Once upon a time, while at a Braves game with my family, I lost my daughter amid a sea of 30,000 people. (Obviously, this was a while ago.) We were in the upper deck at Turner Field, where the Kid Zone is, and my son declared his need for the potty. Since my son has a tendency to wait until the VERY last second before asking to use the facilities, I knew I had precious little time to dilly-dally.
I asked my brother, who was with me, if he would watch Ella while I took Jon to the potty, and then I broke out in a dead sprint for the nearest men’s room.
When Jon and I emerged two minutes later, my life went to hell.
Ella was gone.
Have you ever seen the movie Taken? I have. And it’s one of the top-three scariest movies for me as a parent because 1) I can’t fathom my child disappearing from my life and 2) I would be helpless if it happened. Unlike Brian Mills, I don’t have a particular set of skills that would be of ANY use if someone took off with my daughter.
So, when I discovered Ella was missing, my brain went into panic mode. I immediately found a cop and asked for help. I called my wife and filled her in. And I went looking for my daughter, dragging my son along for the ride with a death-grip around his wrist. It was one of the lowest moments of my life, and I’ve known some low moments.
But you know what people did when they realized my daughter was missing?
They helped me.
The cops put out an alert in the stadium and immediately put personnel at the gates to keep watch. Ushers started going in and out of restrooms, chattering back and forth on walkie-talkies. Random fans offered to help me find Ella. My brother comforted me. Heck, even my son joined in, constantly saying, “We’ll find her daddy. It’ll be okay.”
I had royally screwed up as a father, and people were willing to help me. No one thought to tell me I sucked as a dad. No one showed me a meme about paying attention to my kids. No one questioned my intelligence, or whether or not I truly loved my daughter. I didn’t have anyone declare I shouldn’t be allowed to have kids, or threaten to call DFACS to come take away my other child.
Perhaps that’s because this happened in real life, and by in real life, I mean in their real lives. The people who were trying to comfort and help me were involved in the story; they could see my face, they could feel my pain and panic. They could imagine how they would feel were they in my situation. They were living the moment with me, and it unlocked their empathy.
A child falls into a gorilla cage. A toddler is snatched from his family by an alligator. A daughter wanders away from her father at a baseball game.
These things, as scary and incomprehensible as they are, happen. And they can happen to anyone.
Even the best parents screw up, but we usually do so in private. And even when we screw up in public, there are usually people who will come to our aide, offering us something that approaches empathy.
But when those screw ups are posted online?
Lord have mercy.
It’s funny that religious people are often criticized for holding the sins of others against them, because from where I sit, castigating people for their sin has become the official hobby of the Internet sect — especially when it comes to parenting. People simply cannot wait to point out just how imperfect other parents are, all from the comfort of their keyboards.
In fact, the greatest sin of our culture right now is to be an imperfect parent. And woe to those who transgress against the myth of parental perfection, especially if the end result is something that the online world can share and re-share and dissect to death as the news cycle churns.
The tolerance and grace that is clamored for – and deserved – in other sectors is nowhere to be found when it comes to parents that mess up. “Those people” are perfectly fine to digitally tar and feather because we don’t know them. We don’t see their faces. We don’t feel their pain. We’re not actually involved in the story beyond just asserting ourselves into it because that’s just how we live now.
The day that I lost Ella, I wanted to die. Even though I had my son with me, I wanted to implode my soul and somehow suck all of the pain and horror of the moment into the netherworld with me. There was no consolation to be had. There was only the sheer terror a parent feels when they’ve made a mistake – or worse, when life just happens – and we feel the powerlessness we usually gloss over.
If something had happened, if Ella hadn’t been returned to me, the idea of millions of self-righteous and distant Pharisees pouring out their own self-loathing on me would’ve been enough to push me over the edge. Anger would’ve mixed with self-hate to produce something ugly inside of me.
Instead, Ella was found safe by a stadium security guard. She ran into my arms and we both cried. Jon cried. The stadium guard cried.
The next time a parent makes a mistake – or, perhaps more accurately, life throws a family a curveball – let’s lead with empathy first. Let’s live the story with the ones suffering. Let’s let our own sense of imperfection and fear and need for grace rise the forefront so we can do something greater than destroy another person in their lowest moment. Let’s restore people who have been broken.
Seems like someone tried teaching the human race that a long time ago.