On Becoming Hard

She’s tangled her lips into a burrowed frown again, staring at the morning’s news, clearly unimpressed. Nearing ninety, the elderly lady still has her opinions, strong and bold as ever. 

“Always has to be newer and better,” she grunts before stalking off with the newspaper crumpled in a roll underneath her worn and wrinkled hands. 

She is petite and aged, worn around the edges as some would say, garnered with a consistently furrowed brow and rough, weathered smirk. Lined and hard–hard to know and hard to be known. 

 

I hear them criticize — the new ways, mostly and the new people. The “kids” who are really adults and should be acting like “adults” even though they are “kids”. I sip my coffee, trying to choke back laughs and text inconspicuously, a book hidden in my purse for later.

But sure enough, they catch my phone with their watchful eyes and criticize me now, citing the evils of technology and of course, the utter ridiculousness of updating your friends on what you are doing at every single minute of the day.

They laugh at their jokes and complain some more — about the hard chairs they’re sitting on, the hard days of work, the hard block of frozen spaghetti for lunch, currently de-frosting on the table. Sipping more coffee, they continue to talk in their hard, foreign ways, as I slip out the door. 

 

I notice him smile as I say good morning. It’s just a slight smile yet it brims to the corners of his mouth. I never remember noticing it before — I always figured he was just a grumpy, no nonsense type of older gentleman. 

But I notice the smile, soft at first, again and again and again, growing warmer just like the sun on these hot summer days. Soon he’s returning my good mornings and hellos. I wonder if I was wrong about him back then when I proclaimed him ‘no-nonsense and grumpy.’ 

His features are still weathered and hard and I bet he could tell me a lot of stories of a long life of labour and toil. But he smiles at me through the lines of an aging face and I see the life that’s in him still, that’s in us all until we die. 

 

They probably married young–those ladies sipping coffee on hard chairs. Eighteen, nineteen, twenty, or maybe twenty-one. My age, they were all blooming young brides, basking in the light of their bride grooms’ gentle smiles. All white, beautiful, beloved. Love softens us, they say. 

But before that date, they were even softer, waiting for love. They must have grown from soft, pink baby to bright eyed little girl, pig tails flying, to a fresh and beautiful young woman, long hair clipped up. They must have picked flowers, memorized words for spelling bees, baked birthday cakes for younger siblings. Went to church in their best dresses, and blushed when the handsomest boy winked in their direction. 

And then when the handsome boy met her at the alter, she likely smiled more than ever. The babies came soon after–soft, pink, and fresh, with the life we’re all created with, the life we hold till we die. The life that was meant for eternity. 

I realize that this is not all there is and was. The complaining and criticism of youth, and hardened smiles. At one time, they were as youthful as I — probably smirking at their own parents’ and grandparents’ harsh commands and comments. 

We are all born soft and pink, fresh and young. And so I wonder, what makes us become hard? 

 

Months pass into a year. I’ve matured a bit — hardened even, myself. But I have more patience, endurance, and even, love. Does that come with being hardened? 

I become privy to different, harder conversations. About walking an hour to town, houses falling at the bombs of the enemy, little legs flying to bomb shelters, and loved ones dropping dead. I suddenly see so much within the lines of their hardened faces, and wonder how I once missed what is now so evident. 

Hardship. Pain. Utter devastation. 

That is how we harden. 

Experience. Endless toil. Death and desperation. 

That is how we harden. 

Long suffering. Tears left unwiped. No conclusions for our grief. 

That is how we harden. 

Yet within the lines, I now see a surprising beauty and a long hidden joy. It’s mixed with a new found courage and bravery and I develop respect and admiration, the more I notice. I see the softness within, still there after all these years — they’re still the babies, the flower picking girls, and the June brides, little boys longing for adventure, and winking young rowdies as well as the hardened women and men, living a midst the pain and continual tread of life. 

 

The softness lies within. You will find it if you look hard enough. 

The hardness has become a shell to protect, in many cases. A relief, a disguise. But behind the hardness, there is a garnered wisdom. A learnt renewal, and a cloudy resurrection to come. 

How do we become hard? The tread of years, the changes, the griefs, and unanswered prayers. 

But do we ever really become hard? We are all children in God’s sight, and His softness and mercy can be enough for us. 

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Part 7: The Power Of A Flashlight

This is the seventh part of a series about my travels in Mexico last summer, a trip that God used to teach me many lessons in love, humility, beauty, and wealth. If you missed the first six parts, click here.

