Several years ago, Debbie Venable gave me a devotional book, Streams in the Desert, which has been a real inspiration to me many times. I recently read in that book of a prayer heard in a southern church. The old man in the church thanked God and asked for help and then closed his prayer with this unusual petition, “And, Oh Lord, prop us up! Yes, prop us up on our leaning side.”
When I researched that story, I found that the old deacon’s response when asked why he always prayed that prayer, was, “Well, sir, you see, it’s like this…..I got an old barn out back. It’s been there a long time; it’s withstood a lot of weather; it’s gone through a lot of storms, and it has stood for many years. It is still standing, but one day I noticed it was leaning to one side a bit, so I went and got some pine poles and propped it up on its leaning side so it wouldn’t fall. Then I got to thinking about that and how much I was like that old barn……I’ve been around a long time: I’ve withstood a lot of hard times, and I’m still standing too, but I find myself leaning to one side from time to time, so I like to ask the Lord to prop us up on our leaning side ‘cause I figure a lot of us get to leaning at times.”
Sometimes I work with children one-on-one in order to get a better picture of how they are developing. Last month I was with a preschooler, building blocks. This child has a fine mind, but he has had very limited life experiences in his four short years. This might have been his first time to build with blocks. He obviously wanted to build a tower, and he wanted to do it without help, so I was in a quandary as to what to do when he chose a wedge block for his tower’s foundation. My natural inclination was to talk him into swapping the wedge for a solid rectangle to avert an “unhappy ending” to his tower attempt, since he has so many frustrations in his normal daily life. I wanted him to succeed and be happy with this experience and to like our time together. I refrained from interrupting his work for several reasons and continued to observe his reactions. The tower didn’t work; he chalked it up to another thing that he didn’t like, and I probably missed a teaching moment.
Teaching moments….there is so much more to teaching than teaching. I, as a cook, can pour ingredients into a bowl again and again and not produce a cake unless other things, including the condition of the bowl, are factored in. During my first year of teaching in the 5th grade at Maury Elementary School, Memphis, Tennessee, I truly believed that if I could just cover all of the information in every text book, then all of my students would learn it. That is one reason that new teachers are so effective because our students will usually live up to our expectations, when possible. But the hungry stomach, the empty toy box, the non-existing transportation, the strung-out parents, or other effects of generational poverty and neglect can hinder the receiver.
Even when parents are trying very hard to meet their children’s needs, they are not perfect, and there are some deficits in all of our lives. Throughout my lifetime, so many people have come to my aid and have helped support my “leaning sides”; there is no way I could count those who have helped me fill in the missing pieces to make my life meaningful. It doesn’t seem fair that so many children today appear not to be receiving this kind of help. Do we not notice those around us who are about to topple; are we afraid to get involved; are we, ourselves, falling over? I just cannot get away from the notion that it takes so little in the life of a child to encourage her, to give the meaning of worth in her life. And it takes so little to discourage and rob life of meaning. What messages are your own children giving to those “leaning” children around them? Have you taught them not to brag and boast in front of them? Have you taught them to include and encourage those who struggle? Some of you have.
What is the answer? It has been my experience that those who have or have had the least money and privilege are often among the most generous. Why is that so?
Harlan Countians are very self-sufficient, for the most part, and I like that; we might not ask for help when we need it. We, in our county, get accused of feeling entitled and wanting hand-outs, but that is not always true. We will suffer silently at times when we need a helping hand. We have a tendency to walk alone when we need support and let others beside us struggle along when they need support on the side that is leaning a bit.
Like my four-year-old friend, not everyone knows or has the opportunity to receive the solid block upon which to build his tower of life. Some of us start out with wedges, and leaning is our way of life. Time offers us the opportunity both to lean as well as to support. It takes courage both to ask for help when leaning and to offer help when we see our brother needing support. Look around and reach out and “prop up” a fellow traveler; it will enrich both of your lives. (You can reach Pat Bryson at firstname.lastname@example.org)