How often do you use the phrase “at least?” Many times, we use it without thinking of the true meaning. Sometimes it’s used as gratefulness, but other times we use it to justify the behavior of others we know isn’t right.
This topic has been on my mind for quite some time thanks to a Periscope by Morgan Harper-Nichols. (Check out her latest devotional, The Daily Life. I read it every day.) How do we know the difference between being grateful settling? You do realize a story is coming, right?
I experienced both of these situations in the same day. When I was in school, I practically lived for the yearly “Speech Meet.” My school, Johnstown Christian School, was known for sending some good competitors. The Speech Meet was similar to what many schools would call a “Forensic Competition.” Students prepared monologues, poetry, group collaborations, and various styles of speaking We spent hours practicing until it seemed perfect. For some reason, instead of giving out placements, everyone was simply put in a category based on the total score, “Fair,” “Good,” “Excellent,” and “Superior.” We all wanted that blue superior ribbon. Just as much as we wanted that ribbon, we also wanted a perfect score. (Apparently, we also had issues with perfectionism. Anything less than a “Superior” felt like a failure. A perfect score was the ultimate prize. We knew we could do it, but we had to remember, judging was subjective and someone may see something we didn’t.)
Like sane people, one year we decided to use a collection of entries from Spoon River Anthologies by Edgar Lee Masters. It was a collection of epitaphs. (Don’t blame me; the English teacher approved it!) We worked hard, and did our best. Despite one stumble, we thought we had a Superior ribbon locked up. Actually, we believed everyone from our school would be getting Superior ribbons. (You see where this is going, right?) We all got “Excellent” ribbons. Once we got to the van for the two-hour ride home, our displeasure was obvious. We poured over those judges’ remarks on the papers. It turns out one judge’s score made the difference, and we were just a few points away. From that day on, the initials of the judge, C.F. became a yearly driving force in our preparation. She was strict, but she was consistent and fair. We were disappointed that day, but our English teacher encouraged us. We had to realize, at least we prepared as hard as we could that year. At least, we did our best and sometimes someone accidentally mispronounces the name of Abraham Lincoln. (Yes, it was me!) At least we were given the chance to compete. At least we had fun. At least, most of us, were under classman, and had a few more years to compete. Finally, at least we got Excellent ribbons. Those things were good and needed to be put into perspective. It was okay it wasn’t perfect, because what we had was fair and good.
On our way home, we were starving (Skittles and M&M’s aren’t that filling.) So, we stopped at the McDonald’s on the Pennsylvania turnpike. Because we were mature teenagers, we headed to the indoor playground, only to realize, we were over the height requirements by at least a foot. So, we did the next best thing; we ordered Happy Meals. I had an allergy to mustard, so I ordered one (solely for the toy) with a cheeseburger minus the mustard. The English teacher even paid for my meal. When we got to our table, I checked to make sure it was mustard free. It was, but there was one other thing missing. Rather loudly I told everyone “I said no mustard, not no meat!” (I’m pretty sure that’s not proper grammar, but the English teacher let me slide.) This time, it wasn’t ok that I paid for a sandwich and at least had bread with ketchup. I was deserving of something more. So, I politely went to the counter to show them the issue, and it was corrected. If it hadn’t been, then it would’ve been time to speak with a manager, or get my money refunded. I deserved to get what I was promised. If they had said “at least we got part of your order correct” that wouldn’t have been enough. I deserved to be treated with respect and not have them justify the problem making me keep the cheeseburger without a burger.
You deserve the same, and I don’t mean just a cheeseburger. Someone giving you at least, isn’t enough. How often do you justify settling? “My friend only calls when she needs something, but at least we’re friends.” “My husband is abusive, but at least it’s only when he’s drunk.” My employee is always late for work, and only does half of her job, but at least she’s good with accounting.” “My boyfriend won’t pray, read his Bible, or talk about God, but at least he goes to church.”
There is a big difference between gratefulness and justifying being mistreated. If you have to justify someone’s behavior, chances are, it’s not enough. Accepting the bare minimum from others, means they see you as minimal, someone disposable.
God makes it very clear what He expects from everyone:
You must be impartial in judgment. Use accurate measurements—lengths, weights, and volumes—and give full measure, for I am Jehovah your God who brought you from the land of Egypt. Leviticus 19:35-36 (TLB)
He was commanding people to not show favoritism. They weren’t to overcharge for the goods they sold. They weren’t to take advantage of one another. God brought His people out of slavery in Egypt, and He didn’t want them being mistreated again. Through Jesus, He set you free from the slavery of sin, and He doesn’t want to see you enslaved by anyone else’s behavior.
So how do you know if “at least” is gratefulness or settling. Ask yourself what is really going on. Is someone treating you fairly, and pushing you to do even better or is that person giving you the least they can possibly get away with?
If someone is giving you the least, it’s time to reevaluate the situation. When we say “at least,” that means we’re taking the least. Maybe it’s time for an honest, but respectful conversation. If the situation doesn’t change, then, perhaps it’s time to reevaluate the relationship.
Did you really think that was the end of the story? It’s true, as a freshman I had many things to be grateful about that day, and the judge, C.F. was being fair. She was pushing us. Over the next several years we learned her name was Carol Fletcher. It was both a joke and a driving force to ask ourselves if Carol Fletcher would approve of our work. It was no secret we hoped to not have her as a judge, but she was always there. At the same time, speaking for myself, I wanted the perfect score from the hardest judge. Finally, it was my senior year. We had earned plenty of superior ribbons over the years, but never a perfect score. This was our last chance. Taking a risk, we chose excerpts from Shakespearean plays, which were pieced together like a daytime drama. (Again, the English teacher approved it!) The day of the competition one of the guys developed a problem with his eye on the way to Pittsburgh. He could barely see, but he did his part flawlessly.
The competition was in a church and sitting in the pews we saw her. By that year, we could tell who she was by just the back of her head. It was our last performance, and there she was. Our enemy who we also secretly respected, Carol Fletcher. We did all we could. Standing in front of the sanctuary we gave our best performance ever while trying to enjoy the bittersweet moment. Then there was nothing left but to wait for the scores. One by one each category was announced. We got our superior ribbons and were happy, but we wouldn’t know if we had a perfect score until later. We knew our English teacher was proud of us. I was a little sad knowing this would be the last time she would lead me into a competition, even though I knew she’d guide me through many things for the rest of her life. (Did I ever mention that English teacher was my mom?) With a huge smile, she handed us the judges sheets. Fifty was the highest possible score. We kept seeing “50,” but one mattered most, and it was the last page. There it was: “50” with a note underneath it. “Congratulations, you earned it! Carol Fletcher.” I looked up, and saw her watching us with a huge smile. All of those years she had been watching us. She knew we wanted a perfect score, but she held everyone to a high standard. I can’t speak for my friends, but for me, the perfect score was nice. What was even better was knowing years of work and showed in our performance. We earned that score from the one who pushed us.
Perhaps we all need to take a lesson from Carol Fletcher. Be fair. It’s fine to reward hard work and real effort that bears good fruit, but don’t settle for less. Don’t call something perfect when it isn’t. Guard your heart and life with the same respect she had for us. She made us better. I’m forever grateful. I may never see her again, but she taught me so much.
Never settle for “at least,” not from someone else, or yourself.
I’d love to hear from you! Do you have a “C.F. in your life? Has someone pushed you and made you better? Please leave a comment on the blog. You’re important to me.