“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.

It is OK not to call yourself a Christian

A great deal of attention is being paid right now to Marcus Mumford, lead singer of the band Mumford & Sons, and I’m sure Rolling Stone couldn’t be happier: religious controversy sells magazines. When interviewer Brian Hiatt asks Mumford point blank if he is a Christian, Mumford gives a long, somewhat rambling response that includes the sentence, “So, no, I wouldn’t call myself a Christian.” USA Today has picked up this ‘breaking story,’ and so has the Christian press. I imagine that Rolling Stone’s webserver is lit up with people clicking through to the teaser for this upcoming cover article.  Selfishly, I have been feeling relieved that my mid-20s self was not (and had no chance of being) famous.

I would be seen as at least odd and possibly dangerous if I wanted to know all about my doctor’s personal life: his religious beliefs, his parents, his wedding anniversary, whether he gets along with the people he works with, where his house is. I personally interact with my doctors, but the boundaries in such relationships are clear. In contrast, it is totally normal in our culture to be interested in, knowledgable about, or even obsessed with people we will never meet, so long as we have deemed them celebrities. If I show up outside of my doctor’s house, he would do well to get a restraining order. But hop in a bus-load full of people driving slowly past Jennifer Anniston’s house? Just another typical American vacation. I would only be crossing a line if I broke into her house or sent her threatening letters.

Seriously? Sometimes I wonder if the whole culture hasn’t crossed some kind of line – from voyeurism into sub-clinical erotomanic delusion: if we are not convinced that someone famous is in love with us, we at least imagine that they probably would fall in love with us (or at least want to be our friends!) if we ran into them at some imaginary party thrown by – who knows who? This scenario is going nowhere. It’s never going to happen.

So now Marcus Mumford, a person I have nearly no chance of ever meeting, has said that he wouldn’t call himself a Christian. Through luck and musical talent he has become recognizable to millions of people, and so now that gives Rolling Stone the right to ask about his religious beliefs, and me and the rest of the world the right to have an opinion about it? And what exactly would I be hoping to achieve? I suppose if enough of us wrote sufficiently indignant responses, we could turn him off to Christianity even more. That’s possible. I don’t know that his fans will turn from Christianity because of his words, or that me saying they shouldn’t would give them pause. So…?

I can hear my father’s voice in my head now, chiding, “Where’s your evangelistic zeal?” If I care about Jesus, if I care about people caring about Jesus, then I should care that Marcus Mumford, whose lyrics are full of Christian ideas and imagery, made sweeping disparaging remarks about Christianity, right? All this “baggage” we Christians carry? As if no other faith, no other group has “baggage?” So why am I stifling a yawn?

I guess because I know that he is not talking about me. His words say “the culture of Christianity,” but I hear, “The Christians he has met so far in his short life, the majority of those years spent in a specific milleu defined by his family of origin.” So yes, he is uninformed about the full spectrum of possibilities within Christianity. That’s not unusual for someone who hasn’t the inclination or the energy to explore all of those options – which is almost anyone whose religious upbringing makes them tired and just needing a break while they process all that stuff internally (or with hundreds of thousands of fans. Whatever.) Which may or may not be him – again I don’t know him. But he doesn’t know me either, so I’m not getting offended by it.

Lillian Daniel is right: baggage isn’t unique to Christianity – dealing with baggage is part of dealing with people. You need to be in your own little blanket cave to escape all historical baggage other than your own. But telling someone that and having them suddenly get it and change their mind and give church a shot after all is about as likely as a mom changing her teenaged daughter’s mind about fashion by saying, “You aren’t going out of the house dressed like that, are you?”