Have you ever been excited about a flashlight before? You know, one of those little plastic things that you flip on and off and use to bring light to a dark place? It’s something you’d turn on when the power goes out or as you’re walking at night..but you’d never turn it on in the bright afternoon sun of the Mexico sky when everything seems alright.

It was the end of our two-day build and we were cleaning and packing up as the little, two room house was finished when I noticed the power of the flashlight. At this point, I remembered my bag of gifts that I had brought for the family.  There were many things in that bag: baby wipes which I deemed very useful for this family who had a baby, pencils which would be nice for the children who enjoyed school, some toiletries, several tennis balls, a game of monkeys in a box and some cars which I was sure the boys would love and oh yes, a flashlight which had really been an extra one for me but since I hadn’t yet used the first one I doubted I’d use this one and so I thought I’d pop it in as a sort of extra thing. I didn’t really think about it too much. After all, it was just a flashlight! What could be so exciting about that? You can only use it after dark and really, when I thought about it a flashlight was quite a boring gift.

Now before I go on, I must introduce Jorje to you. I don’t think I’ve talked much about him before but he was very important to this trip. The twelve-year-old son of Besenta, Jorje was a favourite with everyone due to his bright smile and huge energy for others and his house. Of all the people, I think that he worked hardest to build that house. From painting the sides of the house, to standing next to my youth pastor helping on the roof, Jorje was always doing something. No, his hands were never idle whether they carried a hammer or a plate of yummy Mexican food for his Canadian friends. And he was always, always so positive! If you weren’t already smiling, Jorje would make you smile by his own big, grin. Even thinking of him now makes me smile.

Jorje and his contagious smile.

Although Jorje and I had hit it off immediately, I remember feeling a bit embarrassed about giving him these things. I could play the ‘”goody giver” at home when I packed Samaritans purse boxes or purchased a goat from World Vision but now, with Jorje, this boy that I I knew, my friend whom I’d come to love and who was my equal, it just felt weird to give him “charity.” I had never thought about it before but I was a very proud person for though I’d always considered my efforts to be humble, I had actually thought of myself as the jubilant giver who helped needy people. Looking at Jorje though, I knew that he did not need my help. He was the one who made me smile, and the one with the hand for the hammer, not me. How could I give him this gift now? I wondered.

Eventually, I simply handed him the things, explaining in motions and broken Spanish that they were for his family and him. Jorje accepted graciously and we awkwardly parted ways. I could tell that he saw some of what I had been feeling and it shamed me to think this…that he had seen my pride. What could I do though? How was I supposed to know that my gifts were not as needed as I had thought?

Jorje, showing off his new game. 

A few minutes later, as I was cleaning up, I saw, to my relief, that Jorje was enjoying the things that I’d given him. However, he wasn’t going for the game or the cars just now. No, to my shock, he ripped off the flashlight packaging with gusto, turned it on and ran around with it, shining the light everywhere with a big smile bursting from his face.

I smiled too, laughed even, as did everyone around me. Any of us could have told Jorje that he should save his flashlight batteries for later as he obviously didn’t need it now when the sun was at its height. But none of us wanted to for his face was too happy, too joyful, too beautiful, too rich and no one wanted to mar that expression.

It wasn’t until later that evening that I realized just how much I had seen with Jorje’s flashlight, even though the sun had apparently been shining. I remembered how proud I had been, and how confident I was that I could cure every little problem I came accross. I had unconciously thought that because Mexicans didn’t have as much as I did, that they were poor and consequently, unhappy. As the “rich” and obviously contented person, I was the one who could save them. Oh how little I knew then.

But I saw it on that day…the picture that I had been missing the whole time….the picture that I so desperately needed to see….the picture that Jorje showed me…

I wanted to help others and to love them too but I was proud, self-seeking, and materialistic. Even though I denied it, I wanted to recieve acknowledgement for every good work that I did and I thought that money was what made you happy and wealthy and because of this “great richness” that I had, I was the one who could transform the people of Mexico. I wanted to be the light.

But I wasn’t that light like I thought with pride that I was. No, I was darkness disguised by light so that I couldn’t see what was wrong with me. Then, I went to Mexico…I met the people and discovered their riches of love, kindness, and friendliness…I realized that the only one who was poor was me as Jorje shone his flashlight onto my proud heart.