“The greatest gift you can give to a child is your face.” -Dr. Steve Call, Professor @ The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology
My wife and I took a trip to the coast of Oregon for our anniversary. The Oregon coast is stunning. It is also quite cold, much too cold for us to take advantage of the beach outside our hotel. This would have been much more disappointing had it not been for The Inn at Spanish Head’s heated outdoor pool and hot-tub. During one of our visits to the pool I found myself mindlessly observing a young boy, probably around the age of 11, brimming with excitement as he showed off his diving prowess to his mother. I really only became consciously aware of his activity after I noticed that he had been doing it for thirty minutes…continuously. After I started actually paying attention I quickly attuned to his rhythmic water dance. “Mom…Mom! Watch this!” (dive). “Hey Mom, watch this one!” (dive). “Mom, you gotta see this one! (same dive as before). I realized some things about myself during this exercise in repetition. 1) I am not ready for kids, 2) I get bored easily, 3) I get anxious watching children play (more on this another time).
These realizations aside, I couldn’t help thinking about what story was being told in this poolside serenade. More than anything else, this child wanted the eyes of his mother. His mother’s attention was for him the most lovely and enjoyable feeling his body could metabolize. He was content to do the same thing over and over again if it brought to him these eyes. If he had even the slightest inkling that it could bring another pleasure…that he could bring another pleasure, he would have no reason to do anything different.
Before me was a stunning display of this boy’s deepest longing. Dan Allender says that all of humanity was meant to “give and receive pleasure for the Glory of God.” This inherent quality was both exhibited and richly present that day on the Oregon shores. For this particular child it only took a dive to get the attention of his mother. The pleasure that it brought him was so intense that he did it over and over again. I was awestruck and inspired by this mother’s patience and attentiveness over such a long period of time. It would have been so easy for her to get tired of observing the scene. It would have been so easy for her to direct her eyes elsewhere.
It was not the child’s diving that captivated this mother, the diving itself was only fair and expelled way too much water to get a decent score from a judge. The boy in all his joy, however, was quite mesmerizing. The glory that was him was evident to us all. In other words, it wasn’t the brilliance of boy’s activity that garnered the gift of his mother’s eyes, it was solely his being that allowed this mundane moment to sparkle.
In the midst of this drama I also saw some implications that troubled me. What happens to children who can’t get their mother’s/father’s attention? What happens to a child who is malnourished with the food of attention? What would that child begin to think about themselves as they tried all their best dives to no avail? Would they question their loveliness and worthiness to be seen and attuned to? Would they retreat to an internal world or would they begin desperately grasping for any breadcrumbs at the table of attention? If the eyes of another, the face of another, the attention of another was hard to come by, how furiously would a child strive to cling to these pleasures if they were realized? A pattern suddenly begins here. A child must find something to make him valuable, something that his life experiences tell him he wasn’t born with…something that comes from without instead of within.
Imagine this quest for value and worth present in the heart of an athlete. Imagine if that boy just so happens to be good at baseball or football. Imagine what that boy feels as the eyes of a crowd of onlookers befall him during his activity. Imagine what feasting would happen in his soul if he was cheered for. He might make the connection that he can get the food he most longs for if he performs well. “As long as I score ____ points, get ____ number of hits, score ___ amount of touchdowns, they will watch me! Maybe I’ll be worthy of their eyes then! You can probably write the rest of this story now…
What a dilemma lies at the heart of so many of our pursuits. The problem with athletics, especially the older you get, is that the nature of sport brings an answer to this dilemma for a time. It encourages the meaning making of doing over being. It reinforces that it is not who we are but what we do that makes us worthy of attention…of love. Now, think for a moment what happens when an athlete can no longer prove him/herself through these means. Imagine the soul shriveling that would happen when nobody is cheering, or worse, when people are booing and cursing your decline.
Welcome to the Sporting Psyche…