The Presence of Greatness

21 03 2011

The first time I saw him he was walking on a treadmill. A blond starlet dressed like an old-west prostitute posed seductively in a country music video on the television screen suspended in front of him. But he wasn’t watching the video. He was looking around at whomever or whatever, not furtively, but with blatant curiosity.

When our eyes met, I understood.

Some might call the expression vacant. As the mother of a brain-injured son, I saw it more as open. Unmasked. He had dark eyes, and black hair curled around his ears, and I guessed he was probably somewhere between eighteen and twenty. A slender, silver-haired woman walked beside him. His mother.

The world has labels for people like him. Damaged. Deficient. Broken. Unproductive. More than anything I was struck with the stark contrast between his unaffected expression and the video starlet’s heavily painted facade, and I wondered with more than a hint of irony how many people in that gym would laugh at the notion that his contribution to society might be more valuable than hers.

The encounter touched a deep, knowing place inside me, but it was a seeing and moving along. I soon forgot.

That was several months ago, and I hadn’t encountered the pair again until last Friday, when I spotted them in an area off to the side used for free weights and upper body machines. There were plenty of other things going on. In addition to the general hustle and bustle of the gym, heart-breaking scenes from Japan filled a television screen nearby, and another a few feet away aired clips of a defiant Gadhafi, and on yet another some poor guy rushed through his busy day carrying around a beaker full of green liquid that I’m pretty sure represented the acid in his stomach, but my attention kept returning to mother and son. I didn’t mean to stare, but the more I watched them, the more everything else faded into the background. World events, whirring machines, even my own physical exertion. Soon I was completely enthralled with the interaction of the two.

The mother’s long thick hair was swept back and twisted up, the ends forming a silver firework atop her head, like a diadem. Her exercise clothes revealed a lean, toned frame, not beefy but gracefully athletic. As I watched her work with her son, I wondered if her motives for staying fit are as mixed as mine. For me, having a forever child — one with a permanently broken wing who will never fly the nest — compels me to remain strong and healthy as long as possible. There’s also the biblical mandate for stewardship of the physical body. Then there’s the addictive, endorphin-induced stress relief, the increased energy and sense of well being, a myriad of reasons (including simple vanity) I want to look attractive, and mixed in with all that, I suspect there’s a grasping for control, or at least the illusion of having some.

I know nothing about the other mother’s situation, but whatever her motives are, it didn’t take long to see in her a beauty that goes much deeper than a sculpted figure. A love story played out before me, and I had front row seats.

I watched as she helped her son lie down on a bench, placed two eight-pound weights in his hands, then lay on the bench next to his with her own hand weights. They turned their heads to look at each other, which gave me a clear view of his face. I’m sure she was speaking, but I doubted I would have been able to eavesdrop even if I’d been much closer. I imagined her voice as soft, calm, soothing. She seemed the embodiment of quiet strength, peaceful authority, and regal grace. I was captivated by her, and her son appeared to be as well. He never took his eyes off of her face as they raised and lowered their weights, side-by-side, him mirroring her movements, his expression a picture of cooperative concentration.

When they finished that exercise, she helped him sit up and carried their weights back to the rack — all her movements fluid elegance, purposeful and unhurried, as though completing this work out were the only event on her agenda and she savored the sweetness of each moment with her son. When she stepped away from him for any reason, he remained in his place, quiet and still, patience personified. Even a casual observer could see there was a lifetime of knowing between them. He had no reason to doubt her return, so he waited, fully present in his waiting.

And again, I understood.

People who’ve read our story often ask me what Jacob is like today — if he grieves what he’s lost or has goals for the future. For a long time I wasn’t sure how to answer. I’d tell them that nothing seems to upset him for long, and his default setting is happy, but — other than the mercy of God — I wasn’t sure why. Then one day when I was trying to explain Jacob to yet another person who’d asked, it all suddenly made sense. Jacob is content because he’s fully present in whatever moment he’s living. He doesn’t mourn or regret the past, and he doesn’t anticipate the future. He lives in the now with pure, childlike faith. I have no idea if the young man in the gym was born with his “deficiency” or if it was a gift of God’s severe mercy like Jacob’s, but I saw in him the same restful, trusting contentment. And, perhaps even more stunning, I saw this contentment in his mother as well.

