Fifteen minutes into my first retreat as high school campus minister, I found myself sitting in a big circle with all the student leaders of the school. We were playing the classic ice-breaker, “Two Truths and a Lie.” As the game snaked its way around the circle toward me, I only caught about half the students’ responses; I was too busy thinking of my own. This was my chance, after all, to show these students just how cool their new campus minister was.
Finally, my turn. “I am the oldest brother of four boys, I have hiked a volcano, and I speak three languages.” People start guessing. I blush red. Oh, no… I forgot to tell a lie. Three awesome and unbelievably true statements, but none even tweaked ever-so-slightly to make a lie. I slapped my forehead and said, “Ohmygosh, I didn’t tell a lie.” Silence.
Halfway down the circle, a sophomore girl ‘whispered’ to her friend, “He just wanted to show off.” Murmuring.
It doesn’t matter what I said or what I meant to say, the reality was that I couldn’t even thinly veil my arrogance. I told three truths. Two truths and a lie had become Two Brags and a Brag. I tried to recover with some joke about my lie being that I never lie, so I couldn’t lie in this game. Fail. It was too late: “He just wanted to show off.”
I’m new here, a young Jesuit in South Dakota whose job description is basically every steep learning curve at once: teaching for the first time (enough said), creating my course curriculum along the way, and navigating the role of a campus minister in a Lakota-Catholic school. Insecurities abound: how can I be helpful as a teacher and campus minister unless the kids like me? And how can the kids like me unless they know I’m cool? And how can they know I’m cool unless I tell them I’m cool? I know this sounds ridiculous, but somehow it has remained my default for years and years.
I could have said, “Nope, I don’t actually speak three languages. I speak one, I fumble through one and I struggle to understand native speakers in the other, even after 14 years of study. But I love to study languages and hope to speak these three – and maybe more someday!” I could have backpedaled some of my self-centered bragging and ended up with something that, a month later, I realize is far more attractive to my students than my adventurous exploits or overstated skills: humility.
“He just wanted to show off,” she said.
Her words have haunted me all month. Besides embarrassingly exposing my self-promoting plans, they have also spurred deeper, more enduring reflections. What do I really want? More than any stupendous facts or unbelievable brags, I want them to know this: I am here for them, that I have come to be with them, and that I care for them.
Her words began the lesson that other students have continued to teach me since: they don’t care if I’m cool. They care that I care about them. But when I start the conversation with me, I push them further away, simply because I’m talking and not listening, I’m caring about the way they see me rather than caring about the way that I see them – which, I want them to know – is with affection and commitment.
I’m learning that I’m better off starting with questions than with answers, questions like, Who are you? What do you do? How is your day going? I’m learning that if I begin with answers rather than questions, it doesn’t matter much whether these are lies or truths; if I do, I’ve already lost them. I’ve lost them because I’ve started with me rather than with them, saying “Look at me!” rather than asking, “Who are you?”
I’m learning that I’m better starting with a smile and these simple, earnest questions rather than with answers to questions that they don’t ask: How many languages can you speak? Have you gone to graduate school? Are you cool enough for me?
I’m learning all of this from them, my students. They are showing me just what they really need and they’re helping me to see – even if it’s humiliating – what it is I really want. Turns out, it’s much more about care than cool.