Friday, May 27, 2016

Fifty-Seven

My father died on May 27, 1979. He was 57. I'm 57 now. What follows is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Fifty-Seven: A Memoir of Death & Life, which will be published this fall.

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Debra got home, took one look at me, and said, “What’s wrong?” as I took her in my arms and cried. “Daddy had a heart attack,” I said. “We need to go to Thomaston.”

We arrived at the Upson County Hospital late in the afternoon. Daddy was in the Intensive Care Unit. We walked into his room to find him awake but on a ventilator; the tube down his throat made it impossible for him to talk. Someone had given him a pad and some paper; when he saw me his eyes grew large and he quickly scribbled, “How are you?” He underlined “you.”

My father was lying there with his massive heart attack and he was worried about my tonsillectomy. I thought he was crazy. I’m a father now, too. I’m crazy like that now, too.

I told him I was fine. The truth was that my throat was throbbing and my heart was breaking, but the first thing didn’t matter and the second was too much to deal with for either him or me. Besides, my throat would heal. I wasn’t so sure about my heart, though, given that it had not yet recovered from the damage done to it by my mother’s death four years earlier.

Preacher Bill arrived and prayed with us. He prayed that God would work a miracle in Champ’s (my father’s given name was Champ) life and heal him. He expressed that thought in several different ways but it was the only thing he prayed for. Later, upon reflection, I would develop some sympathy for Preacher Bill’s position. My father was both a good friend to him and a pillar of stability in a church that had so much instability at its core, it often teetered on collapse, and every once in a while just went ahead and fell apart. Still, as Preacher Bill prayed, I grew more and more frustrated because I had already made up my mind that my father was not going to recover. I wanted and needed someone to pray that we—that I—would have the strength to make it through what we were facing and that we would know the comfort of the Lord in our present pain and in our coming grief.

That was the moment I decided that when I had the responsibility and privilege of praying in such situations I would always ask God to help the family deal with whatever they had to deal with. I do ask God to heal but I always also ask God to help both the sick person and that person’s family and friends to live in and through the experience with trust and hope. After all, even those people who experience an astounding recovery, and whose families are so gratefulfor God’s healing power in that instance, must deal with their ever-present mortality. Every crisis, no matter how it’s resolved, is preparation and practice for the next crisis.

Lazarus was raised from the dead by Jesus and his sisters Mary and Martha were glad. Sometime later, though, Lazarus died again. So far as I know he’s still in the ground.

Besides, I remembered other things that I had heard Preacher Bill say. I remembered what he had said at Mama’s funeral about how she had prayed that God would let her see me grow up before she died. I remembered how I had realized in that moment that my decision to leave home to go to college a year early might have freed her up to go ahead and die. I couldn’t understand why Preacher Bill didn’t perceive what was going on. I was scheduled to leave for seminary in August—Daddy was supposed to drive the moving truck—and now, here it was May, and there lay my father. It was three months before I was going to move five hundred miles away to pursue another degree and to pursue the life that lay before me, and my father had been stricken with an out of nowhere major heart attack.

For all I knew, Daddy might have asked God to let him live until I finished college, got married, and headed off to seminary.

It would have been nice if he had asked God to let him hang around long enough to drive the truck.

I thought Preacher Bill should have sufficient spiritual insight to perceive that what was happening here was God’s doing—with considerable and maddening collusion and cooperation by my parents—and that the best I could do was to get out of the way, let it be, slough through my grief, and suppress my anger at my parents for deserting me and at God for making it happen.

Preacher Bill had said something else at Mama’s funeral that I had not forgotten. He pointed out—he made a really big deal out of it, actually—that she had died at exactly noon on Sunday or, as he put it, “just as we were singing the invitation hymn here at Midway.” (Baptist churches typically sing a hymn at the end of each service during which folks can walk the aisle to accept the Lord or make some other commitment.) I don’t remember him claiming that the Lord had orchestrated events so that Mama’s going to Jesus would correlate with the time in the worship service when we summoned people to come to him, but if he didn’t draw that straight line, I did. Anyone with eyes to see should have realized that God had carefully orchestrated the spectacle of my mother’s death even to the point of having her die at straight up noon on Sunday.

