A few years ago I had one goal for the upcoming year in Djibouti and it was, at first glance, a simple goal.
I aimed to not be mean.
Put positively, I aimed to be nice. Kind. Sweet. Like I said, not mean.
At that point, I had lived for nine years in the Horn of Africa. Nine years away from my native country, my extended family, and language fluency. Nine years of navigating confusing cultural cues and getting things wrong way too often. Nine years in one of the hottest inhabited countries on the planet. And I got tired. I got crabby. I grew quick to judge, and I grew mean.
I would pull up beside a busload of school children and glare straight ahead, feeling anger rise in my chest without any instigation. I refused to acknowledge people I jogged past, no matter if they were smiling or swearing at me, I was only aware of the swearing. I wouldn’t even look up in response to the rapping of a beggar’s fingers on my window and once took a full 30 seconds to realize it was my friend.
I was a mean, impatient, judgmental person, and I blamed it on Djibouti. This country made me that way, I would tell myself. It made me angry because sometimes when I drove beside a school bus, kids spit out the window on my car. Or when I followed a truck, the men in back might drop their pants at me. Djibouti made me angry because its teenagers called me a whore and threw rocks and because once a man shouted at me from a bus, “That’s the one I will kill!” He didn’t know I understood Somali.
The thing is, I’d started to act like these actions were universal, that everyone was threatening me, stoning me, sexually harassing me. I could only see the negative and I let these negative experiences burrow their way into my skin.
This left no space to fully appreciate the kindness of the men who cheered for me when I ran. The lab tech who went out of his way to get me the first-ever cancer test of its kind in the country so I wouldn’t have to travel abroad (and then served me tea in the laboratory). The running coach who defended me against those throwing rocks. The people who loved my children so well.
Unfortunately, I allowed those nine years to wear me down and strip me of all pretense that I was a good person. The ugliness, anger, impatience, bitterness, cuss words, selfishness, and ego had nowhere to hide.
After a summer back in Minnesota, I determined to live differently when we returned to Djibouti in September. To not be so angry, to be nice.
Then I read this:
“What does Jesus want from us? What can we offer him? He has no illusions; he doesn’t sentimentally wish we were a bit nicer.” Elyse M. Fitzpatrick, Comforts from the Cross
I was going about this living-without-anger thing all wrong.
Being nicer is about conjuring some kind of willpower, about summoning up the gumption to stuff my pride and still my middle finger. While it is commendable to be a nice person, rather than say, a person who trips toddlers or throws darts at pregnant women, it can also be godless. It is about me and my ability to control my temper and to smile easily. It ignores grace.
I don’t want to just be nice.
I want to be overwhelmed by grace.
Grace that says about me—who has shouted at my children and hidden the last American candy (for myself, for later) and disrespected my husband and thrown rocks at kids—grace that says about this very me, “Father, forgive them.” Grace that says to a criminal hanging by his nail-pierced arms and fighting for every breath, who can do nothing nice, nothing to earn favor, who has spent a lifetime rejecting grace, grace that says to this very criminal, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
I want to be so overwhelmed by grace that the way I love people changes, the way I interact with people who feel like my enemies changes. I want to live so overwhelmed by the grace toward me that I am overwhelmed by the grace toward you, overwhelmed by the grace toward my enemy. The rage never rises, the rock never leaves my hand. Instead I smile, ask the beggar her name, give away the last piece of candy. And I feel a little nicer. But not because of me and my self-control.
Because of Grace.