Tuesday, December 10, 2013


Hamartia is the tragic or fatal flaw in a hero that leads to his downfall.

I learned this last year when I was trying to teach English to 7th, 9th and 10th graders.  I also learned about Gilgamesh, which I had never read before, having been an English major with classes only in British and American literature, and one class of Russian literature.  I mostly took creative writing workshops, as many as possible. 

I was a terrible English teacher.  It was a good experience; it put to rest forever my regrets over not having completed a degree in education.  There was a time when I would visit my kids' schools on back-to-school night and walk through the halls thinking, "This feels so good.  So familiar.  This is where I belong."  But when I became a teacher all I could remember is how I was the mother who cried on the first day of school, every year, and I was the mother who stomped her feet and complained every day for the last two weeks of school in June, saying, "When is this going to be over already?  When can we get on to summer vacation?"  I lived for summer vacation, for days with no alarm clocks, no buses to catch and no homework projects to complete.  How could I ever have thought I would like being a teacher?

I am rambling.

Hamartia has probably come to mind because I am recuperating from surgery, an intensely boring endeavor, and I have nothing to do but lie in bed, staring out the uncovered arch at the top of my bedroom window at the clear blue winter sky, smelling the stench of my healing body which is alternately too hot or too cold under the rumpled sheets and blankets on my bed.  I read a little and get tired.  I poke at my phone, but it is quiet because the rest of the world is busy with Christmas and year-end budgets and finals.  I feel like the only person in the world with nothing to do except force liquids and remember my pain pills.  It is a real high point when I take a shower.  I save this triumph for afternoon.

It's so strange to have no Christmas concerts to go to, no Christmas party invitations, no choir cantatas or church Christmas pageants to work on, no kids digging through the costume box in the basement for the Santa hat.  I miss everything.  But I suppose, really, it was an ideal year to have this surgery.  When you think about it.

With so much time on my hands--or maybe I should say on my back, as that is how I lie, carefully symmetrical, hoping that everything will fall into its proper new location as the healing goes forward--with so much time, I tend to think.  I am sorry, but there really is not much else to do.  Thinking too much can be a dangerous occupation, or perhaps it is beneficial.

I've been thinking about my flaws.  Hence, hamartia; not that I am a hero, or even a heroine.  And I hope and pray that by the grace of God my flaws will not lead to my eventual downfall, that He will save me as He promises in Jude 24-25.

One of my flaws is in method of communication, especially in the role of mother. 

Being a mother is such a huge, overwhelming responsibility.  These people come into your life, and you are responsible for them, their bodies, their minds and their souls.  More than anything, you want them to know Jesus, and to go to heaven, and to avoid sin and its dire consequences.  But you also want them to be healthy and happy and free from trials and troubles, well fed and well clothed, things that sometimes don't mesh perfectly with your goals for them to be holy and God-focused.  Imperfect as a mother is, she wants the best for her children, ferociously sometimes.  If something is wrong in one of her children's lives, she lies awake all night beseeching God to intervene, and she spends her daylight hours trying do something, anything, racking her brain, combing the internet, making phone calls, whatever she can do.

In the crucible of excessive caring, a mother can go too far.  My own mother, not so many years ago, stood in front of us in her kitchen, a tiny woman with stooped shoulders and perfect back-combed hair.  She said to my sister and me, "I was so hard on you kids. Too hard, I know.  But you have to understand.  I wanted so badly for you to be good people." Her eyes were blurry.  We are not an emotional family.  We do not cry or hug much.  I wanted to tell her, "I know.  I didn't understand then, but I know now.  I have kids of my own.  It's ok.  I know."  But it seemed kinder to smile and joke a little, to offer some levity, to say, "And look at how great we turned out!" while deftly changing the subject.

My problem is in serving up truth too harshly.  You would think that by now, with the youngest 18, I would have figured out that truth can't be received if you present it badly.  It's like vegetables.  Straight up, they can gag you, but if you get the right cheese sauce and crouton topping, everybody loves them.  One of my children, the one who likes vegetables plain and disdains nutritionally deficient sauces, has inherited my trait of blasting people over the head with truth without regard for their feelings.  "It's the truth after all.  You should be thankful for the truth; you  need to know the truth.  I wouldn't be bothering to tell you the truth if I didn't love you."  This may seem sensible to the speaker of the truth, but the person receiving it is almost always too traumatized to swallow.  I have some of those kinds of kids, too.

Ephesians 4:15 tells us to speak the truth in love.  There is not one, prescripted, correct way to do this. We should make every effort to be gentle and kind (something I cannot claim to have mastered).  Still, sometimes the truth hurts, and there will be no way to avoid pain altogether, but because of love, something must be said.  Sometimes you can be soft, and sometimes you need to be tough.  There is such a thing as tough love.  It all requires so much wisdom, and many of us are out there flailing around, erring on one side or the other. 

My hang up is: what do you do if you speak the truth harshly, and damage your child?  As the mother, the parent, the responsible one, what do you do?  How do you apologize for your delivery without deconstructing the truth along with it?

I remember more than once going to my children and saying, "I am so sorry I lost my temper like that.  I was mean, and scary, and I should not have yelled so angrily.  But I do need you to know that what you did was wrong.  Even though I responded in a bad way, you still need to learn not to do that thing I got so upset about."  I would say this, and they would look at me, and nod with teary eyes, and I never knew if we were getting anywhere at all.  Did they just hear it as "I'm sorry, but...?"  Was it, indeed, a fatal flaw?

The trouble with life is that you don't get a practice run.  You just get plopped down in the middle of reality, and you have to make your best go of it.

That is what makes the grace of God so precious.  Fatal means deathly; a fatal flaw is a flaw that leads to death.  But Jesus came to give us life and grace.  I cannot count the times, as a younger mother, I ran to my bedroom and threw myself face-first on my bed, weeping, asking Jesus to cover over my tragic errors in child rearing with His perfect grace.

"...as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord."  ~Romans 5:21 (ESV)

There is no hamartia where there is hope.  And there is always hope in Jesus.


AmyC65 said...

I battle this a lot, especially with Libby. She pushes my buttons to the point of such frustration sometimes. And when I finally express said frustration, it is in a hurtful or, as she has aged, angering way. As I apologize to her for my outburst, I often walk away thinking the message of HER transgression has gotten entirely buried by MY wrong-doing. Yes, it is so, so hard to be a mom. And yet God is good and fills all the gaps, I pray.

Shawn Carpenter said...

Well and thoughtfully said.