If you don’t think God is capable of orchestrating a spectacle, you should go read your Bible, especially the account of the exodus from Egypt and that of the last week of Jesus’ life.

I tried to shake such thoughts from my head as we waited at the hospital for updates on Daddy’s condition. Thursday night passed with no news other than that he was in serious but stable condition. On Friday the doctor told us that the damage to Daddy’s heart was too severe to do anything about. He said he probably wouldn’t survive, but if he did, he’d be an invalid. I began to pray that my father would live, but quickly my prayer became that, if the choice was between dying and being an invalid, the Lord would do what I knew Daddy would want and let him die.

On Saturday—Saturday again—the doctor told us that Daddy’s lungs had begun to fill with fluid and that it was just a matter of time. I figured it would be about twenty-four hours. Debra and I drove back to Macon that day so she could take a final exam that her somewhat less than compassionate Drama teacher thought was more important than her being with the family of her dying father-in-law. Maybe he thought we were being overly dramatic. I thought he was being a jerk.

Sunday morning came and our family members and friends had gathered at the hospital. Debra and I went downstairs to get something to eat and drink from some vending machines. We were standing there trying to decide what to get when I looked at my watch; it was 11:55. “We’d better get back upstairs,” I said.

I didn’t hear the voice of the Lord this time. I had learned. I just knew.

Daddy died right after we got back. It was straight up noon. Again.

Some well-meaning people judged the symmetry between the day and time of my mother’s and father’s deaths to be beautiful. I found it appalling and frightening.

I was suddenly very weary of God’s showing off. The choreography imposed on my life may have been impressive, but it had become numbingly predictable.

I needed a dance with different steps.

I needed crises without a predictable ending.

I needed the people I loved to quit dying on me.

It was at that moment that my mindset shifted from Psalm 8 to Job’s parody of it. The Psalmist had affirmed,

When I look up at your skies,
at what your fingers made—
the moon and the stars
that you set firmly in place—
what are human beings
that you think about them;
what are human beings
that you pay attention to them?
You’ve made them only slightly less than divine,
crowning them with glory and grandeur.
(Psalm 8:3-5)

Indeed, who were we that God paid any attention to us? Who was I that God paid any mind to me? But up to this point in my life I had been grateful for God’s attention. God’s hand had seemed relatively light, even with the death of my mother, and I had trusted that I had, like Noah, found favor with God. When I thought of God, I thought of God’s blessings. Now it was dawning on me that, while Noah found favor with God, his reward was getting to see lots of death and destruction.

So now I began to relate more to Job’s take on the Psalmist’s sentiments:

What are human beings, that you exalt them,
that you take note of them,
visit them each morning,
test them every moment?
Why not look away from me;
let me alone until I swallow my spit?
(Job 7:17-19)

I had considered God’s watchful eye to be a blessing; I now considered it to be a curse. I had been thankful for God’s intervention in my life; I now regarded it as a threat. I had thought that faithfulness to God’s perceived call on my life would lead to life; I now suspected that it led only to death, not so much for me as for the people that I loved.

Math was never my strong suit. Subconsciously I put 2 and 2 together and came up with 5, which was bad math but powerful psychology. Debra was now all I had left; the thought of losing her was unbearably painful, so painful that actually thinking about it was beyond my capabilities, so I came up with other things to worry about. Somewhere deep inside me my controlling formula went something like this: my plans to go to college = my mother’s death + my plans to go to seminary = my father’s death = other plans that led to change might = something happening to my wife.

That didn’t stop me, though; nothing was going to stop me. I had not yet discovered the excellent Memphis band Big Star (their songs “Thirteen” and “I’m in Love with a Girl” are sublime), but their song “The Ballad of El Goodo” could have been the soundtrack for my life at that point: “There ain’t no one going to turn me ‘round. No there ain’t no one going to turn me ‘round.”

So I kept moving forward while things churned inside me. In August of 1979, three months after Daddy died and a few hours after Debra graduated from Mercer University, we headed off to Louisville so I could be there in time to begin classes in the fall semester. She got a job and I started studying ...


© 2016 Michael L. Ruffin

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Dryer Sheets and a Squirrel

I had poured my heart out every Sunday morning for six years.

