It is really tempting to go back to “engineering smallness.” There is a voice on my shoulder that says that nobody would blame me for giving up, moving on, throwing my hands in the air and telling the world that I tried with a wry shrug. That voice says that it is all just too hard to figure out, that the reward isn’t guaranteed, and it might not turn out to be worth the work. In the rubric of our current culture, I need to cut my losses, stop the bleeding, and get moving.
Deep within, somewhere, is the longing to write, to get back to creating, to find the spark that sets the words free and lets them tumble out of me with abandon. It is a yearning for balance, a call to feed my own desires and tell the stories that are trapped inside of me. The voice on my shoulder calls that out as indulgent, selfish, more useless blather that won’t be realized, just like the other two projects I’ve started and nearly finished.
What is it about the path that I’ve chosen that leads me to this place again and again? The quiet, self-propelled churning that makes something I want to share with the world and eventually brings me to a gate that must be opened by someone else. The book I write that never finds a publisher or agent. The work I do that must be taught by someone else. I know that there is some larger lesson here, that I can’t keep piling up what I’ve worked on and believed in for so long without some outlet, some way to get it out into the world.
But maybe that’s the lesson. That it is out there and that has to be enough. Even if it is out there in a small way, for only a handful of people to see, that is enough. Maybe it’s my ego that tells me that I have to get paid for this work in order for it to be valuable. Maybe it’s my ego that says that I have to have sold X number of copies for it to be successful. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the simple act of creating it is enough. Maybe having had the time to do it in the way I did it was the point.
There is this tension between creating and making a difference. I write because I have to, because it is who I am, because I can’t NOT write. Not to make a difference in the world. But I have had a small taste of making a difference and it is intoxicating. I have heard those who say my words have touched them, and somewhere along the way I got the idea that that was my purpose, that I am meant to do this work in order to make a difference in the world. I have even gone so far as to believe that if I can’t live out my purpose, my work is no good, it is meaningless, as is the time I took to do it. Sometimes it is hard to discern between desire and expectation. It is so hard to un-knot the act of creation from the product itself, from the question of what it will do or can do or should do.
And so I spend time soliciting people’s attention and interest – looking for those who are interested in what I’ve created, and in the beginning it is wonderful. I like to talk about my passion, to share it with others, to connect with people who are passionate about the same things. But at some point when I become tied up in what the outcome will look like, I begin to feel defeated. When my fate rests on whether or not someone else likes my work enough to buy it and I get caught up in the minutia of how best to package it and whether I can replicate it or if it is good enough, I have lost my center. I wonder if I will ever find the sweet spot, or if there even is one.
I woke up this morning with a resolve to let go for a while, to let things un-knot themselves, to leave it up to the Universe and I’m trying. It’s surprisingly hard work to “let go.” It requires me to float in a state of limbo, to constantly redirect my thoughts away from imagining what could be and organizing toward that. It means that my usually long to-do list gets tucked away out of sight and I have to find other ways to occupy myself and be alone with my thoughts. I have no doubt that it will all become clear at some point – it always has before. I know that just because I’m uncertain and a little bit scared, it doesn’t mean that I will always feel this way. I trust that I will look back on this one day and shake my head and be grateful that it passed. And I suspect that I will find myself here again in the future. Frankly, it is that which has me the most agitated – the notion that if I don’t learn whatever lesson I’m supposed to be learning this time, I’m destined to do this again (and, if you hadn’t gotten the message, it’s not a comfortable place to be, so I don’t relish the prospect of being here again). But if I’ve learned anything from life, it is that things only get harder when I fight them. And, if I’m determined to live my values and practice courage, I won’t go back to being safe and engineering smallness, I will just sit quietly and wait and hold on to who I know I am at my core.
I am taking an online class taught by Brene Brown for the next two months, and if you’re a faithful reader of this blog, you know already that she is one of my sheroes. I love her no-nonsense style of talking that cuts right to the meat of any issue, and I find her endlessly quotable.
I have learned that it is possible to change my attitude simply by remembering what my values are. And while that may sound ridiculously simple and obvious, it often isn’t to me. In fact, it generally requires a focused effort and a pointed (internal) question. When I am in the throes of feeling annoyed or frustrated or distressed about something, I don’t always remember to access the part of me that is curious about what I’m feeling. I am more likely to embark on an entire fantasy monologue with someone I believe can change the situation so that I will feel better, and that monologue is peppered liberally with sarcasm, in most cases.
Lola is on her school’s volleyball team. The school is small and the students that play sports for the school are generally not the ones who have already specialized in one particular sport and play on “rec” or “club” teams year-round. The coaches are terrific, committed and fun, and the students’ abilities vary widely, but we can mostly agree that everyone improves throughout the season. That said, there are still some athletes who have strong natural talents and others who struggle with some basic ideas of the game, and many in-between.
I love watching sports. I love the strategy, the physical ability, the way teams are able to work together and complement each other. I also grew up with some very competitive male role models and have chosen teams to root for that I am very passionate about. I have been accused by both Eve and Lola of being too loud at games when I come to watch them play, but I don’t particularly care. I try to learn all of the girls’ names and cheer for them in supportive ways. I would never yell at a referee or berate a player for missing a chance to score or making a mistake. I don’t make fun of anyone, even on the other team, but my mother-bear does come out when the game is close and I thoroughly enjoy watching my girls’ teams win.
There are a few girls on the volleyball team that have not mastered the overhead serve. There are a few that have never, ever gotten one over the net, and yesterday as I watched the series of three matches and one girl in particular got a chance to serve several times, I found myself getting annoyed. I recall thinking, Why has nobody told this girl that she should give up trying the overhead serve? Just have her serve underhand, for God’s sake. She’ll get it over the net. It’s a guaranteed side-out every single time she tries an overhand serve. Even as I heard the sarcastic tone in my head, I justified it by looking at the scoreboard and seeing how close it was. I rolled my eyes and breathed deeply.
