The frailty of my faith (or, How losing my daughter in the park gave me a glimpse of my own hypocrisy)

I only took my eyes off of her for a few seconds …

It’s so cliché, but so damn true.

This summer was an unusually sweltering one in the Pacific Northwest, and our local splash park offered a welcome reprieve from the relentless heat. Facing yet another 90+ degree day in mid-August, I brought my girls there to fill the post-nap/pre-dinner block of time. They were happily rotating among the splash park, playground and sandpit.

My younger daughter, still beaming from her weeklong reign as the Birthday Girl (“I two! I two!”), was thirsty, so I told my older daughter that I was going to fill up our water bottle. The water fountain is perhaps twenty feet from the splash park. It took me less than a minute to walk to the fountain, position my two-year-old’s fingers so that she could “help” fill the bottle, and look back up to where I had left my almost four-year-old.

… and she was gone.


Image courtesy of
Image courtesy of

I scanned the whole of the splash area, noting the rambunctious “big kids” manning the frog squirter, the joyful birthday party at a nearby picnic table, the toddler crying in his mother’s arms. This was by no means the first time I’d ever lost sight of my daughter, so I was confident she would emerge from behind another child or a big water toy. But she didn’t. I stopped filling the bottle and scooped up my youngest. It occurred to me that perhaps her sister had decided to run back to the sandbox, and as I made my way there, I considered potential punishments for running off without my permission.

But she wasn’t in the sandbox … or at the swings … or in the bathroom.

I had now looked everywhere I could imagine her going by herself. Several minutes had passed, and panic was creeping in.

I ran up to the birthday party and asked if any of them had seen a little girl matching my daughter’s description. Though they hadn’t seen her, they recognized the fear in my eyes and sprang into action, each heading to a different part of the park.

I stayed close to one of the moms, clutching my two-year-old and sputtering useless details about my oldest daughter’s swimsuit, as if the tiny cupcake design on the front of it would be the deciding factor in locating her. I was starting to go in circles, looking in the same places over and over again; afraid to stray too far from where I’d last seen her in case she was looking for me too.

I glanced at my watch; I had been searching for too long. At what point do I call the police, if the first hour is so key? Do I dial 911, or is there some kind of hotline?

My thoughts were scrambled. My capacity for rational thought was unable to overcome the horrific “what-ifs” emerging from the periphery of my mind where I, like all parents, try to banish them. This community park is large and uncontained, encompassing not only the splash park and playground, but sports fields, a walking trail, and several open fields adjacent to parking lots. It would be impossible to lock it down.

This is also the park where many of the people experiencing homelessness in our community spend their days. To my utter shame these “least among us,” for whom I claim to have such great compassion, were featured prominently in the horror reel of “what-ifs” flashing through my mind. I could feel myself starting to lose it.

And then we found her.

A woman from our makeshift search party directed my attention to an anonymous dad waving in a distant field. Beyond him … my sweet girl; running happily with her arms wide open and her ponytail flying behind her. We were separated by 200 yards and—much further—by the ability to be turned completely upside down by an incapacitating fear of the worst-case scenario.

She had been missing for a total of 10 minutes.

I have no idea who (or even how many) helped me search for my daughter that day. By the time I reached her, I could barely choke out “thank you” to the people in front of me, never mind the others who had spread across the park. They are nameless, faceless heroes of mine.

I had been right, as it turns out, to relegate those insidious and terrifying “what-ifs” to the fringes of my consciousness. My daughter went missing, but there was no “stranger danger.”  The only strangers with whom I interacted were doggedly working to help me find her. This story has no villains: no stalkers, no kidnappers, no opportunistic perverts.

By all accounts, my faith in humanity should be renewed. I should be a more optimistic mother.

Except I’m not.

Ever since that day, I have found myself keeping a tighter grip on my daughters as we walk through crowded areas. I have been looking more suspiciously at almost-certainly decent, help-you-find-your-daughter sorts of people in the park. I have been questioning the presence and motives of anyone who doesn’t fit my image of someone who belongs at kids’ events: young, involved, “vanilla” sorts of people … people like me.

In those ten minutes, the horrific “what-ifs” of parenthood became real to me in a way they had never been before. I began seeing enemies where they didn’t exist. It makes me wonder: What kind of person would I be if they really did?

The expression “there but for the grace of God go I” has really been resonating with me in the wake of those excruciating 10 minutes. If even I—with my privileged life and my happy ending—if even I have become more mistrustful and judgmental of others as a result of 10 minutes of unrealized “what-ifs,” then where but for the grace of God would I be?

If I had spent my life as an undocumented immigrant, or an unwelcome refugee, or an impoverished person of color, would I see the people around me as my brothers and sisters in Christ … or would I see them only as potential threats to myself and my children?

