Little Offenses, Big Insights
By Stacey Noem
My dad cries at any kind of tenderness in movies. As a girl and younger woman I would glance over, see him tearing up at a seemingly mundane exchange between actors, and chide him in a sing-song voice, “Da-ad…” He would usually respond chuckling, “You’re heartless,” while wiping his eyes. And then add, “You’ll understand one of these days.”
Do you remember your parents saying that to you? As a parent do you remember a time you felt that way with your children? “You don’t get this now, but it will make more sense when you are a father/mother.”
I don’t recall having that feeling much when the children were younger. But the sentiment has grown as the children become teenagers. I suppose that makes sense. As they engage increasingly adult situations, they (and we) increasingly run up against just how inexperienced they are. No matter how book-smart, pragmatic, or tech-savvy they are, there are many valences of mature emotional experiences that are completely foreign to them.
I started thinking of this a few weeks ago when I read the following line in a prayer reflection:
“A mother’s hurt when her child offends her is not just as big as the offense; no it is as big as a mother’s love.” And let’s be honest, sometimes, they aren’t even “offenses.” Often they are simply mindless slights.
On the morning of my birthday many months ago, I recall that I saw each of the children on the stairs or at breakfast and not one of them wished me a “Happy Birthday!” Mind you the whole house was decorated when I woke up (thank you, sweet Joshua) so they visually had a reminder this was an out-of-the-ordinary day. But nothing; not a peep; no verbal acknowledgment.
I remember this even many months later not because it is some big slight of which I can’t let go. I remember it because the degree to which it impacted me, surprised me. Even in the middle of the day as I realized they hadn’t said anything, I was surprised at how sad it made me. I was so distracted by it – and didn’t want to be – that I had to process it with Josh one or two times throughout the day. Which takes us back to the insight above, “A mother’s hurt is not just as big as the offense, it is as big as a mother’s love.”
Then I think about this in relationship to God. That prayer reflection I mentioned earlier goes on to say: “When one of us does something wrong, this wrong may be one of billions and billions of small mess-ups. No ‘big thing.’ But the One whose love is wronged is big and God’s love for each of us is infinite. Great love takes great offense, not from the source, but in its own greatness.”
I think there is insight here. But I hesitate to anthropomorphize God, to assign fully human attributes and reactions to God. I know I cannot harm God. And yet, as a parent, my gut tells me there is some truth to wrestle with here.
Perhaps when I go astray by unkindness to one of the children; or when I misstep by speaking uncharitably about a friend or co-worker; or when I am harsh with Joshua – perhaps those offenses “hurt” God in as much as God knows the goodness inside of me and the dignity of those others that I am stomping all over with the muddy boots of my lack of care and consideration. Put differently, God sees clearly the distance I am from the best version of myself. That may not cause God pain – I may not be able to hurt God – but it certainly separates me, distances me, from the Source of all love.
The poet Mary Oliver sums this up eloquently when she writes:
“I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.”
If only I would focus on not hurrying through the world, but walked slowly and bowed often! I think parenthood puts our hearts on the path for this kind of reverence. It certainly has impacted me. The most concrete manifestation of it is that, increasingly, I find myself tearing up right alongside my Dad at unexpected precious, tender moments.