On Praying and Tears

Studying Richard Foster’s Prayer with my church, I was unexpectedly haunted by the chapter on Praying with Tears.  I was a frequent crier as a child.

There is a legend in my upbringing of me throwing a temper tantrum in the grocery store.  My dad took me to the car, while Mom and brother continued shopping.  M. was an angel.  It was pouring rain (I’m not sure if I remember this detail or if, in the telling of the legend, I now have a picture of it).  Apparently, I became so hysterical in the car, that a stranger, even in the pouring rain, knocked on the car window and demanded my dad produce ID for fear that I was being abducted.  Despite my dad’s embarrassment, I think I am glad that she did that.  Too many people just walk on by and try not to notice.  In the end, I was just a monster when mom or dad took me out.

Also, I was specifically terrified of Santa Claus.  I now know that Santa Claus is a pretty frightening character:  big, old stranger in a fiery red suit, with an evil laugh and a peculiar desire to have children sit on his lap, surrounded by little green goblins with pointy ears…how more kids aren’t afraid is beyond me.  But I digress.

So this Prayer of Tears began stirring in me all these memories of crying.  Specifically, these were episodes through which either I or my family was embarrassed.

At age 7, I was double-promoted from 2nd to 3rd grade.  I’m not convinced that I was smarter, just that my mom had read with me and I got an early start.  But the 2nd grade shared the same room and teacher as the 3rd grade.  So double-promotion meant that I sat on the right-hand side of the class, rather than the left.  This created a weird scene socially.  I was trying to be friends with 3rd graders, but I was the youngest.  Some of them resented that I got moved over to their side of the room.  Simultaneously, every day I had to look at the 2nd graders, several of whom stopped being my friend.  We had been through pre-school, kindergarten and 1st grade together.  Some of them resented that I left them behind.  If I didn’t know something, they would say: “Why did you get promoted, you don’t even know _____?”  One of them, for the rest of our childhood and adolescence, would set up these riddles for me to solve and then scoff when I couldn’t get them right.  Luckily, I was athletically superior to most of them, so I would get them back during soccer.

Add to this the fact that I was already a crier.  Then add to this an unfortunate physical development: the beginning of my loss of vision.  I would get A’s on my math, but couldn’t do flash cards.  The teacher would write on the board and unless I was in the front row, I couldn’t read it.  I told my mom who told the teacher.  The teacher told my mom that I was just making excuses and that my vision was fine.  All I remember from 3rd grade was crying and crying.  On two occasions, the teacher publically humiliated me for crying.  One was after gym class and I had done poorly at kickball (I couldn’t dominate the 3rd graders like I did the 2nd graders).  The other was lining up to go to lunch.  I don’t really remember what happened; just that Mrs. Third-Grade Teacher looked at me crying and said: “What is it this time?” followed by something along the lines of ‘I’m sick and tired of your crying.’  Mrs. Third-Grade Teacher: “it” was losing my eyesight and a significant percentage of my friends.  I just remember being frustrated, mad and scared all the time.  The next year, Mrs. Fourth-Grade Teacher sent me to deliver a message to Mrs. Third-Grade Teacher.  But I also remember walking into Mrs. Teacher’s class the next year to deliver a message.  I was wearing glasses.  I looked at Mrs. Third-Grade Teacher, through those wiry frames and thought ‘Mrs. Third-Grade Teacher, I was right and you were wrong’.

In 6th grade, Mrs. Sixth-Grade Teacher’s college-aged died.  I went to the funeral since we were also church friends.  Returning to school after the funeral, I joined the kids in the lunch line, still wearing my funeral suit.  One kid kept making fun of the ‘Just Say No’ poster, saying he was going to say yes to everything on the poster, even if it killed him.  I just burst into tears.  This time, it was head down and big sobs in front of basically the whole school.  The lunch attendant scolded the kid since I had been to a funeral.  I didn’t even know that I was even that sad.  It was genuine grieving, since Mrs. Sixth-Grade Teacher’s daughter had been my Sunday School teacher and she was really pretty.  It really took me by surprise.

