“You can do it!”

Wilma Rudolph: The fastest woman of her generation
New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. – NYPL Digital
Accessed via Wikipedia
NYWT&S staff photographs are in the public domain per the instrument of gift. See http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/res/076_nyw.html

High school gym class was awful for me. In truth, I first noticed how un-athletic I was in the fourth grade, when it became clear that the only things I was good at in PE was dodging balls and square dancing. Oh, and the bar hang that girls used to do for the annual Physical Fitness Test instead of pull-ups – I was great at that! I just imagined that I would literally die if I let go. I failed all the other tests, but that one? Presidential, every time. But I didn’t hate gym class. It was a break from the routine, and it felt good to exercise. My elementary and middle school gym teachers accepted that, even trying my hardest, I was simply bad at every sport I tried, and none of my peers gave me a hard time about it.

My high school coaches, on the other hand, refused to “give up” on me. They really believed that I could be better if I just tried harder, and so they were relentlessly, vocally encouraging. They were especially “encouraging” about my running. Shooting baskets, or serving a volleyball, or any of dozens of other skills require some amount of practice simply to do in a mediocre way. Running, on the other hand, is something most kids learn how to do naturally before they are 18 months old, so obviously I had had lots of practice. And lots of practice meant no excuses.

Running. I wanted to believe that I was shooting off the starting line at top speed, but in seconds, I would be huffing and puffing, and by the end of the run, I had been double lapped by literally my entire class. 30 people or something, all not just faster than me, but embarrassingly faster. And to make matters worse, Coach was standing in the middle of the track, singling me out, shouting, “You can do it, Cosby! Keep going! Don’t stop now! What now? Are you going to start walking? Are you going to walk like a quitter? Keep running! You can do it! I know you have it in you!”

What exactly was the “it” that I had in me, anyway? It felt like what I had was a knife in my chest, starting as early as the 100 meter mark. And it didn’t go away. By 400 meters, my legs were like jelly. By 600 meters, I felt like I would pass out. And already my entire class had passed me – they had gone almost twice as far as I had, and they weren’t slowing down. Most of them seemed to be enjoying themselves. I, on the other hand, was going at my absolute top speed, and was sure that this was going to be the day that I died on the track. Maybe the last thing I would hear would be Coach telling me to just try harder.

Coach didn’t actually know I had it in me. He couldn’t possibly know I had it in me. I didn’t know for sure myself if I had it in me.

I remembered reading in Sunday school about Wilma Rudolph. That was quite the inspirational works righteousness story. She contracted polio as a child, and had been told by a doctor that she was never going to be able to walk without a brace. But she was so determined that not only did she walk, but she ran. And not only did she run, but she ran in the Olympics. She became the fastest woman alive. The moral of the story, we were told, was that we could do anything we put our minds to, as long as we didn’t give up no matter what anyone told us. (To be fair to Ms. Rudolph, she herself would likely have recognized that only one person can be the fastest in the world at a time, heroic efforts notwithstanding. She was not responsible for the way the curriculum writer had chosen to turn her life story into a morality tale.)

If Wilma Rudolph could run after having had polio as a child, certainly I could do it – I who had never had to wear a brace, who had never been diagnosed with anything particularly serious. I so wanted to be a runner like Wilma Rudolph. I didn’t want to be that slow – it had not been that long ago that I had harbored secret dreams of being the fastest woman alive, like Wilma Rudolph. Maybe Coach was right: if I kept trying my hardest, surely one day I would at least be able to keep up with my class mates.

It wasn’t long before his certainty became oppressive. I started to doubt myself – started to oscillate between rage at his certainty and self-loathing: no matter what I thought, I must not be trying if I was not getting any better. He believed, he suspected that all I needed was more encouragement, or embarrassment, or effort, and I would be as good as anyone else. But he didn’t say, “I suspect…” He didn’t say, “I believe…” He said, “I know.”

We should always be careful about our certainty about another person’s ability or potential. “I know you can do it!” is not a helpful motivator. For someone who really is trying, relentless encouragement can be discouraging.

Take addiction, for instance: when I was interning as a chaplain at a residential addiction treatment facility, I was told that only about 5% of addicts actually manage to stay clean for a full five years after treatment. So what do you say to someone who statistically is 95% likely to get back on drugs in the next 5 years? “I know you can do it?” That’s pretty cheeky – and definitely setting up the vast majority of people in recovery for a serious shame spiral down the road. You could try reverse psychology – hope that you can make them angry enough to fight with the words: “Almost everyone fails at this. What makes you think you are so special? I’m going to see you right back in here in a matter of months.” That’s rather dismal, isn’t it? But most importantly, it isn’t true. No one can tell anyone else for certain that they will or won’t be able to stay off drugs. No one can even know that for themselves. At best, it is a weekly or daily struggle. Sometimes, it’s moment to moment.

