erin ahnfeldt

Listening to Life

Here’s a secret–a few weeks ago, I felt lonely.  Sitting in the stands at a volleyball game, I told myself I liked sitting by myself.  But honestly, as the parents cheered and whistles blew, I really didn’t.

I know what you’re thinking.  I have a wife and kids in my life, plenty of great colleagues who often feel like family, and one hundred and fifty incredible students.  Not only that, but I’m an introvert; I like being alone, so how could I feel lonely?  That’s what’s strange.  You don’t have to live in a cave to feel lonely.  Loneliness can creep up on anyone.

As I sat there, a dad walked in front of me.  He wore a black t-shirt that said, “Warning: Volleyball Dad—will yell loudly.”  His shirt stretched with his muscles, and gold chains dripped off his tree-stump-neck.  This is where it gets a little embarrassing.  He reminded me of Deion Sanders, and I started to daydream…

What if he walked in the gym right now? I wondered.  I pictured him sauntering through the doors, wearing his famous sunglasses and black cowboy hat.

And what if he saw me sitting alone in the stands, I thought, reaching out his big hand to shake mine?

The volleyball game continued, but I was lost in my fantasy.

I pictured the gym exploding with cheers, and then came another question: What if Deion pulled me into a “bro hug” and took a seat next to me?

Even at 51, there I sat on those metal bleachers, a grown man dreaming like a 10-year-old kid.

The thought had barely arrived when another interrupted it—Jesus is bigger than Deion.

The idea was more than a fantasy; it came like a whisper from somewhere or someone beyond the noise of that gym.

That’s true, I thought, agreeing with the idea.  And He’s sitting with me right now!  That truth running through my head felt like sunlight deep inside me.  I watched a few more points of volleyball, enjoying the warmth of the idea of God sitting next to me, and then basked in that idea all the way home.

The next morning, my students and I talked about the book Of Mice and Men.

“Get out your journals,” I told them, and students unzipped backpacks with long, tired sighs.

“I want you to think about some of the struggles Crooks faces.”

I leaned on the podium as kids looked up with heavy eyelids.

“Write about which of his struggles you most identify with.”

And with that, thirty tired teenagers started writing.  A few minutes passed, and I asked for volunteers to share.  So early in the morning, I didn’t expect many.

Erin—usually smiling and eager—raised her hand reluctantly.

“Go ahead, Erin,” I said.

Peering under her blue wide-brimmed hat, she looked at her journal and took a deep breath.  She wasn’t smiling.

“I know I seem happy, but I feel kind of lonely like Crooks.”

Her first sentence got everyone’s attention.  Nobody was talking.

“I go to robotics club, lunch, or my classes and people already have friends,” she said, almost whispering, and there was pain in her eyes.  “So I make myself look busy, like I don’t notice nobody’s talking to me.”

“I’m so sorry, Erin,” I said.  “That takes guts to share.”

She nodded, and Mercea raised her hand.

“Mercea,” I said, nodding in her direction.  She wore a classy white shirt and jeans with perfect makeup.

“I feel lonely too,” she said, looking at Erin.  “I’ve always wanted that best friend who’d know all my secrets and hang out with me after school, but I just don’t.”

Everyone was visibly shocked.

Mercea too, I thought, and when she was done, the classroom was a forest of lifted hands.

Each student painfully removed a mask in ways I hadn’t seen all year.

Karla was speaking Spanish at a Kum and Go, and an older man scolded her.

“We speak English here,” he shouted.

“Racism makes me feel lonely,” she said, “like I don’t belong.”

Sylvia, a ray of sunshine in the class, talked about waiting by the phone, hoping for an invitation from someone.

“I’ll wait,” she said, looking down at her desk, “and then I’ll find out my ‘friends’ are having fun without me.”

One by one, the masks fell to the floor, and there was a sacredness to it all.  Then, Elias raised his hand, the one with the brown curly hair and all the jokes.

“Some people are spotlight kind of people,” he said.  He cleared his throat and continued.

“It’s our job to make people laugh.  Sometimes I won’t know what to do, so I’ll make a joke.”  He looked up for a minute to find the right words.

“But you know what, I can’t remember the last time I had a genuine conversation with someone.”  He laughed it off, but nobody else was laughing.  Everyone felt his heaviness.

“Elias, that’s so insightful,” I said.

And then I looked at the class.

“Thank you all for your vulnerability.  None of you are alone in what you’re feeling.”  The bell rang before I could say any more, and in seconds the moment was gone.

My TA got up to leave.

“That was really beautiful,” he said, throwing his backpack over his shoulder.

And he was right.  Most people are too afraid to take off their masks.  But really, deep down, we all want them off.  I think that’s what moved my TA and I so much.  We’ve all been lonely.  We’ve all been in those places when we’ve needed a pat on the shoulder or a listening ear.  But my students that morning were sick of pretending.  They finally had the guts to take off their masks and let their classmates know we all struggle.

Time ran out to say any more to my students, but I could’ve told them that just the night before, I felt lonely too. I could’ve told them about my Deion fantasy, and the way Jesus slipped into it nicely.

He saw me in the gym that night—Jesus, not Deion.  That little interruption to my Deion fantasy was NOT more rambling of my own thoughts.  That was Him.  And the bookmarked place in my Bible the next morning about Jesus loving on a lonely man named Zaccheaus (Luke 19)—that was Him too.  Perfect timing!

Whether we’re sitting on steel bleachers, waiting by phones or tasting hatred served up at a Kum and Go, He’s with us.  But do we see the evidence?  He wants us to seek Him, to climb the tree like Zacchaeus and discover we’re never really alone.  He may not wear cool sunglasses or have gold necklaces dripping from His holy neck, but He’s there, and discovering that makes all the difference.

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