The next time this girl came up to serve, I watched her step uncertainly past the back line and try to steady herself. I could tell by her body language that she was going to try the overhand serve again and just as the mean thoughts began surfacing again, something else rose up to take their place.
What is your true value here? Is it winning the game at all costs? If it is, criticize away.
I brought myself up short. It isn’t. Winning isn’t the real, important, long-term value.
Courage. Courage is my value. What I want for all of these girls is to find courage.
Yeah. I talk so much about hoping that my daughters can tap into their own beliefs and knowledge about themselves and express that with courage and honesty. And that is exactly what this girl is doing. She is trying. She continues to try. She steps up to that line every time, tosses the ball in the air, takes a deep breath, cocks her arm back, and smacks the volleyball, hoping that this time it will go over the net. And when it doesn’t, she smiles an aw-shucks smile and the other five girls on the court high-five her for trying. They say things like, “It’s okay. We’ll get it back. Nice try.” And they turn around and refocus and wait for the serve.
Whether they win or lose, they are playing as a team and reinforcing each others’ right to continue to try. From the most talented athlete to the most awkward one, they rotate on and off the court, play together and encourage each other. The thing is, I remember being that girl – the one who couldn’t get an overhand serve over the net. By my sophomore year in high school, I had given up and only served underhand because I knew I could get it over every time, and I knew that if I couldn’t serve, I wouldn’t play. I got the message that winning was the goal. And then I met Tara. She was a year older than me and stood an inch or two shorter than I did, which was hard to do in high school. She was a brilliant setter and was so tiny, I couldn’t imagine how she could ever get an overhand serve over the net, either. I idolized her on the court and watched her every move. Tara had internalized the ‘winning’ value, too, but she never let go of her courage. She held the two side-by-side and created her own wild, wicked, side-arm overhead serve that baffled the opposing team every time. I never mastered that serve, either, and every time I stepped up to the line to serve my puny underhand serve, I felt ashamed despite the fact that it went over every time. I know now that I wasn’t ashamed because of anything outside of myself – nobody on my team ever made fun of me for my serve. I was ashamed because I had let go of my courage and stopped trying.
Lola’s team won two matches and lost one yesterday, I think. Honestly, what I remember the most about the game was the transformation that happened when I was reminded of what I truly value the most. The warm feeling of pride that came over me when I watched that player try again and again to get her serve over the net made me smile. May she never lose her courage. May I remember to honor it in people more often.
I don’t go in much for pop culture. I’m not much of a TV watcher and I don’t know who most of the people on the covers of fashion magazines even are, much less what they are famous for. But I don’t live under a rock, either, and so I couldn’t possibly have missed the much-talked-about Caitlyn Jenner debut this week. I have witnessed (via my Facebook page) the discussions centering around white privilege, male privilege, and socioeconomic privilege with the same kind of mild interest that I generally reserve for pop culture – basically noting that people are really interested in the parts of things that resonate for them and also that so many folks love tearing away at celebrities for any reason at all. I have acknowledged all of this and not waded into the fray, knowing that the important conversations will rise like cream to the top and the rest will fade away as soon as the next big celebrity story happens – someone will have a baby or get a divorce or drive while drunk and it will all start over again.
But I woke up this morning to this on my Facebook feed. Apparently, Caitlyn Jenner was awarded ESPN’s Courage Award and some people got upset. For whatever reason, I followed the link and spent a few minutes reading about some other athletes who folks thought were overlooked. Normally, that would be the end of it – I would note it all with interest and move on into my day. But the whole thing got me thinking about courage. Reading some of the comments from people on Facebook sparked thoughts about competition. And a blog post was born.
Here’s the thing. I think our culture has a tendency to see things in such stark, black-and-white terms that whenever someone “wins” an award, we assume that whomever didn’t win “lost.” In some cases, that is true. If there is a spelling bee in which hundreds of kids are competing and are gradually eliminated, the ones who didn’t ultimately win the prize lost, by definition. The folks who don’t go home with the Nobel Prize for chemistry “lost,” but they are by no means losers. And I think it is an enormous mistake to frame everything in terms of a competition. In the case of this particular ESPN award, why can’t it just be that Caitlyn Jenner’s courage is one shining example of courage that they felt deserved to be called out? Why does it have to mean that these athletes are pitted against each other and whomever doesn’t get the award is seen as having less courage?
I don’t think it is harmful to praise courage. For the sporting world, which is in many cases patriarchal, paternalistic, and often homophobic, to acknowledge the courage of a transgender athlete is pretty amazing. I hope it signals a turning point for us culturally, and I hope it is a positive sign of things to come. But. I think it is harmful to open a conversation by comparing forms of courage, to pretend that some are more important or more laudable than others.
It takes courage to get up and face a new day when you struggle with depression.
It takes courage to care for a loved one with a chronic physical ailment every single day.
It takes courage to stand up for yourself when you’re being attacked.
It takes courage to walk away from an abusive relationship – any abusive relationship.
It takes courage to start something new.
It takes courage to come out of hiding.
There are so many examples of courageous acts that people undertake each and every day and it is a mistake to believe that some are more important than others. What if we held up all of these instances of courage as things to praise? What if we stopped comparing them and acknowledged that what might be easy for one person is tremendously difficult for another, and that anytime someone can overcome an almost debilitating fear or situation to triumph, that triumph deserves to be celebrated? What if we didn’t talk about courage in terms of “big” or “small?”
I hope that Caitlyn Jenner is proud of her award. And I hope that we can find ways to lift up all of the people in our lives that display acts of courage in their own lives, to remind them that there is no such thing as a small act of courage.