What happened next made me catch my breath. The young man sat on a weight bench, staring out at the central part of the gym. As his mother walked past to adjust a machine behind him, neither turned to look at the other, but she placed a hand on his shoulder in a gesture that was like a benediction — intimate and so full of grace and tenderness, I almost felt I should avert my eyes. But I couldn’t. I was mesmerized. Awed by beauty. And deeply convicted.

I’m ashamed to admit how often I get frustrated with Jacob’s pace or resentful of the impact his limitations place on our choices. Everything about this woman’s body language and behavior communicated not only peaceful acceptance but love, joy, and genuine gratitude. And her son responded. When she spoke, he listened and obeyed. When she placed her hands over his and guided him through the use of a weight machine, he submitted without resistance, his trusting eyes fixed on her face.

The whole scene was so beautiful, so stunning and other-worldly, I lost track of time and everything else, and when I pulled myself back to my own reality, my heart was full to brimming. A multitude of emotions swirled inside me — admiration, gratitude, inspiration, awe — but there was one feeling conspicuous in its utter absence.

Pity.

Talking heads and defiant dictators still paraded across TV screens, and starlets still sold their souls for digital glory. I glanced around at harried people, squeezing in a slapdash work out before rushing off to the next pressing thing, and I wondered if anyone else in that room knew they were in the presence of true greatness.

What the world calls damaged, deficient, broken, Jesus names beloved, beautiful, redeemed. What the world would throw away as useless, He honors and exalts, making the least into teachers of compassion, possessors of radiant faith, living parables of His truth. What the world considers great, isn’t. Not in the eternal scheme of things.

Become as a child. That’s what Jesus said. Do as I have done to you. Wash one another’s feet.

I shudder to think how often I miss God’s gifts — so busy am I scrambling for significance, laboring to make myself feel good about myself. But God still gives and gives, and when I’m present in the moments of my life, I see.

I watched a mother with a silver crown serve her prince of a son, and I heard a Voice whisper.

“Well done.”

Giving thanks in community:

#50 For love stories lived and glimpsed
#51 For the least of these and what they teach
#52 For the playful way Jacob placed two (and only two) oyster crackers side by side in his soup
#53 For YouTube videos of the Sparrow and the joy-full ache she makes in my heart
#54 For Sarah’s good doctor’s report
#55 For Naomi’s prenatal frolic and the wild delight of awaiting her arrival
#56 For Ebenezers of God’s grace to look back upon and be strengthened by

To join the chorus of thanksgiving, visit Ann Voskamp’s site.

Here are a couple more favorite places sharing Monday graces. Check them out, too:

L.L. Barkat’s On, In, and Around Mondays

On In Around button

And Laura Boggess’ Playdates with God

 


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66 responses

21 03 2011
Glynn

There is also greatness in the observer – who knew better than anyone else could know.

21 03 2011
jeannedamoff

You are kind, Glynn. Thank you for grace.

21 03 2011
Robin ~ PENSIEVE

Oh, Jeanne…it’s been too long since I’ve read your gorgeous words. This…THIS is a glimpse of greatness, the retelling of same.

Bravo.

Writing like this makes me wanna write better. Thank you.

21 03 2011
jeannedamoff

Dear Robin, what a delight you are. Thank you for your sweet, generous comment. I hope this means you’ll come back often, because it’s always such a pleasure.

Love, Jeanne

21 03 2011
Patricia (Pollywog Creek)

Stunningly beautiful story, Jeanne. And told as only one who knows intimately can.

I have not seen the phrase “severe mercy” in quite a while. Have you read Sheldon Vanauken’s “A Severe Mercy”?

