April 1, 2000
 In Praise of
 People Who See
Us Dynamically

They Are God's
Special Agents
    
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My moment of greatest triumph as a young child came at a time when I didn't expect it. Although my expectations for success were low, I succeeded because someone else had high expectations for me.

For some time I had been struggling to ride a two-wheel bike without training wheels with no success. I kept repeating the same ritual--peddling a few yards until the bicycle began to tilt, then putting my foot out to break the fall. My problem wasn't inability but lack of confidence. A two-wheel bike has to be moving at more than a snail's pace to stay upright. But I was frightened to peddle fast enough to give it the thrust it needed, afraid I'd wipe-out severely.

My dad was convinced I could learn to balance and kept reassuring me. His confidence gave me the hope to try and try again. With his help I was able to enjoy the fantasy of conquering the two-wheeler for brief periods of time. Dad would hold onto the seat of my bike and run alongside while I peddled furiously. We'd make good headway for a block or two until he got winded. I was adamant about one thing, though: he wasn't to take his hand off the seat. I kept reminding him again and again.

One day he decided to trust his own judgment. After ambling through several hilly blocks, we came to a level stretch entering a new development next to our neighborhood. I began peddling hard and picked up a head of steam. The momentum felt great and I turned my head to smile at dad. Only then did I realize that he hadn't been holding the bike at all but was standing with arms folded a block back grinning from ear to ear. I had accomplished my first solo bike ride without knowing it!

My victory with the two-wheeler came for a single reason: my father believed in me more than I believed in myself. He kept encouraging me to try, then took his hand off the bike at just the right moment, so I would discover for myself that I could do it. He believed in me to the point that I succeeded.

It was one of those landmark childhood experiences that I now look back upon as a parable to my life, for it reflects a dynamic I've often experienced. At important turning points there have been those who, like my dad with the bike, have seen my potential better than I have. Their confidence, encouragement and wise counsel have inspired me to move ahead. It's humbling to realize how dependent I've been upon their help.

I suspect you will say the same about your own experience. When we think carefully over our life, we usually find the same pattern: God has used people with high expectations of us to prod us forward at many critical times. Their help has been vital whenever we've been able to reach a personal goal or take an important step of growth.

The Substantial Impact of Others' Expectations

How greatly we need the influence of people who see our life dynamically. Like it or not, others' expectations do affect us and affect us dramatically. Countless studies in the social sciences demonstrate the point.

Too often the effect of others' expectations is negative. Others may have no vision for us at all. Or they may form a static impression of us which doesn't change--the familiarity problem that Jesus encountered in his hometown of Nazareth (Mk 6:1-6).

The effect of others' static expectations can be stifling. A friend in her forties told me that her parents still think of her as sixteen years old. "And when I'm with them, that's exactly how I act," she said. The default mode for each of us is to rise or fall to the expectations others have for us. Even Jesus, in taking on our humanness, allowed himself to be influenced by others' expectations. Mark notes bluntly that when Jesus returned to Nazareth after beginning his public ministry, "He could not do any miracles there" (Mk 6:5).

Even when others have high expectations of us, these may be based on their own ideals or ego needs and have nothing to do with our actual potential or God's intentions for our life. How many parents push a child to succeed in some area foreign to the child's aspirations or gifts.

Yet God also brings into our life people with high expectations of us which are based on a realistic understanding of our potential. They resonate with our personal dreams and have the grace and wisdom to help us realize them. These are the blessed souls who see our life dynamically. Such people are incomparable gifts of God to us, peerless friends who help us experience his best.

People who see us dynamically benefit us in three important ways. One is through their optimism. We each are far more suggestible than we normally assume. We're affected greatly by the attitudes of those around us and are especially prone to absorb others' attitudes about us. Yet if pessimism is contagious, optimism is as well. Another's confidence that we can succeed soothes our insecurities and helps us gain the courage we need to take bold steps.