I majored in peace studies, so I can wax philosophical about “unmasking the other” and ubuntu and restorative justice until my lips turn blue. But I have never had to do so in the face of pervasive violence, instability, or oppression. Thanks be to God, I do not have to do so in the face of every parent’s worst nightmare.

But if that weren’t the case? If my worst-case scenarios dwelled not in the fringes of my mind but in my lived experience, would I be capable of the sort of compassion, hospitality, and goodwill that Jesus demands of his followers?

I seriously doubt it.

And so I do the only thing I can: I turn once more to Jesus, and say a prayer of gratitude for His grace, which has truly saved a wretch like me.

Nicole Steele Wooldridge lives in the Seattle area with her husband and two daughters. She hopes that her daughters do as she says, and not as she does … and that her emotional aversion to the local splash park has waned by the time next summer comes around.

Undoer of knots

“It’s one of the symptoms of our time to find danger in men like you who don’t worry and rush about. Particularly dangerous are men who don’t think the world’s coming to an end. ‘It’s coming to an end, all right,’ the seer said. ‘That started the moment it was born.’”

Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck

It has struck me repeatedly and profoundly these last couple of weeks that we have a flair for the dramatic. Now, I should be honest from the start that I’m not sure who I mean by “we.” But at least within the circles I run in these days—the people I talk to, the people whose thoughts I read print and online—there’s a real penchant for superlatives.

This is the worst day ever.

This is the best latte ever.

Donald Trump/Barack Obama is the devil and is ruining America and only real, true patriots can stop him from his unsurpassed and unsurpassable villainy.

Rand Paul/Bernie Sanders is the new baby Jesus, come to save us all!

K-Cups will turn into monsters and destroy the planet (lest ye doubt me, this is a real thing).

Tesla cars and Space-X will usher in a new, peaceful world order of super cars and alien-human peaceful coexistence!

I am no different from anyone else in this regard. I tend to think, mired in my small viewpoint, that my problems are paramount. My heroes are superheroes, and my villains are archfiends, and my struggles are heroic in scope and legendary to tell! But, most days at least, they are not. I have no real problems. I am a human—I have vexations and frustrations, but they are normal. I have successes and joys, but they are ordinary. I am not a saint, though I am working at it.

Now sometimes, in trying to resist this over-dramatization, I can go too far the other way. It can lead me to disregard my joys as less than joyful. In the last couple of days I have watched my baby daughter start to crawl. It is miraculous. But there was a moment, as I was tearing up, that I thought “Well, this isn’t that special … I mean, all babies crawl. Every parent has witnessed this before. She’s not a super baby or anything.” That may be, but what a depressing mindset filled with tragic despair. Yes, perhaps every baby ever has learned to crawl—but mine never has! I am right to rejoice. Every spring is new—God does not tire of making them. Every breath I take is a miracle, no less so because billions of others breathe. Life may be ordinary—but that shouldn’t make it less awe-inspiring.

To accept that things matter, but not any more than they actually do: this is a tightrope, but I think one that is important for us to walk.Mary with knots rosary

Recently, I’ve come across a Marian devotion called “Our Lady, Undoer of Knots.” And, I must say, I like it quite a great deal. I feel compelled to confess that I’ve never been much of a Marian devotee. I’m a fan of Our Lady, don’t get me wrong … but so many of her devotions are so dramatic that I find them off-putting. Our Lady of Sorrows, Our Lady of the Imminent Apocalypse, Our Lady of the Despairing and Totally Hosed. It’s not her fault that her friends so often speak of her in these terms, but it’s made me wary. When my problem is that I’m vaguely annoyed with a co-worker, I find it wrong to address a request for aid to her with phrases like “mourning and weeping in this vale of tears.” This is a powerful plea for those in real despair and I don’t criticize those who turn to her in their darkest moments and then utilize such language, but normally I need more of a “complaining and grumbling in this vale of minor inconveniences” level of assistance.

Photo by Steven Cottam
Photo by Steven Cottam

And this seems exactly where “Our Lady, Undoer of Knots” comes in. She is beseeched with a simple plea to aid us in undoing the knots—the fears, worries, and anxieties—of our daily lives. Some knots are huge, some are nigh Gordian! But most are small. An unsmoothness in a moment of marriage, an unruly disposition toward the neighbor—little knots. A spilled coffee, a flat tire, the dog taking a dump on the rug, and the baby taking a dump on the dog … successively bigger knots, but still nothing calling for heroic virtue. But we should not wait to call for divine assistance only when heroic virtue is called for. We should call for it all the time, for every moment of our day is a choice to grow in holiness or grow away from it. But we will be greatly aided in that pursuit if we can remember to keep things in perspective: remembering which knots are big, and which are really not.

Our Lady, Undoer of Knots, Pray for Us!