Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Not Minding Our Manners

A few months ago I took my younger three children out to eat at a sandwich shop where the highlight of the dining experience is getting free ice cream. Wedged between Mary Ashley and Emma on our bench seat, I could not easily slip out of the booth, so I asked 7-year-old Christian if he would like to get ice cream for everyone. "It will be like we are customers at Christian's Scoops," I encouraged.

Christian's face brightened at the suggestion, and he hopped up to take our orders.

"I want swirl in a cone," 5-year-old Mary Ashley said.

"I would like swirl in a cup, please," I added.

"Squirrel in a cone for me!" 3-year-old Emma called.

"OK," Christian said, "That will be two swirls in a cone and one swirl in a cup." He turned on his heel to head to the ice cream machine.

I watched in amusement as he fulfilled his duties -- eyes sparkling as he waited in line for his turn; brow furrowed as he strained to reach the tower of ice cream cones; and lips curving into a contented smile as he filled the cone in each hand with ice cream. He hummed softly as he bounded back to the table.

"Thank you, Christian," Emma and I offered as Christian extended his hands to the girls. But Mary Ashley's face clouded when Christian placed her cone on the table in front of her.

As Christian headed back to the machine to get my ice cream, Mary Ashley whined, "Mine doesn't have enough!" Discontent seemed to bubble up through her little body -- starting in her feet and working its way up to her eyes, where hot tears threatened to spill over.

Afraid she would hurt her brother's feelings, I put a hand on Mary Ashley's legs, now kicking the air as she continued to whine. "You have plenty," I shushed. "Christian was being very sweet to get you ice cream, and you need to tell him thank you." As she shook her head no, I scolded under my breath, "If you cannot act nice about it, you won't have any ice cream at all."

When Christian returned to the table, my cup and his cone in hand, he took a seat in the booth across from us girls. As he t00k his first bite, Mary Ashley slid out of the booth and sidled up to him. "I need more ice cream," she nagged. "I don't have enough." On and on she complained, until ultimately she lost the privilege of eating her ice cream at all.

Later that night when I went to bed, I thought about the events in the restaurant. In the moment, I had been most concerned about Mary Ashley's poor behavior. Had she asked nicely for a little more ice cream when she saw her cone, I probably would have consented. But her temper tantrum dissolved any chance of getting what she wanted.

As I replayed the scene in my mind, however, it was as if the camera panned from Mary Ashley to Christian. And I realized that Christian's attitude was not affected in the least by his sister's actions. As Mary Ashley kicked her feet, whimpered and cajoled, he remained calm -- even offering to get her more ice cream. He didn't lash out or act defensive. In fact, Christian's expression never even flashed a moment of disapproval.

Thinking of Christian's good-natured handling of his sister's tantrum, I couldn't help but think of 1 Corinthians 13:4-8:

Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things; Love never fails.

Too often when wronged, we feel like we are being long-suffering and patient simply because we have not unleashed the full force of our anger on someone who has wronged us. Like Auntie Em in The Wizard of Oz, who felt righteous in telling Miss Gulch, "For 23 years I have been dying to tell you what I thought of you! And now ... well, being a Christian woman, I can't say it!" But we are not really being the bigger person in an encounter when our actions make the other person feel small.

So that night as my head hit the pillow, two ideas drifted through my mind. First, chivalry is important. Thoughtful actions and polite speech promote harmony and make us amiable companions. But second, true love is gracious in overlooking the missteps of others.

As a mother, I continually remind my children to say "yes ma'am" and "no ma'am," "please" and "thank you" because I want them to grow into polite members of society. But I am thankful that sometimes they remind me that on the worst days when we don't mind our manners, it's a blessing to have people in our lives who are merciful in not minding our manners either.

And that gift of unconditional love beats a free ice cream cone any day.

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