Much love,
Patricia

21 03 2011
jeannedamoff

Thank you, Patricia. Yes, George and I read A Severe Mercy more than twenty years ago. Beautiful story, beautifully written. I should read it again.

Much love to you, too. xo

21 03 2011
Nicole

The true greatness is captured here by the spirit of true greatness and pure honesty, Jeanne. Beautiful, lovely, truth.

21 03 2011
jeannedamoff

You’re way too kind, Nicole. Thanks so much for your sweet words and friendship.

21 03 2011
Mary DeMuth

Wow.

Thank you.

21 03 2011
jeannedamoff

You’re welcome, Mary. Love you.

21 03 2011
Jennifer@GDWJ

Gorgeous — this living-in-the-moment and your retelling of it.

Thank you for this gift of words, Jeanne.

21 03 2011
jeannedamoff

Thank you, Jennifer. And you’re welcome, with all my heart. xo

21 03 2011
laura

Jeanne.

Thank you for linking up with me today. Indeed, you ushered me into the presence of our Lord with these words. I am wondering…If I were to secretly observe a shared moment between you and Jacob, what would I see? I think I would probably see–more often than not–moments similar to the one you observed between this precious mother and son. I heard (read) someone (Deb) say (write) not too long ago that you seem to be awful hard on yourself. Maybe all mothers are, but I imagine especially those mothers who have special needs to consider. I imagine love covers all on most days. But why does it seem to be the days when we let frustration have a foot hold that we tend to identify ourselves with? You are an amazing woman and an even more amazing mother.

Just here to say this today. Love to you, dear.

21 03 2011
jeannedamoff

“I heard (read) someone (Deb) say (write) not too long ago that you seem to be awful hard on yourself.”

Ha! Okay, that made me smile. Love her, and love you — both such gentle grace givers. And it’s probably true (at least in part) that I am hard on myself. Sometimes. But I also make excuses for myself to myself a lot, and myself is unfortunately more than happy to accept them.

I also realize that I don’t have a front-row seat to this other mother’s struggles with self. I know only a glimpse of her story. I hope (as you suggest) that were I secretly observed as she was, the good fruit — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc. — would be more evident than some of these crookedy branches that still need pruning.

I truly do appreciate your encouragement, and I receive it, knowing the one who gives it is sincere. I also receive the conviction God sends to save me from myself. Both are grace. Both refresh. Isn’t it a wonder?

Love to you, too, lovely Laura. Much love.

21 03 2011
kingfisher

Thank you for describing what you saw and felt. You are in a position to identify with others who have experienced what, to most of us onlookers, would be more a tragedy or a pity. It touched me, though my situation is far different (and I can’t even imagine what it must be like to have a mother-son relationship like yours), to read your honest feelings and tenderness. Perhaps your words spur me on to a greater thoughtfulness about how I look at other people, how I can enter into their picture enough to feel, or even show, deeper compassion. To see “greatness” in a different aspect.

21 03 2011
jeannedamoff

Thank you so much for this comment, kingfisher. If my words spur you to greater thoughtfulness and deeper compassion, I will consider that one of the highest honors my writing could accomplish.

Grace to you.
Jeanne

22 03 2011
katdish

What a gift to be witness to such a beautiful dance. Thanks for reminding me that these gifts abound, if we take the time to look for them.

22 03 2011
jeannedamoff

You’re welcome, my dear. And, yes, it felt just like witnessing a dance — graceful, subtle, sublime. The gifts abound, and life is a treasure hunt. How is it we ever complain? xo

23 03 2011
Daniel Farrow

I think it might be because we are human and the Lord loves us anyways. Thank God for His merciful love to us.

22 03 2011
DS

How beautiful.

I believe God wanted you there to witness that moment.

I believe it with my whole heart.

-DS

P.S. I’ve “starred” this post and it will be featured on my site on Saturday. Thanks!

