This past weekend I found myself in the company of an old foe. To some extent I’m still trying to put together all the pieces of what happened. All I knew at the time was that I was alone somewhere in a thick bog of shame and that I wanted, dare I say needed, to make myself pay for ending up there again.
Ping! The ball exploded off the aluminum bat toward the bag at third and I knew my only chance to make a play was to spring out of my stance into a full dive. My body extended just in time to reach out and snatch the speeding ground ball before it was past me. As soon as I felt the ball in my web I glanced towards first base to see how much time I had to make a throw. The runner was almost to first base so without hesitating I reached into my glove and threw the ball from my knees with all my strength. Caked in dirt and barely able to see through all the shimmering dust I awaited the umpire’s verdict…”You’re OUT!”
I remember the play so well almost 20 years later because it set in motion a sequence of events that would change my life. After the game my dad and I were approached by a man in his early twenties. He was a local basketball coach who mentored young kids at the community center nearby. He complimented me on my game and was amazed at my ability to make such a difficult play. My athletic ability caught his eye and he eventually asked me if I had ever considered playing basketball. He asked if I would come down to the gym with him and shoot some hoops. “You have so much potential and natural ability…trust me when I say you have what it takes to become great.”
The next day my Dad brought me to the gym to meet him. I was greeted at the door and introduced to a handful of other kids who were playing pickup. This wasn’t a normal introduction though, it was more like an announcement of my arrival. He yelled out to everyone, “this is the kid I was telling y’all about…get ready cause he’s coming for all of ya.” Every time I walked in the gym this would happen in some way or another.
I was this man’s “boy” (this title alone provides an interesting commentary on what this man became in my life). To be in his camp was an honor that every person in the gym wanted. It meant you were special. It meant you were chosen. He was the king of the gym and I was his chosen understudy.
I wasn’t long before this honor and delight was repIaced with a pressure beyond anything I could ever explain. My place of honor came at a price. I quickly understood that my success would bring him pride and serve as proof that I was worthy of his continued honor and attention. My failures would inevitably bring into question whether I deserved to sit next to the Kings throne. With every year, every game, every shot I was playing to prove I was the kid he believed I would become. Every time I laced up my sneakers I wasn’t just playing to win, I was defending an identity…I was either the best or a disappointment.
There were moments when my performances seemed to live up to the hype. There were games when I didn’t feel ashamed of myself for letting down expectations. In my mind though, my good games were supposed to be the norm. With every average game I lost more control over peoples thoughts about me. With every missed shot I felt less and less able to convince all my critics that I was the person I was supposed to be.
In my Bones
A couple of months ago I started getting asked to play drums at a local church for money. I had developed a little bit of a reputation as a good drummer and received lots of compliments from musicians and church members about my abilities. When the church offered to start paying me I felt the need to take the gig a little more serious. I thought to myself “I want to live up to their expectations as a professional who deserves to be paid so they will continue to schedule me.” This weekend I found myself behind the drums performing a rather complicated set of music. Before the set began the head pastor remarked, “Oh man, we’ve got the all-star band tonight!” I still love the feeling of being noticed and really wanted my performance to confirm his expectations.
Everything was going great until I noticed that I had cut out too soon during the first song. As the song ended I mouthed “sorry” to the worship leader and mentally shook off my embarrassment as just a silly mistake that wouldn’t happen again. As the second song started I began a difficult drumbeat with ease; everything was back in control again. Then unexpectantly, during an easy snare roll, I stumbled again. As soon as it happened I could feel myself start to panic…I started losing confidence and subsequently forgot my parts and our place in the song. After a brutal and sloppy finish (to my standards) I noticed the face of the bass player on my left…he looked embarrassed to be sitting next to me.
All I could think was, “oh no, they are going to realize that I’m not as good as they thought.” “You are letting everyone down.” I felt sure that if I didn’t nail the next few songs that they would never invite me back. My only hope was that they wouldn’t remember my failure if I played exceptional the next time around. With the stakes at a fever pitch, I put on my best face and walked back onto the stage just praying that I wouldn’t do anything to further embarrass myself. Just hoping I could make up for lost ground and prove that I was worth another vote of confidence.
Past in Present
In these moments I feel an almost irresistible compulsion to punish myself. I’ve punched walls, kicked furniture, verbally assaulted myself, and even hit my own face as I channel the events of an age old drama stored in my very bones. It is this penance, and the subsequent promise to do better, that allows me to move on from my errors. I’ve done this dance so many times in my life I go ahead and make myself pay for mistakes even when there is nobody telling me to.
Long gone are the days when there was an actual taskmaster who demanded that I undergo re-conditioning for every error committed. It has been years since the last time I was actually yelled at for missing a basket. I know these stories and have worked extensively to lessen their influence. But, after a while these voices of accusation become your own. Your body remembers the way you felt when you failed and it remembers the ways you alleviated that suffering.
We all have these feelings. We all know this limbic pain. And we all have rituals to help escape the shame we felt when we were young. These memories, these experiences, are stored in our bones. Our strongest cognitive allegiances are so often powerless to fend them off because we often mistake what these moments are actually communicating. In reality these moments are actually narrating a brokenness that was active long before our birth. When we look closely at the essence of these memories we end up seeing and learning more about the faces of our tutors than any contemptuous trait in us.
Without such reflection it is so easy to judge these tender parts of ourselves, “If only I had been better…smarter…different…etc…” But, in doing so, we continue to fuel a lie as broken as the men and women we got it from. A lie that has the power to cripple even the strongest amongst us. That somehow we are only as good as our diving throws.