what happens when we don't have all the information
It’s funny when it’s a game.*
I mean, it’s inside joke material that will make us giggle for years, how I got my tongue stuck to a frozen flagpole became Iwo Jima in the space of fifteen minutes. But the truth is, these strips of paper should be framed as reminders of this:
I don’t have all the information. Not really. Not ever.
We sit in an oval around the table, family happy in the warmth, eating fruit gels off of a plate. I love the way laughter cements us together, the way shared smiles and a bit of abandon remind us of deep blessing, the way for a few moments we can be more than the things that require our attention. We sit there playing, remembering that together is a gift.
I pick up a card and flip it over, ready to select a caption from the three, something I can draw, something fun. I got my tongue stuck to a frozen flagpole. I write it neatly in the bordered space at the top of my paper, then roll the paper up into its plastic holder to hide the words. I keep my drawings basic, recognizing my limitations in this type of artistic expression. I excel at cute doodles only.
Around the table, the others snicker at their own captions, guessing the truth already: the last picture will barely reflect the words that began the whole thing.
And this is what happens when we don’t have all the information but we interpret anyway:
My brothers approach this game differently, as fits their personalities. The one sketches something elaborate, with layers, in short, textured graphite strokes. It works. He’s a poet, but also not bad at pencil drawings. The other keeps it simple, direct, ultra efficient. His drawings happen quickly, without any unnecessary details. He renders I slipped on a banana easily—a crooked stick figure, a tiny half moon at the foot. Really, we all do this, interpreting in a way that makes sense to us, given identity and resources.
Mom has arthritic fingers, so the small drawing space complicates her effort. My sisters (in love), both manage better pictures than me. One is an innovative crafter, the other a beautiful artist (and she the only one in this group able to actually draw whole discernible scenes in the time it takes the rest of us to sketch something vague), both are talented creatives. My dad, in his usual insightful way, has his own take on everything. Ask me about his sketch of the most horrible sneeze ever, which I promptly interpreted as a cloud-man whipping up the storm of the century. And Kevin, who has a gift for focusing on what’s truly important, plays this game as he lives, with deliberate and practiced humor. Every time he purposefully creates a caption with just enough subtlety for varied interpretations, I think of things he says to the kids at home, the way he deliberately twists something they’ve said just a little or grabs at some subtlety of language to engage them in funny, offbeat debates. Ask my children. They know there’s Christmas Eve, and then there’s Christmas Steve. Meanwhile, the whole game, I keep feeling the need to apologize when I pass on a picture that’s just not up to my own standards of clarity, even though that’s part of what makes the game fun. And yes, this too hints at something vulnerable.
I look down at the blank, white box, thinking of A Christmas Story, and do my best to sketch a boy in a toboggan, his too-long tongue attached to a pole at the tip. The only part of the flag I include is the very bottom, just along the top edge of the square. My picture reflects the way I try to see, pulling everything way up close to expose important details.
I roll the picture up in the plastic holder and pass it, as the die suggests, two players to my left. I don’t remember which person misinterprets my toboggan as a crown, but someone does. The king got his tongue stuck to a frozen flagpole, they caption. Meanwhile, someone else correctly guesses my brother’s banana peel. This round, we all write, laughing out loud or murmuring, “o-kay.” We roll the drawings up into the plastic cylinders and pass them again, leaving only our words exposed.
I get my flagpole back, smiling to see that the boy has somehow become a royal. I know the truth, but I have to sketch the caption I’ve been given. It’s a conundrum I face a lot: what to do when I know stuff that would help, but the information is confidential.
So, I draw my boy again with his too-long tongue, all up close, except this time I replace the toboggan with a crown of mountain peaks. Meanwhile, my mom’s fingers won’t let her draw my brother’s slipping stick-figure man, so she decides on a word puzzle. She sketches an eye, a slip, a half-moon banana. When her drawing reaches me in the next round, I write, “I spy a tank top and a banana,” and that’s how the magnifying glass ends up in the final drawing.
I guess my king looks plain enough, because he gets correctly captioned (at least based on the drawing). But the next person to draw that one takes a broader view—the flagpole in its entirety, the boy-now-king sketched with a deliberate diagonal lean toward it, his tongue now a smaller detail than the line of his back.
