Laughter fills the air in our kids club birthday celebrations, laughter, shouting, energetic glee, all seasoned with a pinch of mayhem and a cup full of chaos. Every child gets cake, every birthday-child gets a gift, and every leader get exhausted.
It was just after one of these crazy birthday programmes that Kelecia (one of the nine year old girls in my kids club) came to me, with strained eyes. “Aunty Liz, Mi can’t find mi slippers* dem”. I took her by the hand and we searched; we searched our club area, the games area, the other club areas, all over. No slippers. Eventually we conceded that another child (most likely one of the children who hangs around the outside of kids club but doesn’t choose to attend) had taken her slippers when she kicked them off at game time.
“I’m Sorry Kelicia”, I said, “I think they’re gone”. I sent her home without her slippers and went and joined the other leaders at the team review, not thinking much further about it.
As we began the review we realised that one of our team wasn’t with us. Shaboo (whose real name is George) had walked out with the children. He has a song he sings loudly and the children chime in after him and they all walk out together, the children running after him like the mice chasing after the Pied-Piper of Hamlin. Shaboo had walked the children out, but hadn’t returned right away.
Later, as we were loading the equipment into the cars I learned the story of his absence… and his presence. Shaboo had walked out with all the children, but noticing that Kelicia didn’t have her slippers (and her peace of mind) he had taken the time to walk her to a small stall in the community and using his own money had bought her a replacement pair before she went home.
You see, Shaboo understood something that I had not yet understood. He is now one of our leaders in the work we do, but he started off eight years ago as one of the young people in our youth programme. Shaboo has grown up in inner city Kingston. He knows from the inside what it means to be an inner city Jamaican child. He knew, as I didn’t, that if Kelicia went home without her slippers that day she would most likely receive a severe beating from her mother. He didn’t make a fuss about it, he wasn’t even quick to say what he had done for Kelicia to the other leaders. Quietly he had seen and quietly he had acted. And Kelicia went home thankful and without fear that day.
Shaboo understood from the inside what that moment meant for Kelicia. I have studied youth work, primary education and child psychology, but that day he knew far more than I about how to work with this slipper-less child. My eyes didn’t see and understand what his did.
As I have seen and breathed and loved and lived I have begun to realise that just because I think I have shown love to another person, doesn’t mean they have experienced it as love. Just because I have thought I have communicated with another person, doesn’t mean they have heard or understood the intention of my words, and just because I think I see them, doesn’t mean I do.
Last weekend my family and I climbed a waterfall here in Jamaica. My brother has been visiting from Australia and we had wanted to get him out to see some of the beauty beyond the hustle and bustle of Kingston where we live. After a fun day of clambering and climbing, falling and fumbling our way up the falls we finally dressed to leave. As we were meandering up the steep stairs toward the car park Zoë, my daughter raced ahead and left the path to take one last look at the rushing waters edge. I called to her in tired frustration, arms full of bags, mind full of impatience. No response. Nathaniel my brother left the path and went and joined her at the rushing edge of the waterfall and gently let her know it was time to continue up the path. She came. I was about to admonish her for not coming when I called, when Nathaniel cut in gently, “There was no way she could have heard your voice, the waterfall is really loud where she was standing”.
Nathaniel had made the time to join Zoe where she was, and because he did, he saw more clearly the situation she was in. Love joins people in the rushing water moments of their lives and takes the time to navigate the torrents with them, seeing, hearing, understanding from their position what this moment means for them. Love takes time, forcing back the rush and worry, the disinterest and distraction and makes time to see and understand. To listen long and hold assumptions lightly. And once love has trained itself to see, it is a muscle that then moves into action.
Had I left the path also, I could have seen for myself that Zoë was innocently unaware of my frustration. Had I not been rushing to my kids club review meeting, I could have seen the look of anxiety on Kelicia’s face and asked myself ‘I wonder what this means for her?’. I could have joined her by her rushing waters edge, standing with her in the torrents of fear and uncertainty, the rushing waters of rough justice for an inner city child.
One of the most significant things a human being can do for another is to let them know they are not alone, to let them know that in all the rushing chaos of life they are seen, they are heard, they are valued. Empathy does this job. Empathy is eyes that see, ears that hear and a heart that works to understand… even when it is difficult or inconvenient.
Empathy however isn’t the end game, only the beginning. Empathy sees, but compassion acts. Love is empathy with arms, arms with sleeves rolled up ready for work.
M. Scott Peck put it beautifully when he said, “Love is as love does. Love is an act of will- namely, both an intention and an action.”
Seeing and feeling the difficulties of another is not love; love is an act of will, a full motion action. I don’t think it is a mistake that the lens through which love is projected in the Bible is this lens of action…
‘Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.’
1 Corinthians 13:4-8 New International Version (NIV)
None of the verbs above are feelings because (counter to popular understanding) love is not about how we feel. Love is about choices, actions and behaviour. If I only ever express my unfettered feeling world, the experience of love my own children, husband, family and kids-club children will receive from me will be inconsistent at best, and depending on my mood, possibly even destructive at worst.
That day, many days ago now, Shaboo saw Kelicia and walked alongside her. He didn’t make a loud sentimental show of affection. He simply acted. Today Kelicia still attends our kids club and she knows that we love her, and that next time she is standing by rushing waters of difficulty, we will do our best to be standing with her… even those of us who are still learning how to see.
Nowadays laughter still fills the air in our kids club birthday celebrations, laughter, shouting, energetic glee all seasoned with a pinch of mayhem, a cup full of chaos, and on the best days when we are doing well.. there is love; the seeing and the acting kind.
*Slippers are known as ‘flip-flops’ in North America and the UK or in Australia ‘thongs’ (the shoes!).