Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Are We Human, Or Are We Dancer?

I ran across, courtesy of my vulture-reading husband, a construct recently that has the capacity to change the way I encounter life. (By accusing Kevin of being a vulture, I mean that he doesn't have the grandiose literary nose that I profess to. He doesn't look at the cover, and then at the publisher, and then at the date, and then smell the pages and read a few paragraphs to hear the author's voice before starting to read a book. If he's interested in the idea, he'll buy the book, give the author a long rein, and glean what he can. Just like a vulture, flying high above the veld to descend onto whatever train wreck of a carcass lies rotting under the baobab tree. Even if the stench reaches the stratus cloud levels, the meat can still be quite tasty if you can hold your breath long enough.)

Here's the idea, taken from Robert Fritz's book Creating: along with a myriad of other responses to our present, there are two responses that can determine how we process our daily living. The performer approaches life as if it is a performance. She plays a role in front of an audience. Because she is role playing, she has lines to learn and to deliver, and a precise set of blocked out actions to follow. When things don't go according to plan, the performance is a failure. Ergo, she is a failure. On the other hand, the learner approaches life's activities as opportunities to learn. When things don't go as planned, she stops, looks around, figures out what worked and what didn't and goes on. Mistakes are accecpted as an inevitable part of learning. They are not greeted with dismay, shame or embarrassment. Even horrible mistakes don't reflect on her inherent worth. They are indications that that particular approach is not going to work--at all.

They also indicate she is nowhere near to mastering the skill she’s practicing, whether that skill is public speaking, being married, raising a particular child, teaching, litigating a trial, or being a good neighbor and friend. According to Malcolm Gladwell, who cites other studies inOutliers, about 10,000 hours of practice is the tipping point to mastering a particular skill, whether it is the violin, tennis, bass guitar or computer programming. Taking that as a guide, think about how many hours you’ve spent at a particular endeavor. Then consider how many more hours you still have to invest to become a master coach, master wife, master husband, master parent, or master gardener.

I coach a soccer team of ten and eleven year old boys, including my son Adam. We've dominated every team this season, except yesterday. Yesterday, we lost 3-2. The average winning margin in previous games has been about 8-0. The team we lost to lost 8-1 to a team we beat 4-3. (Probably didn't help that the one linesman who negated two of our goals for offsides was the older brother of one of the opposing team's players! And that the final goal against us was a penalty kick on a flop. But, no sour grapes in this story. And in the next life, no 13-year old center refs who show up 20 minutes late because their mom was at parent-teacher conference and couldn't give them a ride.) So, essentially, you have a team of young boys who are great soccer players, and who over the course of the season, have been able to move away from the passing attack we started out the season with to individualistic runs down the wing (at a pretty good speed) and shots on goal into the top corner. This approach works when you have an undisciplined, slower team to play against. But yesterday's team had speed, and two players who could control the ball. So, we lost, even though we controlled the ball 70 percent of the time.

Now, for a performer coach, such as me, the loss could be devastating. It would mean that the performance went horribly wrong. The unbeaten record is gone. If the whole purpose is to give a good performance, and good is measured by winning, then we failed yesterday. (I will admit that the performer coach in me woke up at two this morning and couldn't sleep because I was playing the key moments of the game through my mind, and castigating myself for not preparing the team better. So I read the latest Sandra Brown novel (high brow literary taste!) to conclusion, and fell back to sleep at 5. 30.)

But to a learner coach, whose purpose is to teach soccer to these boys, that lost game is actually a really great teaching tool. The season hasn't really afforded us opportunities to learn that if you don't play fundamentally sound soccer, with a passing game that moves forward, backwards and sideways using the center as a fulcrum, then you have a one dimensional attack. They haven't, until yesterday, been on the learning end that a lone attacker who will not or cannot pass the ball to his support is easily contained in a double team. We learned all that yesterday. Sometimes, you can't learn those very important soccer lessons and still win. My job next training session is to communicate this to the boys, and to return to the horrible possession drill that they hate to play but which makes them so good at moving off the ball and looking for the pass. If my approach to the next few training sessions is to reinforce what they still need to master, then we're really learning how to play and coach soccer.

True confession: I think I am a performer lover, or at least have been in the past. Somehow in my brain, I had it wired that only people with perfect bodies could make perfect love. Making love was a performance—a well crafted, soft music playing (sometimes soaring orchestras with string sections), genteel kind of experience which leaves you glowing and stroking each other's faces. But making love well is also a noisy, sticky, messy enterprise. I can't think of how many times my brain had slowed down enough to stop thinking about what I would serve for dinner the next Sunday or what tiles would look better in the downstairs bathroom to register that what Kevin was doing down the left side there was really quite enjoyable. Just as I would be about to surrender myself to the sheer physicality of us, I would hear my stomach flap against his. And that noise would ruin everything. My love bubble would crumple.