22 03 2011
jeannedamoff

Thanks, Duane. I believe that, too. And thanks for the “star.” Reminds me of childhood. I don’t think I’ll ever outgrow the joy of a gold star. 🙂

22 03 2011
craig

Jeanne, it is art – the way you wrote this picture – art – and it reveals that there is nothing like a mom – but the mom of a special needs child – that is the most golden of all I think

And – #50 For love stories lived and glimpsed – that was the thank you on your list I most liked because – see above 🙂

God Bless and Keep you and all of yours.

22 03 2011
jeannedamoff

Thanks, Craig. Your comments are always so thoughtful. I appreciate you!

22 03 2011
Cora

You have taken me to a place I have never been, and I will never forget being here. I have seen through your eyes how Jesus loves, and I can only pray that I will always be willing to see and you saw on this day. All I can say is thank you. Thank you for sharing your heart, and thank you for walking faithfully on the path that God set before you. You have touched lives today, I know. I go away forever changed and blessed beyond measure!

22 03 2011
jeannedamoff

And I thank you, Cora. If this gift — this glimpse God so gently and generously gave to me — has become a gift to you as well, then it has much more than doubled.

22 03 2011
karenzach

so, so moving, j. and a powerful reminder that there are other dimensions to this journey we call life. layers that we can’t see because we are rushing through them.

22 03 2011
jeannedamoff

Thank you, Karen. I’m trying to slow down and learn rest, because I really do want to see. Love to you.

22 03 2011
Cherry

Visiting from A Holy Experience … I was very touched by your words. Thank you for sharing these thoughts … so much truth here.

22 03 2011
jeannedamoff

You’re welcome, Cherry. I’m so glad you stopped by and honored my words touched you. Thanks for your sweet comment.

23 03 2011
Jenny

Oh this is beautiful. My first visit and I am intrduced to two amazing women and their precious sons. Thank you for reminding me to continually practice the presence of the God; to show me what this looks like on the outside, to an observer.

23 03 2011
jeannedamoff

Thank you, Jenny. And welcome. It was a good reminder to me, too, that I never know when people are watching or the perspective their own stories will bring to the way they see mine. The thought can be a bit daunting, but like you said, simple freedom comes in practicing His presence. I’m so thankful for the reminder.

23 03 2011
Simple Joys | Power Of A Moment

[…] such a beautifully written  blog post that it moved me to […]

23 03 2011
suzy

I believe this is one of the most breathtaking pieces of writing I’ve read.
I am deeply touched.
God Bless
suzy (visiting from Holy Experience)

23 03 2011
jeannedamoff

What an honor, your words! Thank you, Suzy. I’m delighted you stopped by and took the time to comment. Blessings!

23 03 2011
Lee Ann L.

I came by the way of links on “A Holy Experience”. This touched me to the depths of my heart and I thank you for writing.

23 03 2011
jeannedamoff

Ann is such a treasure, I’m humbled by her kindness in linking here. Thank you, Lee Ann, for stopping by and lingering to comment. Warmest welcome any time.

23 03 2011
Daniel Farrow

Jeanne,

Thank you so much for writing in such honesty from the position of observer. I don’t often think of how much God wants to express His greatness in me through my writing, but, when I read such anointed observations, I get inspired to lift my eyes higher to God and ask Him how He wants to show His greatness in and through my writing. Thank you again for being used of God to show me that glimpse of greatness again.

In Christ’s Love

23 03 2011
jeannedamoff

I’m honored that my words inspired you to lift your eyes to God and to seek how you can better magnify Him through your words. Thanks so much for letting me know, Daniel. Blessings on your journey.

23 03 2011
richelle

thank you.

as one who works with those whom the world has “labeled” as “damaged, deficient, broken and unproductive,” one who is frequently frustrated when colleagues don’t care to see the unique treasure in each…

thank you for pointing out that treasure.

23 03 2011
jeannedamoff

You’re welcome, Richelle. And thank YOU for the beautiful work you do. Jesus identified with “the least,” and when we serve them, we serve Him. You have been given a place of honor. Much love to you.

23 03 2011
Kathy

Beautiful.

Thank you.

24 03 2011
jeannedamoff

Thank you, Kathy. And you’re welcome.

