Describing ourselves with characteristics, not strengths and weaknesses

Living and growing

Posted: Friday, September 28, 2007

As I'm writing this, water is dripping off the eaves. The foliage outside my office is thick and lush. The wind is pushing the branches and disturbing the shrubs. It is a beautiful day.

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My brother-in-law, who is a retired forester, told me that the wind strengthens the trees. Of course the wind also sometimes knocks the trees over.

Here we are living in the most beautiful place I have ever lived, the largest temperate rain forest in the world. Time and time again I am thrilled with the rich vegetation, the beauty and fragrance of this place. And I struggle sometimes with the lack of sunshine. I have to push hard against the effect, on me, of a dark, overcast, snowless winter.

Bishop Melvin Wheatley was my bishop for 12 years. The nurture of his teaching, preaching and pastoring still helps sustain me even though he has not been my bishop for more than twenty years. Bishop Wheatley used to make a point of speaking not of our having strengths and weaknesses but of our having characteristics that are sometimes helpful and appropriate and sometimes not.

He used two stories to illustrate his point. As a young preacher on the west coast with family on east coast, he and his wife faced a need to get quickly across country and didn't have the money for airline tickets. A man in their church heard about their problem and came to them with the money for the tickets. Mel stiffly shook hands with the man and thanked him. Lucille threw her arms around the man and hugged him with tears of thanksgiving. Mel said that when he had finished with the man, the man didn't know if he's been thanked or not; when Lucille finished with him, he knew he'd been thanked.

A few years later one of their sons fell out of a tree in the front yard hitting his head knocking him unconscious and causing a badly bleeding head wound. Lucille became hysterical and knelt beside the boy sobbing and ringing her hands. Mel quickly checked the boy, calmed Lucille and called for an ambulance.

In the first instance, her emotion was appropriate and his control was not. In the second instance, her emotion was not helpful and his control was.

The spirit of sacrifice that might make for effectiveness in a pastor might also result in the pastor's sacrificing the pastor's family in favor of work.

The ability to be objective and data oriented that might make for a great engineer could also make it difficult for others to relate to that engineer.

The discipline and task orientation that might make for a great soldier might make for a miserable childhood for that soldier's family.

The gentle, caring heart of a mother might make it hard for that mother to make necessary tough decisions.

A father's seeing himself as a provider might make for safe and adequate living conditions for a family that doesn't have a father who is emotionally engaged with the family.

I like the idea of describing ourselves with characteristics rather than strengths and weaknesses. I think it is far more accepting to describe characteristics. No matter how mature I try to be, I feel diminished when my "weaknesses" are listed. When I hear someone say something about someone else's "weaknesses", I try to see the upside of that characteristic.

The examples above are intended to make plain how one can look at the same characteristic in a different framework and see how it can be appropriate and in some circumstances and not in others. I think a healthy goal usually is not to try to get rid of characteristics but to learn how and when they can be helpful, hurtful, or useless.

• Dan Wanders is pastor of Aldersgate United Methodist Church.

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