Red flag alert: I've got mail for you!

Originally printed in the Christian Science Sentinel

A few years ago, one of the semi-rural neighborhoods on Nantucket, about 30 miles off the southeast coast of Massachusetts, was ablaze with red flags. And the local post office was also seeing red.

You see, they weren't really flags. They were those cute little metal indicators, colored red, that you click up to alert mail carriers that you have items for collection.

A zealous friend of mine, new in the community and just longing to do something for the neighborhood association she had joined, offered to help in any way members needed. And as so often happens with these associations, in a matter of weeks she was the new president.

Determined to impress, she decided to save the association a few dollars. "Why waste the postage," she reasoned, "when I could drive around and drop the notices in people's mailboxes. I might enjoy putting up those pretty little flags, even though the houses are widely spaced along sandy roads and still mostly unoccupied so early in the season. Perhaps I'll meet a few of my new neighbors. If not, at least they'll know they have mail - important mail."

Well, the flags did look pretty - but not to the mail carrier. After he'd made 27 detours across this scarlet landscape to pick up 27 fliers that weren't meant for the postal system at all, that's pretty much how his face looked - scarlet.

It was several days before my friend's totally unselfish, totally innocent, albeit somewhat naive - and, strictly speaking, illegal - escapade had been satisfactorily explained to the postmaster, and the red flags laid to rest. He accepted her apologies and soon forgave her.

We've all had experiences like that when we don't yet know the system. When innocence on our part - rather than naiveté - has brought a fierce rebuke or stormy resentment from a person who has chosen to think the worst about our behavior.

We may not realize it, but for both parties the word "chosen" in the previous sentence is key. And it is wise - often prayerful - choices that smooth the way, first to harmony, then to understanding. You don't get far in any of these confrontations while either of you is still breathing fire.

Many people would agree that you both need the kind of love that "is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth," as the Apostle Paul put it in his first epistle to the Corinthians (chap. 13:5, 6).

In so many of these altercations, the truth is that you don't really know the facts about the other person. You leap to too many conclusions before you've exercised three screening devices worth building into your communication panels - patience, calmness, and love.

Patience allows time to clarify the facts and identify the positive things in the community you share with others.

Calmness takes the sting out of the rebukes from either side.

Love is the healer that flows in to fill the spaces created by patience and calmness.

It's awfully hard to be angry - and remain angry - with anyone when you've developed the gentleness and kindness so modestly modeled for us by Jesus. Sometimes these qualities seem to be obscured on either side of the red flag. However, understanding that they are part of each individual, because of the nature he or she derives from God, helps you see that true likeness in the person who may have accused you unjustly or reacted too quickly to an incomplete picture of a given situation.

I have found that, in assessing any situation, it's helpful to take the time to pray for wisdom and a balanced perspective. To make room for loving solutions - and actively pursue them.

That's what my island friend found, too. It's how she ultimately triumphed over that bureaucratic storm. The mail carriers came to respect her tireless cooperation and her contribution toward bettering the neighborhood. When she relinquished the presidency after several years at the helm, she was praised, not for her red flags, but for her honesty, kindness, and gentleness.

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