I had tried to tell them how much God loves them. I had preached about the blessings and the challenges that come with following Jesus. I had tried to help them see just how amazing it is that Almighty God gives any thought to us at all, much less that God loves us so much that Jesus died for us. I had told them over and over again that we have an amazing opportunity to be crucified with Christ, to be raised with him, and to walk in newness of life.

Now it was my last Sunday as their pastor. I had just finished trying one more time to use the best words I could muster to communicate the love and grace of God to them. I stood at the door, speaking with the departing worshippers.

A lady shook my hand and said, “You know, there’s one thing you said that I’ll always remember.” My ears and spirit perked right up. “What’s that?” I asked. “It was in a children’s sermon.” That deflated me a bit, although I once had a sixty-year old man tell me that he got more out of my children’s sermons than my “grown-up” ones. Still, I did try to share Christ even in my children’s messages, so I was not without hope. I listened expectantly, waiting to hear what she had heard from me about worshipping God, following Jesus, and serving humanity that had changed her life so much that she’d never forget it.

“You said that half a dryer sheet works just as well as a whole one.”

And she smiled and walked back out into the big, bad world, armed with that helpful bit of spiritual laundry advice.

I smiled as she walked away. But my mental response was not, I fear, particularly gracious.

Six years of talking about Jesus, and she remembered a throwaway line about doing laundry.

A few years later, as part of my pastoral work at my next church, I was visiting a church member in a hospital in Columbus. After the visit, I had lunch with my friend Jimmy, who is a pastor in that city. My church member’s daughter’s family attended his church, so he told me he thought he’d visit them that afternoon.

While I was driving home, my phone rang. It was Jimmy. I said, “Hey. Miss me already?”

And he said, “Why didn’t you tell me about the squirrel?”

The lady from my church had told him about a squirrel that had visited our Sunday morning service a few weeks before. It was like that Ray Stevens song, only Sister Bertha Better-Than-You didn’t start talking about her love life and naming names, unfortunately. The little fellow did cause quite a ruckus before he found his way out the front door.

“I’ll tell you why I didn’t tell you about it,” I said. “I’m sick and tired of hearing about that stupid squirrel.” Jimmy was laughing.

“I mean,” I continued, “Jesus shows up every week, and nobody thinks anything of it, much less says anything about it. But let a squirrel show up one time, and it’s all anybody wants to talk about.”

I understand that a money-saving laundry tip is helpful.

But Jesus is helpful, too.

I understand that a runaway squirrel causes havoc.

But Jesus shakes things up, too.

Maybe we’ve just gotten too accustomed to him.

Maybe we’d be wise to pay more attention …

Friday, May 6, 2016

Hold On Loosely

So there’s been a report making the rounds that says you shouldn’t hug your dog. My dogs and I find this news very disturbing.

Dr. Stanley Coren, a retired professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, examined photos of people hugging their dogs and concluded that, in most cases, the hugged dogs exhibited signs of stress. Such signs include partially closing their eyes, turning their heads, yawning, or laying their ears back. Dr. Coren says that a dog’s default defense mechanism is to run when threatened, so a confining hug causes Fido or Fidette to feel trapped, which makes him or her feel stressed.

Someone suggested that maybe the dogs looked stressed because they didn’t like posing for photographs.

We dog huggers don’t hug them to confine them. We hug our dogs because we love them. I suppose it’s possible that they feel like they’re prisoners of our love.

My Good Wife and I have three dogs, or, better put, three dogs have us. They’re all rescues. Little Jack, the Papillon house dweller, is a ten-pound dog wannabe. There’s not enough of him to hug, so he doesn’t figure into this discussion.

Our other two dogs—the real dogs—live outside. They each weigh between fifty and sixty pounds. They’re both mutts. Stevie, who may or may not be a Shepherd mix, is reserved, timid, gentle, and nervous. He’ll sometimes approach you and deign to accept your affection. It seems to me that he doesn’t mind a hug, so long as you don’t squeeze him hard or long. Rainey, who is a Heeler mix, is outgoing, friendly, and affectionate. Sometimes she hugs me. It doesn’t stress me out.

My non-professional, biased, self-serving, based only on my own limited experience opinion is that it’s probably OK to hug your dog, so long as you don’t squeeze too tight, don’t hug too long, and don’t try to hug while the dog’s trying to eat. I’d be cautious about hugging a dog you don’t know.

