Recently, while perusing magazines in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, I discovered an interesting little sidebar on dandelions, in which their nutritional qualities, and their almost-unbelievably long roots, were discussed. At an amazing ten to fifteen feet, it’s little wonder that attempts to rid the lawn and garden of these tenacious plants prove so ineffective!
Roots lie at the heart of all plant life, holding within them the power of life and death. The same tributaries that carry water and minerals can just as easily transport deadly chemicals.
In his second message from the book of Esther, Steve Carter reminds us of the significance of the “thing beneath the thing” and of the stories we tell ourselves when our roots become wrongly attached—when they become conduits for toxin, rather than sustenance. Whether examining the wounded pride that drove Haman to seek the annihilation of an entire people group, the sleep deprivation that leaves a little one inconsolable, or the irritation that signals my need for solitude, getting to the root of the matter is inherent to knowing ourselves and being in right relationship with God.
Understanding “the thing that lies beneath the thing” enables us to offer and accept grace.
I teach these concepts to my fifth graders. Using the analogy of an iceberg, we talk about the clues we pick up from each other—smiles and frowns, the sharp retort, annoying habits, the attention-seeking behaviors that drive us crazy. These are the tips of our icebergs, fortresses we hide behind to convince others that we’re in control, that we’re okay. Even when we’re not. But buried beneath our strongholds is a literal mountain of ice. Loneliness, worry, fear, insecurity, and loss.
There is always a reason for the way we act and react. Always a reason behind the primary emotions we display. “If a friend knows you’re feeling bad about yourself,” I tell my students, “because you missed a basket at recess or are having trouble with long division, he won’t be as quick to get his feelings hurt when you don’t want to be his partner in Science.”
This kind of knowledge fuels grace.
We talk about these things on a weekly basis during class meetings. And as each month transpires, I watch the children grow in grace and empathy. But still, it hasn’t been an easy year. Among my nearly 30 charges, about half have some sort of social/emotional challenge. Debilitating anxiety, impulsivity, and obsessive-compulsive tendencies keep us in a constant state of agitation and need. In addition to these is a young lady who wants only to be seen and heard by her parents, who is worn down with the needs of younger siblings, who cries easily and has trouble completing assignments. There is a truly gifted child who battles the pull of perfection, who wants to be normal but fears disappointing. Another who’s suffered the loss of a beloved grandparent, and one whose mother’s second marriage is crumbling. There is a child whose Dad has been caught in a coma since Christmas, and a young man whose father inflicts a kind of harm that leaves no marks. And a deeply troubled soul who simmers with rage. Whose explosions keep the climate in our room charged and the rest of us wary. Slammed desks, overturned chairs, ripped notebooks, crumbled papers, and hateful words that he hurls at himself. “WHAT’S THE FRIGGING POINT?! WHAT’S THE POINT?! I’LL NEVER BE ANY GOOD AT THIS!!”
We are all worn thin. “The thing beneath the thing” is a story I tell myself on the dark days. One in which I am never enough. Not for these children in my class, not for my own offspring. The philosophy statement I scrawled on a notecard nearly two decades ago mocks me. My efforts haven’t made one shred of difference. I’d so prided myself on being a teacher who connected with her students, who was patient, kind, and capable. Who’d create a culture of safety in which all could thrive. But this year, I’m up against more than challenging students. This year, the wall I’ve hit is me. The peace I long to bring remains elusive. There are not enough words in the world to take away the harm others have done to this deeply troubled child. To give him glimpses of hope. This year, I will not be anyone’s hero. And deep inside, I desperately want to be, I need. To be. A hero.
I try. Harder and harder. Extra meetings and daily data collection; collaboration and changing tactics; celebrating small victories and daring to hope; agonizing, sleepless nights spent in prayer. But the seeds I’ve sown seem to lie on hardpacked ground. The harvest I’d imagined promises little yield. The passion I’d managed up until Christmas has leaked out, leaving me weary with disappointment. “The thing that is beneath the thing” is an exhaustion that daily dogs me. I am irritable, impatient, and unsure, separate and alone.
The words of my student’s rant echo in the caverns of my own soul: “What’s the point?! I’ll never be any good at this!!”
This thing that I’ve attached to, this story I tell myself hundreds of times each day, is that it’s entirely up to me, that I alone am responsible, that I must fix things, that if all doesn’t end well, it’s because I’m a failure. Each lie I draw into my soul leaves me a little more wilted, withered, and dry.
“When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you.” The Psalmist’s lament echoes in my soul. The poison of impotence and need. The stories we tell ourselves. “The thing beneath the thing.” Yet, even as Asaph raged, he became aware of his need to detach from the toxin of bitterness and disappointment in order to reattach to truth. A few verses later, we see the shift. “Yet, I am always with you;” he acknowledges. “You hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel… whom have I in heaven but you? And being with you, I desire nothing on earth.” Psalm 73:21–25
Whom have I in heaven but you? This truth, if I allow it to course through my roots, will feed and sustain me. My Heavenly Father holds me fast. Fruit and Harvest are His. In due season.
The prophet Jeremiah, a man called to speak judgement on a people who had rejected God, knew the strength of truth in the worst of circumstances.
“Blessed is the [one] who trusts in the Lord,” he wrote, “whose confidence is in Him. He will be like a tree planted by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.” Jeremiah 17:7,8
Drought and fruit. Seasons when we find ourselves attached to sources of death rather than life. Even then, even there, He is our stream, watering what we can’t. His grace, like a length of dandelion root, plunges deep, tenacious, and strong, bringing forth fruit.