On a run this week, I caught a glimpse of something and circled around for a closer look. Adhered to the asphalt was a bright yellow sticker that read “Fragile, Handle with Care.” Immediately, the 80s-pop-culture part of my brain lit up: “It must be Italian,” I said almost aloud. Then my rock-music side took over, and I began humming the tune to an old Traveling Wilburys song.
But as I jogged around the corner, the stray sticker took on a deeper meaning. There on the hard pavement, the “fragile” sticker seemed misplaced. Asphalt is anything but fragile, right? Asphalt’s tough and doesn’t need careful handling, right? But that’s not really true. Over time, asphalt wears down. Daily traffic, harsh weather, shifting soil, spreading tree roots, and countless other erosive conditions and pressures wear down the road into cracks, potholes, and broken gravelly chunks.
So often what seems resilient and strong is really fragile and deserves to be handled with care. This is especially true with the people in our lives.
Central to the notion of following Christ is the attitude and practice of doing no harm: “Love doesn’t do anything wrong to a neighbor” (Romans 13:10). Yet we daily forget this when we’re reacting to the people and situations we encounter. Even doing something that seems perfectly reasonable and permissible might, in fact, be a huge mistake if it could harm someone (1 Corinthians 8:9). This makes sense, but how often do we neglect to stop and consider how, for instance, our next word or action might hurt the person right in front of us–most often, I think, someone we’re especially close to.
Maybe I think it won’t hurt much. Or maybe I really don’t think about it at all. Or it’s something I feel needs to be said. Or I’m angry, and I want the person to feel as hurt as I am. Or I tag my words with “I’m just saying” when really I’m not “just saying”; instead, I’m being callous to how my statement of perceived fact is really a verbal grenade lobbed with precision into a conversation.
But what can seem strong can be damaged. People can be worn down and broken in so many ways that we may not realize. And individuals in our lives don’t come with warning stickers on their foreheads.
Maybe it’s best, therefore, to assume that we have a sacred responsibility to handle people with care.
That doesn’t mean that we can’t address serious circumstances with serious words and firm actions. And that doesn’t mean at all that we allow ourselves or others to be bullied or mistreated or abused. But it does mean that we weigh the words we say, the tone we use, and the actions we take on the scale of genuine care before we speak or act. And it does mean that when we need to speak or act decisively and with strength, we consider love at the heart of our purpose and the ultimate aim of creating goodness in our world.
Love doesn’t make much difference as an abstract notion. Love is true, life-giving, and world-changing only when it becomes incarnate in what we think, say, and do in particular circumstances with particular people. And this starts with the people closest to us.
Who in your life do you need to handle with more care? What do you need to say or do differently in order to build that person up with goodness instead of contribute to cracks and potholes in their spirit? This is not easy work, and it’s not always immediately appreciated. But maybe the first step is seeing the sticker and being reminded that the person right in front of us needs our kind intention and intentional kindness. And with practice and time, instead of wearing down the asphalt, we’re overlaying the road with a new surface.