23 03 2011
christina parker brown

This was such a beautiful example of slowing down and really “seeing”. Blessings to you!

24 03 2011
jeannedamoff

Thank you, Christina! Blessings to you, too.

24 03 2011
chris

hi again Jeanne,

thanks so much for this post, which has been sustaining me all day! i read it not long after reading a post i really liked by Tonia Peckover (“A Study in Brown”). That post (“a song almost heard”) describes a very different situation, but i was struck by the way in which (it seemed to me) you both vividly describe different varieties of the same sort of experience. Tonia writes:

I fought the temptation to tell my son how I felt about his choices, to punish him with my anger and frustration, but I was silent. In a rare moment of clarity I felt my gaze go beyond the moment, beyond the disappointment of right now to a wider view. There in front of me sat a boy who carried his birth mother’s sins in his brain and body. I could see the future stretching out before us and all the labels he would likely wear: throwaway kid, failure, loser, screw-up. It pierced me through. And while I was looking at that future I could see another reality, higher and truer. There, I could see that the boy in front of me unknowingly bore the gospel of a suffering Savior into our home, daily allowing us to become acquainted with His grief. For just a moment I could see God’s purpose shaping us, His compassion inviting us to come learn to love like the crucified God. It was only a moment, enough vision to lend grace as I bent down and kissed my son’s head, told him to go on up to bed, but it lingers as blessing, snatches of a song almost heard and understood, drifting in front of me and pulling me onward.

You, Jeanne, write:

The whole scene was so beautiful, so stunning and other-worldly, I lost track of time and everything else, and when I pulled myself back to my own reality, my heart was full to brimming. A multitude of emotions swirled inside me — admiration, gratitude, inspiration, awe. . .What the world calls damaged, deficient, broken, Jesus names beloved, beautiful, redeemed. What the world would throw away as useless, He honors and exalts, making the least into teachers of compassion, possessors of radiant faith, living parables of His truth. What the world considers great, isn’t. Not in the eternal scheme of things.

i had the thought that, although your situations and experiences were different in many ways, you were both bowled over by a moment of what we might call “Christ-sight”–of suddenly seeing things as Christ sees them, of seeing them as though through Christ’s eyes. if we are graced with Christ-sight, then like Christ, we’ll have an un-obstructed, preternaturally sharply focused view of what we’re looking at. Tonia went beyond the frustrations and disappointments of the moment, and you “lost track of time and everything else”, because you were both fully absorbed in what you were beholding. if we have Christ-sight, then, like Christ, we will see what is beautiful and lovable in “what the world calls damaged, deficient, broken”, and—seeing what we look at through the eyes of love—we’ll be “pierced through” (as Tonia puts it) by what we see. in your case, Jeanne, you were pierced through by loving joy and gratitude for what you were beholding, and in Tonia’s case, she was pierced through by a deep and healing compassion. Last, if we have Christ-sight, we’ll see what we’re looking at not in relation to our own current issues (frustrations, disappointments, anxieties about our own shortcomings), but in relation to God’s ultimate purposes and providence for us and for others–in relation to what is “higher and truer” (Tonia) or “eternal” (you). for both of you, the experience of Christ-sight, even if brief, was so powerful that its echoes went on for a long time (are still going on?)

hope i’m not seeing commonalities that are not really there. but it seemed to me that you and Tonia were being blessed in the same wonderful way, and I’m very grateful that you (and Tonia) gave us all the opportunity to share that blessing.

love,

chris

24 03 2011
jeannedamoff

Wow, Chris! What beautiful insights! Thank you so much for taking the time to articulate them here. You’ve blessed me today.

And now I will go find this blog you mentioned. Based on the snippet you shared, I’m sure I will love it.

Love to you.
Jeanne

24 03 2011
tonia

Truly beautiful. Thank you for speaking deep to my heart today.

