Celebrating Characters!

Terry Lieb Facing Fear, Judging Others 5 Comments

I love meeting new people. Every single person is unique, with their own unique history, personality, and perspective. But some people are, shall we say, more unique than others! Some terms I have heard to describe these people on the far end of the continuum are oddball, offbeat, quirky, peculiar, strange, kook, weirdo, eccentric, and “not playing with a full deck.” Personally, I call them characters.

One of the easiest ways to spot an authentic character is to observe the general public‘s reaction to them. It can be rolling of the eyes, turning their backs, walking away, or even more blatant forms of rudeness or exclusion. Being in the company of characters can be a little uncomfortable because you must be willing to share a small portion of the judgment they experience every day. However, instead of avoiding characters, I make a point of seeking them out. Maybe it was growing up in the coal region of Pennsylvania, where we seemed to be blessed with an extra big helping of characters (my father included!), but I’ve always had an inexplicable attraction to these rare birds.

For me, characters are usually fun to be around; they make me smile and often laugh out loud. Frequently they expose me to a perspective I hadn’t considered and sometimes transforms my thinking permanently. It isn’t that they are trying to change or influence me. They are just making their own way, marching to the beat of their own drum. But even the simple act of seeing someone being completely themselves, without conforming to anyone else’s ideas or opinions on who they should be, can be transformative in and of itself.

Actually, the fear of judgment is why many of us don’t even pick up our own drumsticks, let alone begin creating our own beat! There are strong cultural pressures dictating what we should eat, wear, say, do, and think. Stepping outside our prescribed box is not standard practice for most of us, and without nonconformists who live “outside the box” (intentionally or not), we often don’t even realize we’re in a box since everyone else is just like us!

Characters can help us see the invisible walls around us, which is the first step to questioning and possibly even transcending them.

This reassessment can include everything from mundane habits like what we wear and eat to our most sacred and closely-held beliefs. I’ve found that characters often have an understanding of God that is just as rare and unique as they are, and they’ve challenged me to expand my God image more than once.

Someday I’d like to write an entire book on the top 100 characters who have blessed me over the years. In the meantime, I’d like to briefly introduce you to two, hopefully giving you a taste of why I cherish my character experiences and relationships. Some are just that one-time experience and others, fortunately, may last a lifetime.

Just the other day, Rita and I were visiting a small mission church in a small town about half an hour south of our community. As soon as we sat down I noticed a few rows in front of us an older woman wearing a large hat with what looked like a bright red hummingbird on the very top. There were very few hats in church, much less ones with large birds perched atop!

I looked at Rita and said, “I expect that I need to meet the character sitting beneath that hummingbird!” Rita’s response was, “Now why doesn’t that surprise me?” Fortunately, I have been married to a very patient and tolerant woman for the past 46 years.

After the service, I did approach the woman, who turned out to be named Maggie, introduced myself and asked her about the hummingbird. She told me that this rather interesting bird was a special gift from her best friend, who had given it to her because of Maggie’s love of hummingbirds.

“Hummingbirds and best friends are special gifts so I decided to attach the hummingbird to my hat,” she said as if it was the most natural thing in the world. I don’t even think she realized her unusual fashion choice might have evoked a less-than-affirming reaction from others! This total unselfconsciousness can make it hard for characters to fit in, but it is also their great gift. Maggie was delighted when I asked if I could take a picture of her hat and possibly include her in my blog.

As we continued to talk, Maggie told me about volunteering at the animal shelter in her retirement. The pure joy she got working with the animals was a delight to hear. When we were about to leave, Maggie stopped me and said she’d like to give me a copy of her Christmas letter to family and friends. It described her very moving faith journey over the past year, highlighting how God had truly blessed her during some rather difficult struggles. I was amazed by her openness and vulnerability. How many of us would share their most personal challenges with others, especially a complete stranger? We had a meaningful worship experience during the church service, but my brief meeting with Maggie afterwards contributed just as much to my faith journey that morning.

Another of my favorite characters is named Dale. I met Dale a few years ago at one of the pickleball courts at the senior community we winter at in Florida.  Most folks at those courts know Dale; some appear to enjoy interacting and bantering with him, others are fairly polite but choose to avoid Dale whenever possible. I find him fun, often entertaining, and unpredictable, all qualities I enjoy.

One thing about Dale is he likes to find ways to be useful and sets himself several “assignments” to complete. During the winter, Dale explained to me that one of his assignments during the colder stretches was to round up as many partly-frozen geckos immobilized by the cold temperatures as he could. He would place them in an aquarium in his home where they quickly thawed out and were able to move again. When the temperatures rose to a comfortable level again, Dale released them. Although this unusual undertaking drew noticeable eye rolls from some folks, Dale seemed immune to or unaware of these reactions.