There’s a life lesson in this.

Some folks are huggers, and some aren’t. My Good Wife and I are very accomplished huggers. We’ve had lots of practice. One of the many reasons I fell in love with her is that when I hug her, I can rest my chin on top of her head. As I’ve gotten older and more tired, that’s been helpful. There’s still nothing I like better than sharing a good squeeze with her. It makes me feel secure, wanted, and loved. Evidently, she likes it, too, since mere toleration would not communicate the warmth I feel in her embrace.

Whether or not you’re a hugger, you still have relationships with people who are very important to you. We want such folks to be close to us. We want them to stay with us. Here’s the thing, though: if we try to hold them too tightly, we might stifle them and cause them to feel like they have to leave us to find freedom to live. Besides, such clinginess is usually motivated by insecurity more than by love. But if we act like we don’t want to hold them all, we might cause them to think they don’t matter very much to us, and they’ll figure there’s no point in staying. People need to know they’re appreciated and valued. They need to know they’re loved.

Balance is the key. Our spouses or partners need to know they matter to us. But they also need to know that they are free to be who they are meant to be and to do what they are meant to do.

The best guidance I can offer was uttered many years ago by those wild-eyed Southern prophets, .38 Special: “Hold on loosely. But don’t let go.”

It’s a good way to treat your dog. And each other …

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Stairway to Someplace

Led Zeppelin’s forty-five-year-old (!) song “Stairway to Heaven” has been in the news lately. The estate of a former member of the band Spirit is suing Zeppelin, claiming that the legendary British rockers plagiarized the opening notes of the song from Spirit’s song “Taurus.”

I don’t know enough about music to know if they have a case.

I do know enough about Jesus to know that “Stairway to Heaven” isn’t a Christian song.

A friend tells of hearing a well-known radio personality talking about his first on-air job. It was on a Christian radio station. He was Jewish. His show was on at night and, since he was the only person on duty, he had to answer phone calls. It was 1971, and he said he continually fielded requests to play “Stairway to Heaven.” He tried to explain to caller after caller that it wasn’t a Christian song. “It’s not Christian just because it mentions heaven,” he said.

That reminded me of a story I heard about something that happened at a South Georgia radio station that featured Southern Gospel music. One of its on-air “personalities” was a local minister. One day in 1977, he introduced a song with words something like these: “Folks, I have a new record here. It’s by a group I’ve never heard of and I’ve never listened to the song before, so we’re going to hear it for the first time together. It sounds like a great Gospel song. So let’s listen to the Kendalls sing ‘Heaven’s Just a Sin Away.’”

And all the people said “Oh my!”

Somebody hopefully told the DJ, ““It’s not Christian just because it mentions heaven.”

As a matter of fact, not everything that’s called “Christian” is in fact Christian.

Take “Christian” political candidates.” Please.

Candidates who trumpet their “Christian faith” and “Christian values” make me nervous. First of all, I’m not sure that a person will, if genuinely Christian, “trumpet” such things. I mean, Jesus said we shouldn’t, and if Jesus said not to do something, then his followers certainly won’t do it. Right? Besides, if you’re really filled up with the love, grace, humility, and compassion of Christ, it’s going to show, whether you want it to or not. And if you get credit for it, you’re going to be embarrassed by it.

Second, when candidates make their “Christianity” part of their advertising and rhetoric, it’s hard to shake the feeling that they’re just trying to attract votes from a particular segment of the Christian community. Once, some members of the church I pastored at the time wanted to put out some “Christian voting guides.” “They’re not in support of any particular candidate or party,” they told me. So I looked them over. The values that the guide said should direct our voting decisions lined up very nicely with one party’s platform. There were other Christian values, some of which are very important, that the guide failed to mention, all of which lined up with the other party’s platform. I declined the request to distribute the voting guides in the church.

Don’t hear me wrong. I’m not saying there are not Christian politicians. Some are characterized by love, grace, and humility. They regard their public service as a part of their Christian commitment. You’d strongly suspect they’re Christian, even if they never say they are. What I am saying is that we need to watch out for those who say the right words and check the right boxes, but whose attitude, bearing, motivations, and actions seem to indicate that they may not know Jesus very well, if at all.

A song’s not Christian just because it mentions heaven.

