The kaleidoscope, the microscope and the observatory tower.
I transferred to an all boys Catholic High School in Massachusetts after a less than stellar freshman year performance in public high school. It had a relatively storied past and was supposed to be a no nonsense environment where I could get my act together. I learned a lot in those three years but one of the things I took away was something I used to humorously call the towel story.
Because I was a sophomore transfer, I got placed in a junior gym class. At the time I weighed about 100 pounds and was only contextually cool, that is I got swallowed alive in that gym class but could hold my own at youth group. On the first day of class, I noticed a strange phenomenon after it was over. People were stripping down and walking toward what appeared to be a communal shower. I’d never had to shower as part of the public school system and would never in a million years thought to pack a towel for school. I tried to hide behind my locker, hoping that the shower scene would complete and no one would notice I had skipped it.
“You don’t have a towel, do you?” a voice called out with glee from the shadows of the green tiled locker room. I peered over the edge and saw one of the gym teachers standing there. “Come with me.” With that, he marched me naked into the showers. He then took out a wooden chair, sat down on it and proceeded to hand me scraps of paper towels, piece by piece in front of the entire gym glass as I dried off. When I tried to leave, he stopped me and said “I’ll let you know when you’re done.” When it was all over I had to pay him 50 cents for the experience, a final monetary punishment for not bringing a towel.
I’ve told that story dozens of times to friends and strangers as something funny that happened to me at one of those crazy Catholic schools you hear about. It wasn’t until counselor number 3 told me it was a form of sexual abuse that I stopped laughing and starting looking at that moment.
Prior to that, I had used a kaleidoscope to look back at that memory. Instead of colorful pieces of glass and mirror, I had added in humor and wit, laughter and lightness, hoping that when I looked at it I wouldn’t see the hurt. It would look big and bright until it became just another random chapter in the story of my life.
The problem with the kaleidoscope approach to reviewing the past is that it lies to you. You don’t really see what happened, you just see what you wish had happened. There was nothing funny about that moment. Had I any self awareness I would have noticed that when I tried to tell that story for laughs, most of the faces of the people listening returned shock or sadness. But I needed it to be funny because I didn’t want to deal with it.
The other way we sometimes look back on the past is with a microscope. We magnify words or actions until they’re so big and detailed that they start to dominate our lives. We define who we currently are by something that happened a long time ago. We let small instances grow big and powerful as we peer through the lens of the microscope.
The danger is that regardless of whether you deal with something in your past, it always deals with you. It always leaves an imprint, an unseen lesson that impacts the way you make decisions from that moment on. For me, from that day on, I never forget my towel again. I took careful steps to ensure that for three years I was never without a towel. I became desperate to know the rules in any given situation, because if I had known that the rule was always bring a towel, I never would have been forced to stand naked and vulnerable in front of a room full of strangers.
To this day, I am incredibly uncomfortable trying new things. Not just because change is hard for lots of people, but because if I’ve never tried something before I haven’t had a chance to master the rules. And if I don’t know the rules, I might find myself without a towel in a must have towel situation.
Understanding my approach to rules and where that fear took hold of me came from carefully looking back at my past. Not with the distorted view of a kaleidoscope. Not with the obsessive gaze of a microscope which can trap you in the past, blowing it up out of scale until it suffocates your present with its false largeness. I looked at the past with a telescope. I went to the God’s observatory tower and under his guidance looked back, traveling light years with my eye and my mind until I could see where I had come from.
I was able to learn who I really was and perhaps even more importantly, upon removing my eye from the gaze, was able to see how far I had come. The past didn’t own me anymore. It didn’t define who I was or secretly control my decisions. It became a classroom that I learned from, a distant land I revisited and conquered. A wound I could identify and get healed of. I think that is what God wants us to do. To deal with the past and walk forward into each new day. To shake the dust off our feet and forget the former things because he is doing something new.
So put down the kaleidoscope. Lose the microscope. Visit the observatory tower. The father has a lot to show you.
p.s. Check out www.97secondswithGod.com today for a new post.