Month: September 2019

The sandpaper paradox

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As I wielded an emery board over the residue of some “strong adhesion base coat” that a hasty job with nail polish remover the night before had missed, my mind turned toward a simplistic case of paradox that has intrigued me now and again: why is it that a rough, gritty surface is what we use to make fingernails or wood or some other surface smooth?

How can something rough and scratchy leave things smooth? That seems illogical. Wouldn’t something rough and scratchy scratch, leaving the surface rubbed with it rough and scratchy also?

Apparently not, since for years and years sandpaper (when used properly) has worked to smooth wood, not to roughen it. I reconcile the paradox this way: sure, it might seem as though smoothing should be done with something smooth: a soft, cotton cloth, perhaps, applied with gentle strokes. This picture evokes “soft” words like padding and protecting (as if we were talking about a piece of furniture in a moving van). Hold on, though. That’s just the thing. Gentle strokes with a soft cloth might feel good to an oak dresser in a woodworker’s shop, if that oak dresser could feel. But those soft touches with non-abrasive materials would not provide strength and pressure sufficient to remove rough places and splinters.

Similarly, we hear about “tough love,” an expression I know for certain evokes specific, sad memories for those who have faced particular family situations. On a more universal level, we could talk about the basic and God-given institution of authority – the need for rules and for order. And for discipline (which normally should feel rough to both the wise giver and the errant recipient). It would be nice if parenting and supervision could be done in a smooth and soft way, and still result in a child’s or an employee’s improved understanding and more mature behavior.

The simple truth, however, is this: that’s not the world we live in. For most of us, difficulties, injuries, hurt feelings, punishments and disappointments tend to be what have made us more aware, more careful, and more measured in our decisions. In some cases those types of experiences also have shaped us into better, kinder, more understanding people. And, yes, into more obedient people – as odd as that may sound to us once we’ve become adults.

Furthermore, if we have found ourselves the recipients of effective comfort throughout our hurtful experiences, so much the better in terms of our helpfulness to others: “God…comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” 2 Corinthians 1:3–4 (NIV)

Some have called the process of being shaped by difficulty “going through the school of hard knocks.” Shall we bristle up, then, and knock back? That’s our natural impulse, isn’t it? It feels assuaging to exercise our rights, to try – by arguing our point – to “make” another person see reason and just stop acting so unfairly and selfishly. When we exercise our right to argue, we may feel justified in doing so. We’re just standing up for ourselves, right? Yes…somewhat. But to act or to react without real self-control is what breeds conflict in those situations. Jesus commanded a different approach:

“But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.” Matthew 5:39-41 (NIV)

The apostle Paul wrote, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” Romans 12:18 (NIV)

May you get and may you endure the sandpaper when you need it applied to your rough edges, resulting in at least these three things:

  • a closer walk with your Creator and Authority
  • more confident, peaceful dealings with other people
  • patience, self-control, and peace of mind

And, when you ought to apply the sandpaper to another’s rough edges, may you do so with love, with an honest understanding of your authority’s scope, and with a helpful explanation to the “sandee.”