Politicians aren’t Christian just because they say they are. Some of them count on Christians being gullible.

So let’s be discerning …

Friday, April 8, 2016

Zip-Line Church

The Braves played in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium from 1966-1996. That’s thirty-one years. This will be their twentieth and final season playing at Turner Field. Next year they’ll move into a brand new state-of-the-art park up in Cobb County. I expect the one after that to be built on the shores of beautiful Lake Lanier.

When you look at a map that shows where their season ticket holders live, the move makes sense. There are other advantages to the new location. If they need to call up a player from the AAA Gwinnett Braves, he’ll be just an Uber ride away, for one. But as someone who lives south of Atlanta, I’m sorry they’re doing it. It’s going to make it much more complicated to get to the old ball park. Make that the new ball park.

The new place is called SunTrust Park. It’s named for the bank, not as an indicator of Helios worship. It’s part of a huge development called The Battery Atlanta, which, its website modestly proclaims, “will be the South’s preeminent lifestyle destination.”

I didn’t know lifestyles have destinations.

I think what they mean is that there will be stuff to do there, and the stuff will be fun. And expensive. It will feature dining, shopping, and lodging of both the temporary (an Omni hotel) and long-term (550 “modern residences,” which sounds to me like something out of The Jetsons) varieties.

There’s no telling what kind of attractions the stadium will feature. I mean, at old run-down out-of-date Turner Field, you could have a radar gun measure the speed of your best fastball. They’ve already announced the inclusion at the new place of a zip-line that will transport folks from one end of the concourse to the other.

This will be cool.

I know I want a kid stuffed with cotton-candy, hot dogs, and Coke zipping over my head. What could go wrong that a long hot shower featuring much scrubbing with anti-bacterial soap won’t take care of?

Oh, lest we forget, they’ll also play baseball there.

Maybe a few folks—you know, the old-fashioned “traditionalists”— will go to actually watch the games.

It all reminds me of the way church is getting to be these days. Lots of stuff is going on at church. Some of it ranks right up there with a zip line.

A long time ago in a city far, far away, our daughter went to a church’s Vacation Bible School during the summer between her kindergarten and first grade years. On Thursday, she came home excited because they were going to have a waterslide on Friday. So on Friday she went to Vacation Bible School with her swimsuit on under her clothes. When she got home, we asked her about the waterslide.

“They just laid a big sheet of plastic on the side of a hill and sprayed water on it,” she said. “It wasn’t that great.”

“But you know,” she continued, “You can’t judge a church by its waterslide.”

Maybe not. You probably shouldn’t judge a church for having a waterslide or zip line or whatever, either. And I understand the desire to try to attract folks to the church. I really believe, though, that we need to think long and hard about what we’re doing.

We may inadvertently be sending the message that Jesus is not enough of an attraction.

Another church in another community where I once lived had a big giveaway on Easter Sunday. They gave away a big screen TV, a Caribbean cruise, and a car, among other things.

They had a bigger crowd than we did. That’s understandable, though.

All we had to offer was a crucified and resurrected Lord . . .

Monday, March 28, 2016

Ruffinly

Back on March 1, I heard NPR’s Renee Montagne interview Zimbabwean author Petina Gappah about her new novel, The Book of Memory. During the interview, Gappah talked about “Zimglish,” in which Zimbabweans coin words based on English words:

Because we love our Bible — we consider ourselves a very strong Christian country — so we have a lot of phrases that we take from the Bible that we think are English words. So, for instance, Nicodemus is a man, a Pharisee who went to Jesus at night and said, "How can a man be born again?" So to do something "nicodemously" is to do something secretly, under cover of the darkness. So you have politicians condemning the "Nicodemus machinations of the government" and you think, "What?" It's my absolutely favorite Zimglish word of all time.

So in Zimglish, “nicodemously” means “to do something secretly, under cover of darkness.”

This, of course, got me to thinking about other possibilities. Allow me to share some I came up with.

“Abrahamly and Sarahly” = to do something that you’re just too old to do, and then laugh about it.

“Gideonly” = to be a total chicken who soars like an eagle.

“Jonahly” = to “progress” from blatant disobedience to petulant obedience, while picking up a great fish story along the way.

“Judasly” = to do something so unspeakable that people talk about it from then on.

