"My parents were terrible people and I learned everything from them. I learned what not to be."
I heard this quote from an elderly gentlemen years ago and have never forgotten it. For the first time I realized that I had been dividing the world into good influences and bad; then doing my best to overcome the bad. When I heard these words my entire outlook changed. The number of teachers in my life grew enormously in a matter of seconds. Everyone is now my teacher. If there is great value in being taught how to do things right, there is as much value in learning how to avoid doing them wrong.
There was a time in this country when pioneers loaded their families into wagons and headed away from all influence except those that lived under the same roof. They considered themselves able to build a life out of the prairie and children could find all they needed in their parents. Everything from schoolwork to baking a pie to building a home out of nothing was the responsibility of a mother and father. Everything one needed to know was there at the dinner table.
In a little over one hundred years we have learned another lesson. If someone does wrong to me or in my presence, I am exempt from that particular issue as well as any I can attach to it. Bad parenting means I can be selfish, foolish or cruel. Bad marriages mean we can be spiteful. Bad bosses mean we can...walk into a building and shoot as many people as we can find before being shot ourselves. Anywhere that terrible people populate our worlds we become mercenaries whose only responsibility now is to survive by any means possible.
I believe with all of my heart that we are a poor reflection of the people who came before us. In my lifetime, even in Christian homes, the standard has changed. I was raised on if it is wrong, you will not do it. Now there are a million reasons you can do things that used to be wrong. Someone hurting or disappointing us means our rules change.
I am so thankful for this man who taught me that simple lesson in an off-handed comment during a long conversation. "I learned what not to be." My lessons are learned, for the most part, much more quickly now. Instead of turning my eyes away from the bad lessons or using them as an excuse why I cannot be held to account, I look closely. I study the people who not only make vicious decisions with intent to hurt others but those who through their own humanity stumble as do we all. I watch the wives who have beautiful marriages as well as the ones whose marriages have ended badly. Both offer me a great gift. Not just the ones who have affairs can teach me but the ones who maybe just took things for granted. I do not judge but I do pay attention.
I notice the parents and the adult children in families and try to find the secret path around their struggles. I study the employees and the bosses and ask God to help me find the nuances.
The days of pioneer families taking responsibility to live before God, their families and their community with honor and courage is gone. But there are no fewer teachers to be found.
We all represent an opportunity to one another...my prayer is that I will not be one of whom it is said, "She taught me what not to be."