Mike, a friend of mine told a story and asked a question. The story? A young man, hooked on playing football, goes through numerous failures. Over and over again he fails, is tackled, injured, hurt. He slams into the unforgiving earth, he bleeds, he is covered in mud and sweat, grime and spit. And the coach keeps pushing him – pushing him on. The kid keeps going on little more than faith. Faith that if he keeps trying, if he doesn’t stop running, doesn’t stop moving, no matter how hard he’s blocked, he can make it, he will make it. Because the coach said so.
And yet again, he fails – over and over.
And he keeps trying, facing down the desire to quit, the pain, the suffering on, at times, little more than a bare thread of faith and dogged will.
And yet. And yet.
There is a paradox. You have a gigantic heap of sand in your driveway. Your neighbors, your friends, your wife, your kids – they all stand about this massive, gigantic heap and proclaim that yea – it is a gigantic heap of sand and no mere pile. Pulling out but one speck, one grain of silica makes it no less a gigantic heap, and neither does pulling out the next, or the next, for at each point the neighbors, the kids, the friends, and all the gathered busybodies proclaim that lo, it is still a gigantic heap of sand and no mere pile.
No-one can draw the line at which removing but one tan, translucent grain of silica turns the gigantic heap into a pile. And yet, at some point, you look around, and realize that the once large gigantic heap now is but a mere pile. Wherever that line was, it was crossed a long time ago.
One day, invisibly crossing a faint line that cannot be seen, everything starts coming together. The boy starts to truly perform. He “keeps on choppin.’” – And he sees results. And then, he breaks through.
He achieves his goal.
The question becomes: “Now What?”
What do you say to this young man? What do you say when he comes off the field? What is the paradox? What dilemmas does he now face? Why do others choose a different path instead?
I cheated, and added a bit. I also need to take a few side trips into wisdom, storytelling and sequels, but it’s all relevant.
A caveat – I don’t know this boy, this man becoming. He could be anyone. All such advice is dependent on too many variables to predict. And yet – some truths re universal, or at least generally so.
As we grow older we get cynical. It’s all too easy to remember that the good guy doesn’t always win, that everyone has their faults and imperfections. Those cynics, those that hate to think of the glory we are capable of, who tear heroes down via their failures in order to stand at the same level, are a poison. Being a hero isn’t about perfection, it’s about risking your life and facing danger in striving toward an ideal. It’s about standing fast on principle, and meeting a standard, and in some small way surpassing our humanity despite our other faults. Do we choose to look at our lives as a list of the things we’ve failed at, or a list of thing’s we’ve accomplished – with plenty of “interesting times” and bad examples not to emulate again?
Faith – faith that, despite the repeated failures, that the seeds of heroism lie in all of us if we but try. That we can at times approach the divine, and transcend our humanity in some small way. That in the wreckage, and blood and pain we find not despair but hope – and the will to go on.
This heroism, this struggle, this transcendence needs to be recognized and praised. It must be nurtured. And so we praise him. And this praise, coming from the man who’s standards he never quite met, who kept pushing him to try over and over again through the example that he could do it, will mean more than gold, more than wine, women, and song.
And it is this very struggle that shaped the man, that allowed him to make those small, incremental improvements, that molded him, toughened him, forged him, until he broke through and transcended his limitations. And he finds himself standing there, getting praise from his coach, knowing that he made it there, and never quite knowing when he took that step that made it.
The man now has a living, breathing example that he can face adversity and win. Maybe not always, certainly not always, but eventually, if he never lets go, he can win, or die trying.
And here lies the trap.
The buddhists take the attitude that life is pain. A popular powerpoint presentation making the email rounds made the point that “assisting” a butterfly in its’ struggles to break free of the cocoon instead cripples it, as that very struggle is needed to develop its wings. And yet we want everything to be easy.
Despite the success and the clear path of how he got there, it is far too easy to rest on his laurels. He has succeeded. He has overcome! He won! Woo Hoo! He’s going to Disney World!
And if he’s like all too many stereotypical high school football stars, or like your standard-issue teen pop music/child actor celebrity, his life will implode.
He must immediately be presented with a new challenge. Any challenge, as long as it forces him out of his comfort zone and forces him to learn.
Something to focus on.
He’s gained some wisdom, and is perilously close to throwing it away. Invest a bit more wisdom in him that yet again, if he trusts you, and in this context he will now trust you more than ever, may save him until he learns from personal experience the why of what you are telling him to do.
So go ahead. Take that break. Then have him get back on the damned horse, and ride! Push the envelope. Find another struggle where he can say “by God I accomplished something.”
But what struggle?
Here we turn to storytelling, and sequels. One trick to make things more bearable, that kids almost instinctively do, is to act like their heroes, to act as if they are the heroes in a story. Superman, the Lone Ranger, the super secret agent. (In this context, it begins to make you wonder about a lot of our sports heroes, celebs, and teen idols as role models, eh? It gets worse when you consider how many teen-oriented shows make the adults out to be idiots…..).
Part of why this works is because kids know the hero is supposed to struggle. If you are the protagonist, the hero in your very own story arc – unless your tastes run to the post-modern and nihilistic – you will instinctively start looking for solutions to the problems, and be more willing to face the problems.
The problem with sequels as a metaphor is Hollywood disease. Every sequel has to be bigger, better, louder, and with more explosions. Instead, I’ll turn to the authors who helm the podcast “Writing Excuses” (“Fifteen minutes, because you’re in a hurry, and they’re not that smart.”). All you need is a challenge. Any challenge, as long as it makes you focus, as long as it makes you learn something new, as long as it makes you grow.
So no, if you won the game, you don’t have to win the state finals or the superbowl (though those are worthy goals in and of themselves). Saving the world doesn’t require you to save the galaxy the next time out.
It can be as simple as finally getting your head wrapped around algebra, or grammar, while not slacking off on the football.
As one of my favorite bands put it:
There is no love untouched by hate
no unity without discord
there is no courage without fear
there is no peace without a war
there is no wisdom without regret
no admiration without scorn
(The Cruxshadows, “Eye of the Storm”, from DreamCypher)
It’s pointless to avoid struggle. Embrace it, face it, learn from it.
Addendum: Mike Bronco, the guy who originally asked the question that inspired this, is a all-around great guy and fitness instructor originally from Jersey. He’s got a book coming out called Man School, about the obvious, but sublimely so. It’s filled with real-life examples, good advice, and a ton of tales passed down from his Dad, Grandad, and uncles.