Those who see us dynamically often are also the ones best equipped to help us with their counsel. Because they see our potential better than we do, they may see the steps we should take to realize it more clearly as well. Not all positive thinkers in our lives are wise counselors, to be sure. But those who are able to inspire us by both their optimism and their counsel provide us an immeasurable service.

In addition, those with high expectations of us who are in a position to do so (parents, spouses, coaches, teachers, close friends) often find creative ways to nudge us into taking challenging steps. From the parent who takes his hand off the bike at just the moment we're ready to ride solo, to the high school baseball coach who risks putting us fourth in the batting lineup, to the friend when we're grown who sets us up on a blind date with the one who becomes our spouse--supportive people find inventive ways to help us realize our dreams and provide us with important occasions to rise to.

Facing Our Need for Supportive People

Most of us underestimate, often greatly, our need for supportive people. We may assume that as Christians we should learn to depend solely upon God at all times and never count upon the help of others. The rugged individualism of our American culture, too, drives us to think that we're more mature if we can solve our problems, resolve our decisions and accomplish our dreams with as little help from others as possible.

Scripture does teach that God often helps us directly apart from the assistance of any person. Yet it never encourages us to presume upon this happening. Here God takes us through an interesting odyssey in the Christian life. On the one hand he wants to teach us that he is all-sufficient to meet our needs. From time to time he puts us through experiences to teach us that we can draw our strength from him alone and that we shouldn't lean unfairly on other people. Yet he also wants us to understand that he has made us to be social creatures, and that he frequently uses others as his agents to provide us with encouragement, motivation, direction and support. As soon as we learn the first lesson, it seems, it's time for us to learn the second!

When Moses began leading Israel, he first had to learn the lesson about depending upon God alone. God needed to wean Moses of an unhealthy dependence upon Aaron as his personal spokesman.

But in Exodus 18 we find the situation has changed radically. Moses isn't depending enough upon the help God could provide him through other people. The Israelites are well into their journey through the desert, and Moses is booked to the teeth with responsibility. On a typical day he "took his seat to serve as judge for the people, and they stood around him from morning till evening" (Ex 18:13).

Moses' father-in-law, Jethro, comes to visit him at this time. Shocked at how overextended Moses has become, Jethro admonishes, "What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone" (Ex 18:18). He urges Moses to share his responsibilities with capable leaders from among the people and suggests a process for doing so.

Moses follows Jethro's advice and delegates many tasks. The steps he took to share responsibility probably added years to his life and certainly increased the quality of his life and leadership in many ways.

The passage teaches us two lessons about our need for others' help. One is the importance of letting others share our burdens and drawing on the help others can give us in all areas. The other is our need for the enlightenment God provides through other people. What I find most striking about the incident is this: Moses communicated with God more closely and directly than any other individual in the Old Testament (Ex 33:11, Deut 34:10). God often gave Moses explicit guidance and even revealed to him in exacting detail the directions for building a sanctuary in the desert. Yet God did not give Moses any direct guidance about how to manage his time and priorities or about the need for delegating responsibility. It was left to a trusted friend, Jethro, to offer this critical advice.

We learn that vital insight and inspiration we need to realize our potential may not come directly from God but from supportive, dynamic-thinking people whom he inspires to help us. If we don't open ourselves to their help, we're likely to live beneath our potential and may fail to experience some of the most welcome provision God has for our needs.

Finding People Who See Us Dynamically

Realizing that we benefit from the influence of people who see us dynamically should come as welcome news. It means we each have a means available which can help us better realize our potential and experience God's best. Yet this news may be unsettling as well, especially if we feel that our options for finding these people are not good. Those of us who have grown up in unaffirming families may feel that we're at a particular disadvantage and that we've lost a step in life.

