Back Into the World

"Can I ask you a question?"

"Of course."

She stood perfectly still, her pale skin smooth except around her eyes, where she squinted up at the ceiling for a moment. "What motivates you?"

"Whoo!" I blew through pursed lips, laughed nervously, buying some time. "Like . . . in general?"


"When I'm dealing with my anxiety disorder? Or just all the time?"

Her hands found each other, fiddled for a moment. "It's just that you seem so . . . enthusiastic. All the time. How do you get out of bed every morning? What makes you do it?"

I looked at her and saw myself, the day she was born. The same curiosity tempered by a desire to fit in. The same searching look that scared away most of the boys I liked. The same deep-seated, unfounded fears. It wasn't so long ago.

"I love literature," I said. "I didn't study it much in college, but I've always loved to read, and I genuinely enjoy that part of my job -- talking about stories, getting into the hows and whys. And I think enthusiasm is contagious, so I try to be enthusiastic for my students because it makes learning more fun for them. Beyond that --"

I paused. Suddenly there was nothing to say, and way too much, all at once.

"I know I'm not the best teacher. But I think God has given me some gifts, and I want to use them as best I can. My vocation is to be a teacher and wife, just like yours is to be a student and daughter. Have you ever read Tolstoy?"

She shook her head.

"He has this great story called 'Three Questions.' This king spends his whole life looking for the answers to three questions: What is the most important thing? What is the most important person? What is the most important time?"

She nodded. She was listening.

"In the end, he finds out that it's all based on the present. The most important person is whomever God has placed in front of you, and the most important  thing is to do good for that person. And the most important time -- really, the only time -- is now. Do the best you can with now. If now is your brother sitting next to you in the back seat and he's driving you crazy --" 

Here she smiled. "I know," I said. "Your brother is only a baby."

"No, I have another one," she said. "In middle school."

"Okay, then. That brother in the car -- at that moment, God is calling you to be kind to him, to love him. That's your job. It's actually very simple. But we don't think about it that way often enough."

She nodded again. I realized how still she was, her hands at her sides, her face a little puffy with fatigue. I hoped I wasn't boring her. 

"You know," I said, extending my arms to encompass the desks, posters, walls, building, "All this is nothing. In the end, you won't remember any of it. Even your grades -- I know they are SO IMPORTANT to you right now -- you won't even remember what they were. But you will remember whether people treated you with kindness. And they will remember that about you. We just have to trust God that the hard stuff is there for a reason. Who knows: maybe the reason I struggled with anxiety for so many years was just so I could be here now, with you, to let you know it will get better and you will be a stronger person for it. Don't worry about the future: just trust God that whatever you have to do today is the exact right thing for you to do today. And that today is the only time to do it."

She was quiet, thinking. "How's that for a long answer?" I laughed. "Serves you right for asking an English teacher."

"Thank you," she said. "That helps."

"I'm glad." I gave her a hug -- and sent her back into the world.