24 03 2011
jeannedamoff

Thank you, Tonia. After reading Chris’ comment above yours, I spent a bit of time on your blog, which will hereafter be added to my reader. (I’m afraid I’m going to have to discontinue attending to matters such as laundry, cooking, cleaning to stay on top of all the reading I want to do!) What a delight to meet you and your words. I look forward to swimming much in this deep pool.

Love to you and your beloveds.

26 03 2011
chris

hi Jeanne,

neat to have gotten two of my favorite bloggers together! the remark about housework made me laugh. since our kids have grown up and moved away, “housespousely” things take us less of my time than they used to, but there’s more going on at work. as someone who only (accidentally) discovered blogs a few months ago, and now keeps up with yours, “A Holy Experience”, “A Study in Brown”, and “A Circle of Quiet”, i sometimes ask my self, “and how am i supposed to find the time to make tents?”

have fun this weekend–

24 03 2011
Maureen

Thank you for your courageous words, and your example of pausing in the moment, to see, really see the beauty around you. You have reminded me to push pause, and pay attention today – a reminder I frequently need, I’m afraid. Thank you, too, for your companionship on the thousand gifts journey-isn’t it amazing?

24 03 2011
jeannedamoff

Thank you, Maureen. Yes, there is a dear fellowship of joy among those who pause to see and name God’s gifts. With spring erupting all around me, I imagine this naming of gifts as its equivalent in heaven — a sweet fragrance to God. Blessings today as your push pause and pay attention. Love to you.

25 03 2011
Deborah Carr

I watched a mother with a silver crown serve her prince of a son, and I heard a Voice whisper.

“Well done.”

What a beautiful benediction…I believe we were all there with you in that gym, seeing the love you saw, feeling our own hearts leap for the joy of love.

I found my way here through a dear friend, Deb at http://forsakenforlent.blogspot.com/. I will be back soon.

25 03 2011
jeannedamoff

Thank you, Deborah. I love your comment, and I love the way you found me. Deb is a treasure. So pleased to meet you and look forward to your return.

26 03 2011
Louise

Hello Jeanne, I journeyed here after visiting Glynn this morning at Faith. Fiction. Friends.

Witnessing your watching of the mother and son, reading your words of grace and humility, I feel blessed to be touched by true greatness.

Thank you.

9 04 2011
jeannedamoff

Thanks so much, Louise!

26 03 2011
Harriett

Oh my …. how beautifully you told that story and relayed it to truth.

Glad that Glynn led me over here with his ringing endorsement.

Simply lovely. 🙂

9 04 2011
jeannedamoff

So glad you stopped by Harriett! Thanks for your kind words.

26 03 2011
Maureen

So beautifully written, Jeanne, with insights perhaps reserved for those who carry this story in their hearts, as you do.

9 04 2011
jeannedamoff

Thank you, Maureen.

26 03 2011
good reads vol. 2 | duane scott

[…] The Presence of Greatness by Jeanne Damoff […]

26 03 2011
wanda

A picture my mother mind will never forget!
Thank you!

9 04 2011
jeannedamoff

Thanks for stopping by, Wanda. You’re welcome with all my heart.

7 04 2011
Simply Darlene

Jeanne, ever since reading your book, you and your son have stuck close to my heart. Thank you for sharing the heartbeat of Jesus that you saw in the gym; also thank you for continuing to share what God teaches you through your own son.

“trusting contentment” isn’t that what God desires from all of us?

Blessings.

9 04 2011
jeannedamoff

Darlene, thank you so much for your sweet comment. It’s an honor that we and our story remain close to your heart! I’m so glad you stopped by.

Love, Jeanne

21 11 2011
The Presence of Greatness | Story Bleed Magazine

[…] weaves and spins words at The View From Here. Subscribing to her blog will bring beauty, laughter and wisdom to your reader or inbox. Follow […]

10 09 2012
Who they are « The View From Here

[…] Our conversation ranges wide, all its paths winding back to Truth, and I sense that these moments matter — that they won’t be lost but are etched in eternity. She shares her journey (she already knows mine), and as story begets story, I tell her about a time I glimpsed true greatness. […]

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