None of us can tell another person what they are able to do or likely to do. We don’t know that a person can stay off drugs, or that they will start using again. We don’t know that a person can keep commitments if they just try hard enough, or that they definitely won’t. We don’t know that a person will be able to speak more clearly, read more quickly, or jump farther if they just put their mind to it. When we say that we do know, we are being dishonest and unloving.

We can’t have perfect knowledge. At best, we can have hope: we can desire for a person to be able to do more, or to be able to take better care of themselves. At best, we can be honest enough to say “I don’t know, I hope so,” when a friend asks us, “Do you think I can quit smoking?” or “Will I ever finish this novel?” or “Will I learn how to stop getting so angry at my kids?”

Those three words, “I don’t know,” are a gift. “I don’t know,” means “there is grace for you.” It means that I will not assume that you are lazy if you fail. It means that I know that no matter how well I know you, I cannot know you well enough to peer into your future. It means that I acknowledge that no one’s will is all powerful. Omnipotence is reserved for God alone.

But the next three words, “I hope so,” these are a gift too. “I hope so,” says, “I want you to be healthy.” It says, “I love you.” It says, “I will pray for you.” It says, “I will do my feeble best not to make you stumble.”

Will I be able to remember this advice when the time comes? Will you?

I don’t know. I hope so.

A Blast from the Past

Last month, to celebrate her wedding anniversary, my mom looked through her wedding album. As my own 15th wedding anniversary approaches, I was reminded that my wedding photos are still in a cardboard box in the attic. I can’t remember when I last looked through them. My seven year old daughter has never seen them.

When I was a child, looking at old photos was an exciting event – whether looking through the two photo albums that spanned my preschool years, or munching on popcorn while looking at the many slides that my father took – especially of my parents’ cross country honeymoon roadtrip! Each photo was sorted into its proper place in its albums or carousel, and together they formed a comfortingly familiar narrative.

And so, on a mission to create this narrative for my daughter, I braved the wilds of the attic. Unfortunately, I did not remember that I had long ago put the wedding photos in their own box within a box, helpfully labelled “wedding photos.” So I sorted through envelope after random envelope of photos. And along the way, I found plenty of photos that were decidedly not from the era I was looking for.

I have deactivated my Facebook account, but nonetheless, I set aside a few photos that might be fun for “Throwback Thursday” – some friends at a college Christmas party, my sister preparing stuffed tomatoes in the sweltering railroad kitchen of one of my many not!air-conditioned college apartments, a friend in the prom dress she had made herself… and I stuffed a few photos back in the box, sorry I had seen them: an ex-boyfriend playing guitar while my kitten batted at the guitar strings, myself looking longingly over the edge of a cliff as my first husband smiled widely at the camera on our wedding day, my father looking angrily away from my thoughtfully teary eyed mother sitting beside him at my grandmother’s dining room table… Why did I keep those?

I used to feel like I had the obligation to keep every photo – that the mere fact of me having documented an event bestowed historical significance, and I had the archivist’s duty to maintain this tangible imprint of memory. Now I’m not so sure. Maybe “Throwback Thursday” is a Facebook holiday for people who don’t have an entire decade of their life that was chewed up by mental illness and bad decision making. Maybe us folks who have been tormented by demons of depression or anxiety or bipolar disorder or addiction etc etc should be allowed, on reflection, to toss away those old photographs without guilt feelings.

Naturally I want to toss every photo of me holding a cigarette before my daughter finds them. But mostly I am wanting to get rid of photos for myself. The people in the photos might look happy or hopeful, but each one carries a narrative that only I (and a handful of others) know – not just of my own failed first marriage, but the failed marriages of friends, of abuse and betrayal, of desperate self-deception, of fear and poverty, of broken confidences, of unrequited romantic obsession… all hidden behind those hopeful smiles. These photos lie to everyone but me – and perhaps to me as well.  And then there are the other photos that seem to speak the truth all too clearly, in the emotional dissonance between people made plain on their faces or in their postures. This hindsight is painful – what is plain to me now was not plain enough to me then to save myself and others from participating in their own emotional dismembering.

Re-membering – I don’t simply want to stitch together old memories haphazardly, leaving me with rotting bits reanimated – I do not want to let my fear of death (or forgetting) motivate me as it did Shelley’s Frankenstein. I crave resurrection – a new body, redeemed from sin for new life in Christ. Only God can re-member me correctly. Only God knows who I was and who I am, and only God knows the hearts of those I traveled with.

Even as my chronic anxiety has drawn my focus to a future of worst case scenarios, my depression has trapped me in a false past – a past of exaggerated wrongs and slights and failures, relived like a bad dream that I cannot wake from. Now, after fifteen years of increasing mental health and increasingly happy marriage, these old photos seem like demonic messengers, “assisting” me in returning to my mindset at the time I snapped each photograph. Next time I go into those old photo boxes, I am taking a trash bin with me – and a good friend.