You see, in my making love performance, you don't have stomachs flapping against each other scripted in. That's just not a part of the performance, of the ideal session. And if they did flap and flop, then it wouldn't be something to laugh at together. It would be an embarrassment. It would be me getting it wrong again. There's no fluids either, in performance love, or yeast infections, or flatulence, or leg cramps that tie you up like a hog. And because those events feature in my lovemaking, obviously, we must not be very good lovers, by performance standards. (Kevin's thinking we just need to hit 10,000 hours!)

If I were a learner lover, I would be willing to tell Kevin where and when and how and how quickly without feeling embarrassed (performance lovers know exactly when and where without having to articulate, I suppose). I would be able to laugh out loud, even scream if I wanted to (but not because that's what they do in the movies). I would be intent on learning how to make love as well as our two bodies and souls could, bodily fluids, noises and fat included. There would be no script and no standard of measurement except how we both felt at the end of it. And I would be utterly free to say, "I don't bend that way. Let's see if you do."

How about performance religiosity? I just returned from a walk with a friend of mine. She's worried that she cannot stand and unequivocally state that she believes that all the doctrines and the practices of her church are true. Because she cannot do that, she feels that she is apostate, and that she might as well give up now. Applying this performance/learner worldview to her dilemma, I question which script it is that establishes that we must know everything absolutely. Where is it stated that in order to be a faithful member of a religious community you have to have an unwavering knowledge, even belief, that all of its doctrines are correct? I don't know. Perhaps some of us act as if we do know. Our language is unequivocally without doubt. Our examples we use are capable of only one interpretation. The moments of inspiration deliver messages with complete clarity. When faced with such absolute certainty, I can't help but think, "Me thinks thou dost protest too much." But that might be me self-reflecting my own insecurities. Nevertheless, in every faith community, there is an ideal. Living up to the ideal can lead, if we are not honest with ourselves, to us becoming performers delivering lines and moving through scripted events right on cue. Some of those lines concern what we do and do not know to be true.

The idea that one must know and know absolutely in order to be a faithful member seems to me to be part of performance faith. It's part of that script we think we must live out in order to fit. When we fail to feel the part, we feel there can be no place for us in this particular passion play. But, the whole notion of knowing absolutely as part of religious faith is a contradiction of the very term, faith. In order to have faith, I choose to believe in the face of doubt. I am moved by the letters of Mother Teresa, published after her death, in which it is revealed that she experienced periods of great religious doubt, even darkness. She wrote to a confidant, "Jesus has a very special love for you. . . . [But] as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, — Listen and do not hear — the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak ... I want you to pray for me — that I let Him have [a] free hand." If I am learning to be faithful, I let doubt live alongside the things I do know. In Mother Teresa's case, she lived with the darkness beside the light for forty years. If I am to learn how to be faithful, the moments in which I feel to have no faith and all doubt are absolutely necessary. How else can I learn that faith is choice, and that I want to be faithful? I can't flee because I find myself in a place that is uncomfortable to me. I can't squish the doubt like an unwanted bug. The things I don't know I put gently on a shelf, and, maybe later, I'll take them out to look at them again when I have the inclination or need to really know. I have 10,000 hours of learning to be faithful before I can expect any kind of mastery from myself. I can be patient.

As a learner of faith, I am figuring out how to be faithful. In the learning, there is a risk that I will be faithless as I try to figure out what faith is and how I need to be faithful (not my neighbor's faithful, not the PTA president's faithful, not the skinny blonde who stays size 2 when nine months pregnant faithful; just my faithful). Learning faith requires a willingness to be wrong, to make mistakes, and to ask difficult questions for which there might not be institutional answers, but which answers can come personally. Learning faith requires me to recognize that acquiring this attribute/skill won't always be comfortable and that I will feel out of sorts, discombobulated, and stretched—just like trying to get back in shape after four children and fifteen years off. Part of learning to have faith means learning that it's okay not to know.

I recognize it's easier to become a learner when you live with learners and have raised learners. It's easier to try something a little different when there's no cosmic significance attached to your efforts, blown though they may be. When you live with learners, your entire life becomes your laboratory. The next step becomes something interesting, the outcome a little unknown. When you live with performers and perform yourself, the next step can become undercut with anxiety. The desired outcome is so specific and predetermined that anything but the bull's-eye can often seem like a failure. How often do we manage to hit the bull's-eye? Not too often. Thus, the lives of performers are colored by a nagging sense of failure, of not being good enough. Speaking from experience, it's rather an exhausting way to live.

Title: from "Human" by The Killers.

1 comment:

  1. Amen. Once again, you have reached into my brain and articulated my thoughts. Exactly.