One of my brother’s friends made me cry as often as possible.  There was little I could do about it.  I hated his guts so much.  It’s not like I saw him a bunch, just enough to make me fear him.  Now I understand that he was the middle of 5 kids and his parents had split and he needed attention and just acted out in bad ways to get it.  But to me at the time, he was just a jerk.

At a birthday sleepover for his brother, Jerk got me in a room by myself and demanded that we wrestle.  I refused and tried to get out, but he would tackle me.  It was really late and his mom had gone to bed, and there were other classmates there so I really tried hard not to cry.  Not long after that Jerk was at our house and made me cry in my own back yard in front of all my brother’s friends.  I remember being in my bedroom crying and my dad came up.  He told me that I have to learn how to not cry.  I really don’t remember what he said.  Just that it felt like I was in trouble.  In 7th grade Jerk and I had detention hall at the same time.  Before the principal got there he told me that if I didn’t let him elbow me in the head, he was going to kick my ass on the way home from school.  I walked right over and let him elbow me in the head.  I didn’t cry.  I guess 7th and 8th grades were the years I learned not to cry.

The thing is: life got worse after I learned not to cry.  In 8th grade I was assigned a horrible nickname.  Almost everyone called me this nickname.  The last week of eighth grade all these people lined up to sign my yearbook and addressed their greetings to Nickname.  At the same time, I developed my first real crush.  I was attracted to this girl based mostly on her kindness…and she was really cute.  We would debate music cheerfully (Judas Priest vs. The Doors), her locker was next to mine and she smelled great.  Thankfully, she ran with a different crowd: the skaters and stoners.  The Nickname crowd was mostly preps and the popular kids (and then, all those that wanted to be in the popular crowd).  Somehow Cute Girl never really caught wind of this nickname.  Or if she did, in her kindness, she never participated.  School days were a whirlwind.  I would begin the day outside before school, dodging the nickname crowd, then have these passing moments with Cute Girl in the locker area, have to put up with Nickname crowd in every class period, except the ones with Cute Girl, skip lunch to avoid Nickname crowd, end the day with a final whiff of Cute Girl and endure a bus ride with a small contingent of Nickname crowd plus other popular losers.  I consider 8th grade the beginning of my blue period.  I never asked out Cute Girl and she moved the next year.

By the time I got to 9th grade, I had kicked the crying habit pretty well.  Instead, I learned to brood internally and withdraw mentally and emotionally.  That was a tough task in HS when faced with disappointment after disappointment.  Countless evenings alone, the loss of the joy of soccer, watching less-deserving singers go All-State, a terrible Senior Prom…I blazed through all that unmoved by anything other than apathy.  Almost failing 12th grade was the wake-up call that to get out of Hell, I’d have to make an effort.  To think, I came that close to rejoining those guys I left in second grade.

Now I am a dad and there is only one thing that Baby Girl does that gets to me.  I am way too sensitive to her crying.  Even then, she really only cries overnight or when there is a reasonable explanation (hunger, diaper, etc.).  But the visceral reaction in me is surprising.

In reading this chapter on the Prayer of Tears, I find it rational but difficult to take Foster’s advice and ask for the Prayer of Tears.  I am intrigued by Foster’s assertion that our capacity for contrition is connected to our ability to enjoy joy.  I have found that I am more emotional now that I am a dad.  I am around this amazing creature that is so full of grace, fragility, joy and curiosity.  She reaches that inner part of my heart, underneath all the layers of apathy and old cynicism.  Since A. brings so much joy, I find myself more susceptible to other feelings.  Yet, asking for the Prayer of Tears, I fear, will open the floodgates that are a big part of who I am.  I know that personal reinvention is part of the Christian life, even as one progresses in sanctification.  But it is the giving up of my identity that I fear.  What kind of identity will take its place?  Can I take being open, confident and approachable?  How will I know what to say and what not to say, what to feel and what to repel, what to share and what to hide?

Foster follows the Prayer of Tears with the Prayer of Relinquishment.  It really is a good book.

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