Or maybe I’m not all bent out of shape about it because the Mumford quote could almost word for word have come out of my own mouth when I was 26. Or 24. Or 22. Or 20. I went into seminary not sure I wanted to claim the name “Christian.” I had some pretty deep wounds that were not healing well given all of the probing they were receiving: “But there are good Christians!” and “That’s not fair!” and “You should really read [Augustine, Simone Weil, Aquinas, Teresa of Avila]” and “Have you really explored all of your church options? I’m [Presbyterian, UCC, Unitarian, Unity, Episcopal, UMC, Pentecostal]…”

It was a painful time, wandering and exploring. Finding out pagans have problems too, and Buddhists have problems too, and New Agey people are as intolerant as anyone else, and finally feeling like I had nowhere to go that I hadn’t been before. Yeah, group dynamics are difficult everywhere. And for myself, wanting to be loving and open and welcoming, having grown up with poor boundaries… let’s just say “where are you going to go? It’s this bad everywhere!” were not exactly the words that were going to make me come running back to mother church. I EXPECTED MORE from the church because church had taught me to expect more of myself – because I grew up believing that Jesus actually meant all that stuff that he said about loving your enemies and turning the other cheek and giving away your tunic. If I cast aspersions on the church, it wasn’t because I was more biased against Christians, but because I was more biased against everyone else. I didn’t want to know how people in general could be so petty and hurtful – well, ok, yes I did. But I was much more disturbed by pettiness and hurtfulness and selfishness in people who claimed to love Jesus.

Or, as I told my father later (when I was preparing to become a pastor), I have very evangelisitic reasons for saying and doing and believing the things I do: if the church doesn’t look any different than any other group of people, then we must forgive those who rightly reject a poor witness. I don’t know Mumford. Maybe he is a capricious ass. Or maybe he is just a guy who got hurt one (or six or twenty) too many times by people who claimed to be the chosen messengers of the God who is Love. I know that was my story.

Would I rather have such a popular singer/songwriter self-identify as a Christian?  Sure – it would be cool to not just have U2 holding the fort, as it were.  Would I rather not feel some trepidation every time I open my mouth to tell people that I am a Christian writer, that I attend church, that I have been a pastor? Would I rather that the whole “Christians are such hypocrites; [any other religion] is cool, though” narrative were not so compelling in our culture? Absolutely.  But countering that narrative is not Marcus Mumford’s job, because he is very much feeling that narrative right now.  Countering that narrative is the job of the Holy Spirit, a job that I (and every other self-identified Christian leader) have been invited to share.

I  can’t speak for Marcus Mumford, but our best hope for drawing people like my 20 year old self back into a supportive Christian community is to be that community – to keep listening, keep caring, keep insisting that none of us are perfect and that God loves each and every one of us better than any human every could. Our best hope is our love – not our indignation.

“The world’s youth”

I just started reading The House of the Seven Gables about a week ago. I hadn’t read any Hawthorne since I was fifteen, and it seems I was well overdue. The book is lovely, and I find myself putting my bookmark in the evening not at the place where I stopped, but at the part I most want to re-read. This is what I bookmarked last night:

Man’s own youth is the world’s youth; at least, he feels as if it were, and imagine’s that the earth’s granite substance is something not yet hardened, and which he can mold into whatever shape he likes.  So it was with Holgrave.  He could talk sagely about the world’s old age, but never actually believed what he said; he was a young man still, and therefore looked upon the world – that gray-bearded and wrinkled profligate, decrepit without being vulnerable – as a tender stripling, capable of being improved into all that it ought to be, but scarcely yet had shown the remotest promise of becoming.  He had that sense, or inward prophesy – which a young man had better never have been born than not to have, and a mature man had better die at once than utterly to relinquish – that we are not doomed to creep on forever in the old bad way, but that, this very now, there are the harbingers abroad of a golden era, to be accomplished in his own lifetime…

… And when, with the years settling down more weightily upon him, his early faith should be modified by inevitable experience, it would be with no harsh and sudden revolution of his sentiments.  He would still have faith in man’s brightening destiny, and perhaps love him all the better, as he should recognize his helplessness in his own behalf;and the haughty faith, with which he began life, would be well bartered for a far humbler one at its close, in discerning that man’s best-directed effort accomplishes a kind of dream, while God is the sole worker of realities.

It may well be that the next book I read after The House of the Seven Gables will be The House of the Seven Gables.  It is as dense as a poem in places!