“Isaiahly” = to walk around town naked for three years and still have people take you seriously.

“Gomerly” = (a) to be married to a preacher who insists on airing your dirty laundry in public. (b) to have children with really unfortunate names.

“Jezebelly”= to have a dog food named after you.

“Joshualy” = (a) to think the past tense of “fight” is “fit.” (b) to tend to make a really big mess.

“Gabrielly” = to get all uppity, in a heavenly sort of way.

“Jobly” = to wish somebody would give you a break already.

“Pharaohly” = to be ridiculously indecisive.

“Adamly and Evely” = to wish everybody would stop blaming everything on you.

“Solomonly” = to do some really dumb things for someone who’s supposed to be so stinkin’ smart.

“Goliathly” = to be really tired of people saying “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.”

“Danielly” = to have a way with cats.

“Samsonly” = to bring the house down.

“Bathshebaly” = to wish you weren’t so doggone beautiful.

“Shadrachly, Meshachly, and Abednegoly” = to be extremely cold-natured.

“Esauly and Jacobly” = to engage in over-the-top sibling rivalry.

“Paully” = to have an extreme aversion to short sentences and simple thoughts.

“Lotly” = to make a really bad real estate investment.

“John the Baptistly” = to dress funny, to eat weird stuff, and to talk real loud.

“Ezekielly” = to wonder why people are always asking you what you’ve been smoking.

“Beloved Disciplely” = to choose to remain anonymous, only to have most folks assume they know who you are.

“Philemonly” = to be the recipient of a passive aggressive letter.

“Jesusly” = to know the way, go the way, and show the way.

And last but not least:

"MikeRuffinly" = to have lots of people wonder about you . . .

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Winnie-the-Pooh Effect

On the March 21 edition of the CBS Evening News, Jim Axelrod presented a story that made me realize (again) that you can never know the ongoing impact an action might have.

Henry Colebourn was a veterinarian in Winnipeg, Canada. He was on his way to join the forces fighting in Europe during World War I. When he got off the train in a small Canadian town, he encountered a hunter who had killed a bear and was selling her cubs for $20 each. He bought a female cub and named her after his hometown.

Winnie the bear cub accompanied Colebourn across the Atlantic and became the mascot of his regiment in England. But he couldn’t take her to the front lines in France, so he left her with a London zoo, intending to reclaim her when the war ended. But four years passed, and Winnie found a home at the zoo.

In fact, she had such a friendly disposition, the zookeepers let children go into her enclosure to play with her. One of the children who became entranced by Winnie the bear was a boy named Christopher Robin. His father, A. A. Milne, began writing stories about Christopher and the bear, who has been known ever since as Winnie-the-Pooh. The adventures of Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh have enchanted innumerable children (and adults) over the decades.

Now Lindsay Mattick has written a book entitled Finding Winnie: the True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear that tells the story of how her great-grandfather found and protected the creature that inspired the Pooh stories. As Mattick said, "That's powerful to know -- that something you do in a moment can go on to have these incredible huge ripple effects that you never could even have imagined."

I’m sure that lots of people have done lots of things that produced ripples that influenced my life. The one I’m aware of that I’m most grateful for happened right about this time of year in 1975 in a classroom at Forsyth Road School when Mrs. Key told me I should think about attending Mercer University. I not only thought about it—I did it. I found my path, my principles, my wife, and my mentor at Mercer. And it all started with a suggestion by my Creative Writing teacher.

I’m glad I know about, remember, and can be grateful for what Mrs. Key did. But there’s no telling how many other people did so many other things that ended up having an effect on me that I have no idea about. The right word spoken at the right time, the right deed done at the right moment, or the right encouragement offered on the right occasion can set events in motion that can make all the difference for someone. It might affect lots of people. It could even change history.

So, when we have the chance to do the right thing rather than the wrong thing, to speak the kind word rather than the harsh word, to offer the constructive suggestion instead of the destructive criticism, to take the high road rather than the low road, to build up rather than tear down, to promote hope rather than fear, to embrace rather than push away, and to love rather than hate, let’s do it.

You may never know what a difference it’ll make in other people’s lives. But that’s all right.

It’s enough to know that it might.

Besides, you’ll know the effect it’ll have on you.