Scripture, though, is full of examples of people from difficult family backgrounds who went on to live rich and fruitful lives. David, one of the most impressive personalities in Scripture, is an inspiring example. His father Jesse thought so little of him that he didn't invite him to the gathering when Samuel came to interview his sons for the position of king (1 Sam 16:1-13). David's oldest brother, Eliab, apparently despised him, for he chided him for thinking he could confront Goliath (1 Sam 17:28), and his other brothers may well have felt the same animosity toward him. Yet God used all this adversity to toughen David up for super-human tasks.

It's clear, too, that David succeeded in overcoming the effect of an unsupportive family background in part because he sought affirming relationships outside of the family. His friendship with Jonathan is a clear case in point.

Our need at every point in life, with every challenge we face, is always to play the hand we're dealt. Where support from people is lacking in our life, God makes make up for the deficit in many ways. Yet each of us does have among our circle of acquaintances and potential contacts far more opportunity for dynamic, supportive relationships than we normally imagine. Fortunately there are many steps we each can take to find these relationships and to benefit from the optimistic expectations of others. Here are some suggestions:

Begin with prayer. Our need for people who see us dynamically is so close to the heart of God's concern for our life that it is clearly an appropriate topic for prayer. Pray regularly that God will bring you into contact with those who believe in you and who inspire you to realize God's best for your life. Mention this concern daily in your devotional time, and from time to time give more extended attention to praying about it.

If your need for affirming relationships is significant, don't hesitate to take an afternoon, a day or longer for a personal retreat to express your need to God. Be sure to thank him for the supportive relationships he has provided you in the past. Ask him, also, to help you understand any changes you can make that will better enable you to find affirming relationships in the future. Then more forward in light of the insights you've gained.

Take inventory of your relationships. Carefully think over your friendships, family contacts and other acquaintances. Is there someone you know who by instinct thinks positively about you, gives you good counsel and inspires you to meet challenges? Is this person open to a closer friendship with you? If so, you may want to give more time to nurturing your friendship with this person and to drawing on his or her strength. As much as possible, give priority in your time with people to those who see you dynamically.

By the same token, if some of your acquaintances are outrightly unaffirming of you and belittle your dreams, avoid contact with them as much as possible. Take control of the time you spend with people, and maximize the time spent with those who encourage you.

Teachers and coaches. I'm often fascinated at the bond that can develop between us and a teacher or coach, especially when we're being trained in a talent we're eager to develop. I've seen so many cases where a teacher has seen a student's potential far better than the student has, and by optimism and skillful instruction has inspired the student to heights he or she never thought possible. Often the side-effect of this process is that the student also gains greater optimism about life.

A dynamic bond can sometimes develop in a short period with a teacher we've never previously met. It happened the first night for my son Ben in sixth grade with a most unlikely candidate--a 74-year-old partially hearing-impaired drum teacher with several disabled, arthritic fingers. On Thursday nights for the next five years Johnny Smith, a retired Washington jazz drummer worked magic with Ben. In a cramped, make-shift studio in the basement of his tiny home, Smith taught with the aid of only several inexpensive drum pads, a few home-made wooden cymbals and an ancient hi-fi system with distorted speakers. He not only taught Ben many invaluable techniques but, most important, constantly assured him with confidence that he could master the drums and praised each small step forward. The impact of Smith's approach was such that Ben had developed a nearly professional level of skill in drumming by the time he reached high school, and is now majoring in music in college.

The magic, though, can occur for us at any age. At age 63 my mom took a course in painting at a local women's club. Her teacher recognized a latent talent in her and encouraged her to take painting seriously. For many years she studied under this gifted instructor, who inspired her on with his confidence. In time she won a number of awards in women's club competitions for landscape painting. Yet she had never painted artistically at all before taking this course.

I don't mean to imply that anyone can count on becoming the next Buddy Rich or Grandma Moses just by sitting under the right teacher. Each of us, though, do have areas where we are far more capable of blossoming under a qualified teacher than we typically think. If you have a skill you're eager to develop, pray earnestly, ask around, and see if you can find a gifted teacher who will work with you. Then take the risk--sign up with him or her for a course or private lessons. Give the teaching process a fair chance and see how it goes. In some cases the impact of an inspired teacher on us can be thoroughly life-changing.