My dad receives this drawing, without its caption, and he interprets it as any former soldier with a penchant for history might. Dad writes two words that bring whole paragraphs and iconic images to mind: Iwo Jima. And when my sister draws his caption, she sketches a wonderful rendering of the memorial, the soldiers leaning together into the flag, determined strength clearly visible in the solid lines of their backs. And so, I got my tongue stuck to a frozen flagpole becomes Iwo Jima, in much the way that pithy, ridiculous, silly words sometimes explode into warfare and hard fought battles, suddenly requiring all our courage.
We laugh, all of us together, when we pull the paper from the cylinder and discover its history. It’s funny when it’s a game.*
My sister looks over at me from where she sits at the opposite end of the table and says, “You could write a funny post about this—about what happens when we don’t have all the information.” I chuckle, but her words stick, hard truth.
I cannot even count the number of people I’ve hurt—and deeply—because of things I thought I knew when I didn’t have all the information. I have misinterpreted and falsely captioned thousands of expressions, focusing on one detail while missing another. God has taught me—is still teaching me–the limitations of my perspective.
It’s a problem those in the autism community encounter nearly every day, because individuals with autism often look no different than their neurotypical peers, but they misinterpret social cues or fail to interpret them at all. And the main stream population misinterprets their desperate attempts to communicate anxiety as misbehavior and lack of discipline. The things they do to regulate their sensory systems can be written off by the public as signs of insanity. It’s the reason we’re so sensitive when something heart breaking and terrible like Sandy Hook happens and the word autistic gets highlighted in yellow, when the wrong detail falls under the public magnifying glass. Keenly we feel the need to share more information about the challenges our children face and why and what they mean.
One of my favorite children with autism waves at those he loves with his middle finger extended. I joke with his mom, my dear friend, and tell her it’s the only time I’ve ever hoped someone will shoot me the bird. That dear, sweet boy regularly flips me off because I’m his friend. But you can imagine why my friend celebrates the fact that he usually does this only to those he knows, and why she hopes he’ll not one day experience a rare moment of gregariousness when some well-meaning stranger greets him. Without all the information, the gesture could be grossly misinterpreted.
Once, years ago, a friend’s autistic son started screaming in fear in the grocery store. She had been working for months just to be able to take him with her. There were things about the cart that bothered him, noises that seemed to give him pain, and so many steps to a shopping trip that he couldn’t anticipate. Getting him there had been a repetitive project–first scheduled trips for just one item, with every detail, every step charted for him with pictures for support and a reward at the end. She had worked her way up to that cart full of groceries in the check out line. Together, they had cried many tears. She had learned to interpret his screams, to gauge the difference between upset and in crisis by the pitch. On this particular day, he screamed and twisted in the cart, physically too old for the strap around his waist that held him in the seat. The person behind my friend, interpreting through their own limited view, no doubt through their own burdens, sighed and said a bit too audibly, “Please, control your child.”
Pain lit a fire in my sweet friend’s heart. She turned back, eyes flashing (I know for the way they still flashed when she relayed the story), and let go of all the hurt she’d been burying. “He’s autistic,okay?” she yelled, tears streaming down her cheeks. “He’s autistic and I’m doing everything I can. So, maybe you could mind your own business?” It’s happened to us before too, but certainly not more than I myself have been guilty.
We all live life with a limited perspective, expressing ourselves as well as we can—with varying levels of skill, multiple approaches befitting wondrously different personalities and strengths and passions; with hindrances and challenges often unseen, unknown, and misunderstood. We’d all do well to remember what happens when we don’t have all the information. Only one can see all, and His interpretation is the only one to be trusted.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make your paths straight (Proverbs 3:5,6, emphasis mine).
I think if I can remember how my dentist has huge hair turned into I like to sniff burning things (Oh yes, it did) or the way that there is a bird on top of the chimney became a spaceship that landed on a house and destroyed it, well, maybe I can do better at loving well. This is what happens when we don’t have all the information. And truly, we never do.
So these days I find myself saying, and thinking, and praying, every time I start speculating as to the motives, thoughts, choices, and ways of another:
I don’t have all the information.
And it doesn’t matter how it looks to me, because God is bigger, and sometimes the details lie. So please, Spirit, let me show grace.
*the game we played is called Scribblish, and it’s such laugh-out-loud fun.