On a walk behind my house, my daughter Joy offered some wisdom. The birds sang, and the sun slowly set in oranges and yellows behind Pikes Peak. We stepped through the backyard gate ready to connect, and as soon as our feet began to crunch along the gravel trail, our noses caught something horrific.
“What’s that smell?!” I shouted. We looked down, and lying there on the ground was a fresh pile of dog poop, flies buzzing around it.
A few minutes later, I spotted another one.
“Look, Joy, another one,” I said, disgusted. When I pointed it out, I got a good 12-year-old kick in the butt.
“Daddy, stop focusing on the poop!”
She was right. We were enjoying a moment. With the sun shining through the leaves, the day was perfect, but I couldn’t let go of that darn dog poop.
Maybe it’s because I’m a perfectionist or maybe I’m just getting old and cranky, but I tend to have a problem with focusing on the “yuck” in life—slow drivers, weird conversations, bodily odors. I’ve got to know the source of the problem, I’ve got to talk about it, and it has to be fixed now. The problem is not everything can be fixed right now. Life doesn’t work that way.
This past week has been one of those all-consuming smelly times in life. And honestly, as I type this, there’s been no resolution. One little fresh pile I’ve stepped into is a conflict with some people I’ve known for years. This is hard to admit, but there was a day last week when I couldn’t think about anything else. At one point sitting in my office, I looked at my hand, and it was shaking. Anxiety pulsed through me like electricity.
My escape has been my classroom. The young people sitting in those desks continue to teach me way more than I could ever teach them.
On Fridays, I offer my students extra credit if they type up some meaningful words and then share them with the class. We call the opportunity “Instant Replays.”
Last Friday, Max had a poem he wanted to share. He raised his hand, so I called on him. He walked to the front of the room in his comfy gray hoodie, and I played Jump by Van Halen for some walk-up music. The 80s synthesizer played with the guitar, and a shy smile started to form on his face.
“I’m sharing a poem,” he said holding the podium.
“Is this a poem you wrote?” Addie asked from the back.
“Yes! I love your poems!” Addie shouted.
“Sorry if this makes you sad,” Max said, and then he started to read.
I keep a little notebook of all the reasons I can’t kill myself yet,
Like I’m excusing myself from a party.
I can’t tonight, I have math homework;
I can’t tonight, I need to finish all the chocolate milk mix in the cupboard;
I can’t tonight, my sim’s birthday is coming up.
Every reason in there is another reminder of what to look forward to
Because every time I look back, all I see is suffering.
My joy is tainted with the rubble around it. . .
But no, no, I can’t kill myself yet
Because I can’t play the riff from that one Elton John song on the guitar yet
Because that girl who sits next to me in chemistry hasn’t aced a test yet. . .
He finished, and the class was quiet.
“Should we clap?” someone asked in the back, but nobody did.
“Max, I love that you choose to focus on the good in life,” I said, breaking the silence. Then, leaning forward in my chair, I said, “Death is there, but you choose life.”
Max nodded, and eventually the bell rang. All the students left, but Max’s words lingered.
I thought about where my thoughts were going recently—conflict with people who disagreed with me, a district in turmoil, an uncertain future. The piles of poop were scattered everywhere along my trail. And it was stealing my peace! But Max chose to focus on life. He looked at the sunlight even though as he said, there was “rubble” all around him. Why couldn’t I?
Finding a seat at lunch, I tried not to think about the smelly piles that filled my week. Honestly, I felt a little smelly myself—it wasn’t just Jen’s microwaved Salmon. As I ate bites of my sandwich, anxiety knocked on the door of my heart.
I listened to my friends enjoying conversation. Then Kyle walked in the room. He’s unlike any student I’ve had before. There’s innocence in his slow, deliberate voice and kindness in his character.
“Hi Mr. Ahnfeldt,” he said, his face lighting up behind his black-rimmed glasses.
“Hi Kyle,” I said, smiling back at him. He started to leave, but then turned around.
“Mr. Ahnfeldt. . .” he paused to formulate his question. “. . .what are you doing?”
The question started in my class. It’s the same one I ask all my students every day, and the response has a required answer.
“Listening to life, Kyle,” I said, and right when I said it, he breathed in deep, beamed with a giddy smile, and looked like he might explode with joy.
He walked away, and all of us sitting at the table watched him leave, like we were watching the last bits of a sunset fade behind the mountains.
I turned around—my heart beating a little slower—and looked up at my colleagues.
“That’s why I’m still teaching,” I said.
The conversation with Kyle, like Max’s poem, was no coincidence. The God who offers true life used the moment to shift my perspective. My daughter was right; I do have a choice. There will always be poop on the trail—poop that sometimes needs to be cleaned up—but I can still savor the sunsets. Instead of constantly sticking my nose in the stench all around me and letting it rob me of peace, I can choose to let go of the mess, look up, and listen to the Father’s familiar voice. There are many ways to describe making that choice, but I like to call it listening to life.
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