Just a few weeks ago I was talking with Dale on our way off the courts and he shared that it was time for him to pick up cigarette butts around the adjacent hotel. I knew immediately this was a story that had some gifts in it for me. The sneaky customer upstairs was about to bless me yet one more time. It turns out that every Friday from 11:00 to noon Dale had set himself the task of picking up the trash and cigarette butts from around the hotel next to the pickleball courts.

“Last week I got 312 butts,” he told me. “That’s 312 deep knee bends! When I’m done, I go in the lobby have a half a cup of coffee and read the morning paper. That’s my pay. I really enjoy it!” I was impressed by the sincere pleasure he got in this humble, unacknowledged act of service. I decided to help him pick up butts that morning and sure enough, it did give my quads a good workout! Dale was appreciative of my help even after I accidentally interrupted his careful cigarette count and forced him to start all over. I particularly noticed his lack of negativity or judgment toward the folks who threw the butts on the ground, even when many of the butts were mere inches from the special container just for cigarettes!

As we worked, Dale shared with me that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer several years ago. He had had surgery and radiation at Mayo clinic. “They didn’t get it all in time so now I’m on chemo because it has moved to other parts of my body,” he said matter-of-factly. “I really don’t worry about it because I have been so blessed for the past 81 years. God has been very good to my whole family!” His grateful, positive outlook in the face of circumstances that would send many of us into depression or self-pity was inspiring.

When I asked Dale about including a piece about him in my blog, he was hesitant at first. After some thought he reluctantly agreed, saying, “Use your judgment, but I don’t know why you’d want to write about an old guy picking up cigarette butts.” I beg to disagree. I can think of no better subject than this “old guy picking up cigarette butts”—him and all the rest of the characters out there marching to the beat of their own drums!

Questions for Deepening Your Faith Journey

1.  How do you treat the “characters” in your world—do you avoid them or seek them out? Who have the characters in your life been and how have they influenced or possibly transformed your journey? If you’re not comfortable with characters, why is that? Is your answer worth looking at and working through so you might be able to be blessed by true characters?
2. Are you blessed with a special friend or friends such as Maggie is? Have you told them how much you celebrate and appreciate them and your friendship? What are some concrete ways you could express your appreciation?
3. Are you able to be emotionally vulnerable with others? If not what stops you from taking that risk or making that investment?
4. Do you take the time for small, unacknowledged acts of service? What little steps could you take to make the world a nicer place?
5. Are you able to pick up another person’s trash (literal or metaphorical) without being angry with them? If so, how did you get to that place? If not, what is driving your anger?
6. Can you be grateful for your many gifts even in the midst of difficulties?
7. Do you see yourself as able to march to your own beat? How much does what others think or what you believe they think affect your decisions and behaviors? Are you comfortable with your answer? What does your own unique drumbeat sound like and what’s preventing you from picking up those drumsticks?
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Bernie Minor
Bernie Minor
February 19, 2019 6:53 pm

Terry, you were the “Original 6W8 Character “, less your memory is fading from 1965-1968. In case you can’t remember, Dan Maslanik and I can fill in the blanks.

Love your stories!

Short Nose Polander

Connie Walraven
February 20, 2019 6:20 pm

I really enjoyed reading this! You certainly have a gift for writing.
Lots of food for thought. I would like to pass your blog along to our daughter.
Took me awhile to find this blog, got the information from Heather.

Kathy Holser
Kathy Holser
April 2, 2019 1:25 pm

Terry, I very much enjoyed this article and I, too, love meeting unusual people. When my husband and I attend the music on the square we see some recurring interesting characters who have no interest in blending in. We give them a name until such time as we might be lucky enough to actually meet them and have a conversation. There’s Tilda, Jasmine, Marcos, Luke Skytalker, etc.. Some of the ones we have met are Jerry, Claire, and Martha. As for your list at the end, I think I pretty much adhere to those ideas except #5. I would for… Read more »

Ron Wildasin
Ron Wildasin
April 9, 2019 5:14 am

Terry, your questions are very thought provoking. They remind me that there is much more I can do. Each reminds me that I should not waste an opportunity to encourage others, to thank them for their deeds, and show others that there are people in their life who do care. It might be the spark that others need to keep the fire burning.

September 1, 2021 12:33 pm

[…] If you’d like to read about some other characters in my life, check out my posts Encountering God at the Roadside Diner and Celebrating Characters!. […]