The healing help of counselors. Professional counselors, by their training and often by their temperament, are focused toward seeing people dynamically. Counselors can help us in a variety of ways, from clarifying our thinking in decisions, to helping us gain better communication skills, to helping us work through deep-rooted emotional conflicts. Fortunately, there is far less stigma attached to getting counseling today than was true even a short time ago. Time and again I've observed that the right counselor has done someone a world of good.

In most metropolitan areas, too, there are now many qualified Christian counselors, some on church staffs, who give you helpful guidance in your area of need and with respect for your values and commitment to Christ.

If you are experiencing a conflict which would benefit from counseling, don't hesitate to seek professional help. Counselors do differ greatly in their approaches and personalities, and you may find more rapport with one than another. Feel free to interview several in your effort to find the one who is right for you. But realize that the counseling process can provide you an exceptional opportunity to experience the redemptive effect of someone seeing your life dynamically. If you have the need, take advantage of counseling help available in your area and enjoy the benefits!

The benefits of an active social life. Any steps we take to become involved in social activities--from taking a course at a local college, to joining an athletic, musical or dramatics team, to volunteering to help with a community organization or mission--increase our chance of meeting affirming people. There are vast differences between social settings--in the supportive spirit present, the chemistry we experience with the people in them and the likelihood of forging friendships. It can take some research and experimenting to find the situations that work best for us.

It can happen, too, that we become stigmatized unfairly in any group of people or discover that the group is by nature unsupportive. We may be surprised, though, to find a radical difference in how people treat us in another group--even one of the same type in the same community. The experience of changing groups can be as extreme as moving from one country to another.

I offer suggestions for finding social opportunities and awakening our social life in Overcoming Shyness (chapters 9-12). As a rule, the more active we are socially, the greater our prospects for meeting supportive people and forming affirming relationships.

The golden opportunities within Christian fellowship. Some of the most affirming people on this planet are Christians who have been deeply touched by the grace of God. Compassionate Christians with a dynamic, grace-centered perspective on the Christian life are often extraordinary encouragers. I visit few churches and fellowship groups where I don't encounter at least some of these notable people. And some Christian communities, because of the focus of their teaching and ministry, tend especially to attract them.

Our primary motive for joining a church or Christian group, to be sure, should be to grow in Christ. Yet it is also important to be looking to the Christian community as a source for supportive relationships. I don't mean to overlook the complexity often involved in deciding which church or fellowship group to attend, and when it might be right to leave one for another; I look at some of the issues involved in these choices in The Yes Anxiety (chapter 13). But the good news is that most of us have many excellent options for Christian fellowship available within the region where we live. Often these include many opportunities we haven't yet discovered. Over time we will likely find that the Christian community provides us with the best setting for forming significant relationships with people who see us dynamically.

See others dynamically. Finally, in looking for supportive relationships, it's hard to overstress the importance of "doing unto others." If we're eager to find those who are affirming and forward-looking with us, one of the most important steps we can take is to act this way toward other people. Encouragers attract encouragers. Fortunately, there is much we can do to improve our social skills and sharpen our ability to see others dynamically.

One of the most endearing qualities of Jesus during his earthly ministry was his uncanny ability to see people dynamically. Consider his remarkable encounter with the woman at the well in Samaria (John 4). He was able to see beyond her erratic past and recognize her possibilities for the future. The impact of a few minutes interacting with Jesus was so profound for her that she went on to become the most effective witness in the Gospels, drawing hoards of Samaritans into contact with Jesus.

May his example inspire us, as we seek to encourage others in the way we want to be encouraged ourselves. And as we look for supportive relationships, may we take heart that in this area, as in all others, his hand in our life is not shortened.
   

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