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Finding Your Place

Have you ever considered how you move through the world? Do you burst on the scene as a leader? Do you come gently, offering grace with your care? Do you bring joy or questions that illuminate? Do you bring a helping hand or a rallying call for justice? How do you move through the world?

It is not easy to find your place. When you think you have found it, things may change. We spend a significant portion of our lives navigating transitions. It is significant because the transitions are opportunities for transformation.

I met Tommy*, years ago. I still remember him and wonder how he has found his place. It is harder for some of us. The first image that comes to mind when I think of Tommy is his first day of school with me as his teacher. Tommy walked into the room and found his desk. He was taller than the other students, and the desk did not suit him.  He slid down as far as possible on the chair, leaving his legs sprawled out. He kept his shoulders down and his eyes hidden behind his overgrown sandy brown hair. At first, I was unsure if he was making a statement or trying not to be seen.

I also remember my first day in that classroom. I wasn’t sure my desk suited me either. I remember it sat at the back of the room. That’s where it was when I arrived. I sat in the chair that day and left the desk there. I liked the thought of looking forward with the students. We all had things to learn. There is a time to look back and reflect, but that is not how we live in the fullness of a day.

I needed to sit in the back that year and keep looking forward, as Tommy made things challenging for us all. His disruptive behavior and derogatory attitude often erupted, making it hard for anyone to learn. It was clear that most of his classmates had given up on him. Perhaps he had given up on all of us as well.

That may have been the key to understanding Tommy. Though he looked like a troublemaker, something else was going on. Therapist Lori Gottlieb says, “Behavior is how we speak the unspeakable.” He had not found his place at school, and his behavior revealed it. As far as I knew, he did not have a single friend. He was not comfortable in his desk or seemingly in his own skin.

Before I knew it, Parent Teacher Conferences arrived. Tommy’s grandmother came. She occupied her chair like a shadow. She looked down and spoke so softly I could hardly hear her. I pieced together the gist of her words and learned that Tommy had stayed with his aunt for a while, and now he was with her. She had hoped things would get better, but they did not. Tommy’s mom was struggling with an addiction.

I wanted a chance to learn more about who Tommy was from this conference. The clock was ticking away, and Parent Teacher Conference meetings were always so brief.  I looked at my notes and asked: “What does Tommy like to do?”

It startled her. The grandmother looked up, her eyes suddenly wide open. Later, I realized she may have been bracing herself for the worst. Another teacher pulled me aside not long after this and told me not to waste my time on Tommy. “You can see where that one is headed,” she said. The grandmother had probably heard this before. Maybe that’s what she expected - a lecture, a warning, condemnation…

At the time, I thought maybe she had not heard me. I tried again, “I wonder,”  I asked, “ Can you tell me what Tommy likes to do?”

She still looked startled, and then her mouth fell open, and she said, 'Well, I guess he likes to be outside.” Then it was as if she started to remember, “He likes to go watch the trains,” she said. “He likes anything with wheels. He has these little toy trucks. He loves those.” There was a pause as I tried to take it all in. Then the bell rang, and our time together was done. She put her head down again and walked out the door.

Things are not always as they seem. The essence of a person is beyond the surface. We all need to find our place; it often begins when someone else reaches out to us.

There is a story in the Talmud about two rabbis. One was known as a healer, but one day, he became ill and discovered he could not heal himself.  The story says that Rabbi Yohanan fell ill. Rabbi Hanina visited him and said, “Give me your hand.” The sick rabbi gave him his hand, and the other raised him. Then, the story asks: Why couldn’t Rabbi Yohanan raise himself? The answer: “The prisoner cannot free himself from prison.”**  We need someone else to hold our hand, to go with us, to lift us from our suffering.

I remember walking into the classroom towards the end of the year and seeing Tommy’s brown eyes and tousled hair rising above the rest. He had become comfortable at that desk, and perhaps one of the best things that happened to him that year was finding a friend.

We all need a friend, a parent, a mentor, a teacher, a coach, or a boss that we know we can count on. We all need someone to see us, love us, and believe in us. The small act of being seen and accepted can make all the difference. We all need someone to stick with us because we all can be troublemakers. We have sins or habits that hurt ourselves or others; things we do or fail to do. We also need healing and help to find our place in an ever-changing world. Leo Tolstoy explains:

“One of the commonest and generally accepted delusions is that every man can be qualified in some particular way - said to be kind, wicked, stupid, energetic, apathetic, and so on. People are not like that…Human beings are rivers; the water is one and the same in all of them but every river is narrow in some places, flows swifter in others; here it is broad, there still, or clear, or cold, or muddy, or warm. It is the same with [people].”***

We are rivers. You are meant to flow. You are shallow and deep and a wonder to behold. You cannot live looking back. You are made to keep going forward. It takes a lifetime to become who you were made to be.

There is someone to help you. The river is also God’s holy habitation. With him, the river leads to new life.**


*I have changed the student’s name and details to protect his identity.

**Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 5b

***Leo Tolstoy, Resurrection. I discovered this quote in David Brooks, How To Know A Person.

***Psalm 46:4


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