the little girl on the right, Denis’ Aunt B. At the time she was in her late 80s. When Aunt B gave it to me she commented; “Look at me! Even then I was good-natured and smiling and Ruth was always complaining and crabby from the beginning. She hasn’t changed at all!” When I showed it to Aunt Ruth, she said; “Ahhh, there I am! Such a happy baby—my father said I was always smiling, round-faced and happy!”
I held my laughter in until later when I showed it to Denis. We knew them well and loved them both for their unique personalities and gifts. Aunt B was always a prim and proper New Englander—a careful keeper of papers and figures, but she was also generous and kind. Aunt Ruth loved Denis and I unreservedly and we loved her back. We found her hilarious, stubborn, a bit unconventional, but she could be a stinker.
It was these opposing comments that caused me to ask myself some questions. How do I see and interpret reality—how do I view my own life and relationships?
Perspective springs from our personal interpretation of life as seen from our own world view—through our own eyes. How are thoughts and opinions formed, influenced by what we see, by what we imagine? What can change, revise, or modify them? How can we wrestle with our perceptions and get down to the really real—to what truly is? Our conclusions are not always shaped by reality but by how we would like things to be. What power are we given to see life as God sees? In the case of the two aunts, who was right?
Most of the time we need the observations, the insights of someone else to help us see ourselves as we really are. When it comes to help, I’ve not always been the open gracious receiver of someone else’s insights.
There I was
Years ago when Denis majored in psychology for his undergraduate degree, one of the things he needed to do for a class was administer personality tests to family or friends. I love that sort of thing. Tell me who I am so I can feel good about myself. Tell me who I am so I can seem more gifted than average. I loved tests that ranked me as exceptionally intelligent.
One of the tests he gave me was the Taylor Johnson Temperament Analysis. It was designed to measure nine common personality traits. One of them measured tolerance versus hostility. The well-integrated personality fell somewhere in the middle of the graph and was considered healthy. My score on hostility was off the chart. Literally. It was so high there was a little warning to the administrator that if any of the scores were in the red zone that person should consider professional therapy. When Denis showed me the results I was shocked and angry. I insisted he had not scored it correctly and I should take it again. I did, but somehow I couldn’t even pad the answers to get a better score. I was still off the chart. I didn’t believe it, but Denis was nodding calmly yes, you are a hostile person.
In the manuscript I’m working on right now I’ve written about this problem. So the questions I mentioned above concern me as I continue to write my next memoir which covers the years from when I left home in 1965 to our journey back to Minnesota from New Mexico in 1981. Sometimes I feel anxious and paralyzed knowing I write from a flawed and finite heart. I wonder, how can I do this well and at the same time give my readers The Truth?
How, in my quest to be responsible and truthful, can I also accept my finiteness? Obviously we are unable to see and know all things even about ourselves. However, That doesn’t mean we can’t live confidently in that small place where we find ourselves. For me, that means in my endeavor to be true to what God has called me to do, I can’t allow doubts about my limitations paralyze my work. Rather, I must continue recalling and writing as honestly as possible while at the same time keeping a posture of humility.
The help I’ve received lately has been welcome. Denis has generously offered to go over my manuscript with me bit by bit. Over the years he has become a much better writer/editor and I have calmed down enough to even be thankful for honest criticism. Sheesh. You don’t know how in earlier years I reacted with such anger to his “help.” There were times when he vowed never to help me again. When I first began writing our ministry letter called “Notes From Toad Hall,” after pouring over a draft for hours, I would bring it to him. I didn’t really want help, I just wanted praise. Of course, he thought I wanted editorial critique and proceeded to point out the ways in which it needed to be improved.
Inevitably that triggered my hostility, leading to epic fights. What a mournful situation! There I was supposedly writing to our supporters about our ministry, telling about how God was at work in our midst, and there we were in a yelling fest with one another. How GODLY is THIS, I would ask myself? Many times I wanted to give up altogether because I believed I was the LAST person qualified to communicate with ANYONE. So many of you have faithfully stood by us all these years. Perhaps if you’d known?? What a miracle of grace!!
There may always be the temptation to look at myself and think “there I am, round-faced and smiling” while another may look at the same and call me “complaining and crabby from the beginning.” These days I find Denis a huge support in my writing and an able decoder of fiction versus truth. In turn, he no longer fears the bite of a cobra from me.
With God’s help I’ll finish this book by April when it will be placed in the hands of my editor, Ned Bustard. So, then, Ned, it will be up to you and Square Halo Books to deal with me. I promise to behave.
Here I Should be
There is another thing to consider, if you are like me in any way.
Our troubles often leave us feeling ineffective and unholy. Bereft of talent or gifts. Failing to do anything well, like practice our calling, be a calm and loving influence on family, be disciplined in eating and exercising, or just be. How can we ever be of use to anyone, let alone God? This attitude is a good reason to review the epistle of First John for God’s perspective on how love is defined. First John is embedded, garnished, filled with God’s love for his people and directions on loving others and ourselves. So how dare we argue with the following?
My dear children, let’s not just talk about love; let’s practice real love. This is the only way we’ll know we’re living truly, living in God’s reality. It’s also the way to shut down debilitating self-criticism, even when there is something to it. For God is greater than our worried hearts and knows more about us than we do ourselves (I John 3:18-20. The Message).
Mr. Rogers and Wendell Berry both get it right. I’m listening:
You don’t ever have to do anything sensational in order to love or to be loved. The real drama of life (that which matters most) is rarely center stage or in the spotlight. In fact, it has nothing to do with IQs and honors and the fancy outsides of life. What really nourishes our souls is the knowing that we can be trusted, that we never have to fear the truth… – Mr. Rogers, Commencement May 2001, Marquette U.
No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it. Where we live and who we live there with define the terms of our relationship to the world and to humanity. We thus come again to the paradox that one can become whole only by the responsible acceptance of one’s partiality. —Wendell Berry