A Weekly Column
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING GRETCHEN
It was the simplest of gestures, really. But something about it was terribly poignant and profound – and instructive to anyone looking for solutions in today’s complex world.
Sixteen-year-old Brian had been asked to participate in a program at church. Never much one for public speaking, he accepted the invitation apprehensively. His younger sister, Gretchen, knew of his anxiety, and tried to soothe him with some good-natured teasing.
“Don’t worry about it, Brian,” she reminded him more than once. “You can’t really disappoint anyone because nobody is expecting much.”
You know – the sort of thing you’d expect from a little sister.
On the appointed day Brian was in his place wearing his best clothes, a fresh haircut and the most strained smile this side of Miss First Runner-Up. Blame part of that on pre-speech jitters. Blame a little more on the car accident Brian was involved in on the way to church – not to mention the broken rib he sustained in the collision.
“Look at it this way,” I whispered to him as the meeting got underway. “The worst thing that could possibly happen has already happened. It’s clear sailing from here on in.”
Well, not quite. When Brian rose to speak, the pocket on his jacket somehow became tangled with the armrest of his chair. The unmistakable ripping sound elicited an audible gasp from the congregation, and brought a pained expression to Brian’s mother’s face. As Brian turned to see what the ripping was, he lost control of the book he was holding, and it fell on the foot of the woman sitting next to him.
The congregation was beginning to titter, and he hadn’t said a word.
I saw him glance at the door. I’m sure he considered running, and I doubt any would have blamed him. But he bravely made his way to the podium and began to present his message. He was doing a pretty good job, all things considered, when I noticed something unusual: blood. Dripping from Brian’s nose. And not just a little.
At first Brian was unaware of what was happening, even though it was painfully obvious to those in the congregation. Then he absently rubbed his nose, and stopped speaking in mid-sentence when he saw the bright crimson fluid that stained his hand.
To his credit, he plunged ahead with his remarks, as if he hoped no one would notice the blood running down his face. He tried to disguise his feeble attempts at wiping the blood with his hand, but unfortunately, he only succeeded at making the mess worse.
Most in the congregation were transfixed. It was sort of like driving by an accident on the freeway. You didn’t want to see it, but you couldn’t keep yourself from looking. Then one person decided to stop being a spectator.
It wasn’t until she had almost made her way to the front of the chapel that I noticed Gretchen. You might expect that a little sister would be taking secret delight in her brother’s humiliation, but not this 12-year-old. As Brian continued speaking she walked purposefully up the aisle and directly to his side, a look of sincere concern on her face. She handed him the handkerchief she was carrying and stood there with him, her arm around his waist as he quickly mopped his nose, mouth and chin. When he finished he handed the hankie back to her. She smiled at him, gave him a quick squeeze and returned to her seat.
Brian finished his talk, and I’m not the only one in the congregation who thought his performance after the incident was more confident than before. Nor was I alone in feeling that the day’s greatest sermon had been preached – wordlessly – by his sister.
Like I said, Gretchen’s gesture wasn’t exactly overwhelming. Still, it was heroic in my view, in part because of its simplicity. Gretchen didn’t worry about whether or not taking a hankie to her brother in the middle of a church service was appropriate. She didn’t form a committee to study her options. She just saw someone who needed help, and she provided it.
You don’t have to look hard to find everyday parallels, do you? We stumble upon similar situations all the time – the disoriented tourist on the street, the elderly woman struggling to reach that first step on the bus, the lost child in the department store. Usually it doesn’t take much to ease the trauma of the moment – some pocket change, an outstretched hand, a few kind words or a couple of minutes of time. But too often we choose not to get involved, assuming that others will come along to offer the kindness we keep to ourselves.
And usually, others do. It seems there’s always a Gretchen around who is willing to step outside herself and do what needs to be done. But the world can always use a few more. Yeah, I know – there’s the risk that our helpful zeal will lead us to say or do the wrong thing at the wrong time. But the way I see it, that risk is worth it – especially when you consider the prospect of someday being the one who is up there with a bloody nose.
And without a Gretchen in sight.
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