Tuesday, March 11

Don't Focus on Performance

Dear Jacob,

When I was a sophomore in high school I wasn't quite sure who I was.  I knew who I wanted to be though: my best friend. She was Italian, cute, and brilliant in every class. She had clear skin, straight teeth, and several admirers. She played the violin -- which I thought was extremely romantic-- and got to pick her middle name herself at her eighth grade Catholic confirmation.  Her family lived in a big house they built themselves, bought her clothes from The Gap and threw parties wherein they didn't mind that we watched horror movies. She had a little rebellion in her and a lot of wit.  So she was completely charming.

I also wanted to be another friend who was angsty and sarcastic.  She would challenge my motivations for everything, keeping in touch with me all the way into college just so she could write me a long letter blasting my faith.  She was the only one who ever inspired me to skip class (just once, so don't get any ideas) because she could catastrophize just about every day of our lives. She was friends with boys that I wanted to be more than friends with and she would write me notes all the time, which made me feel important.  *'Notes' back in that day were notebook paper emails that we'd fold in thick little packets and pass to one another as we elapsed in the halls.  Yes, we were highly distractible in our classes back then too.

I lived a life of paradox. I wanted to dress differently (think The Cure) but I wanted to look trendy.  I wanted to be admired, but I didn't want any copy-cats. I wanted to be an individual, but I wanted to fit in. I wanted to shout anarchy, but hatred scared me.  I was trying to figure it out but I outwardly wanted to look like I had it all together.

I found that when I tried on personalities that were not mine I failed. And one night, while it wasn't horrible in a worst-decision-of-my-life sense though it was in a social one, I failed mightily.

I was at a party where there were these boys and there was a commotion that got our attention from the cornfield out back. The house was warm inside as we prepared for a movie night and it must have been fall because the corn outside was tall.  This was Wisconsin so, yes, we all lived near cornfields. The curiousness of the excitement outdoors intrigued and drew us.  The boys hatched a plan and because I was desiring their attention I didn't say no when they suggested we go for a walk out through the cornfields. (This isn't going to be a sordid story, so don't get all nervous.)  We set out into the darkness to see what was going on.  Turns out these boys had cigars on them.  Turns out they also had a bullhorn.  Because all cool kids carry cigars and bullhorns around with them, right?

Much to my inner relief, no one had matches so we weren't actually smoking cigars, but we carried them in our mouths and made funny jokes with them as we tromped through the muddy field. When we arrived close to the scene, Joe* whips up the bullhorn and makes like he's the cops and tells them all to scram.  And. They. Did.  It was the funniest thing ever.  We nearly peed our pants.

Back at the house, it turns out that I hadn't told anyone where I was going and when we returned, my friends who'd invited me were a bit offended that I'd ditched movie night to go tromping off in the corn fields with boys.  You can't have it both ways, my son. If you're going to be a friend, be a friend first and not a girl-hound.  There's a lesson in that too.  So, I thought I'd justify my actions by showing how I was actually more bad-ass than any of them realized and simultaneously imply that I had more important things to do than sit around and watch Better of Dead, again. So, I told a distorted story of our adventure and added some expletives just to make great points.

It was a total bomb. My friends knew who I was and bad-ass I was not. Nor was I an expletive-tossing kind of a girl, though I apparently seem to be now since I've said bad-ass twice...three times. What I did that night and what I said were both completely out of my character. If you're going to perform, it needs to be believeable. That's what wins Academy Awards.

There's this notion in spirituality called your true self. It has characteristics like being self-giving, unthreatened, filled with wonder and awe, having a passion for peace and justice and it all takes cues from Jesus. The false-self is filled with other motivations such as the Empty P's: power, prestige, people, possessions, productivity, popularity, pleasure, position, perfection, praise.  In my timeline of life, I'd say that sometime before I met your dad I made some good headway in letting those Empty P's go:  it takes some time. It's a journey.  In fact moving more into our true self is exactly what we're talking about when we talk about growth.

As I read and grade the papers from my seminarians this semester I see the same theme echo in their own thoughts: performance isn't where it's at.  They long to be accepted by God, to put their guards down, to stop listening to the voices of the world around them that says, "being productive is the key to a good life," or "you don't have anything to offer until you offer something."  They, too live in this paradox of both working hard and being God's workmanship.

There's good performance too. There's that performance that I see you do when you're around teachers and church and adults at weddings.  That performance where you turn on the charisma and say the right things and respond with deft and skillful language.  I love to watch you like this, to see you move into those right conversations, those right ambitions, those right callings.

But I know that it's not innate in you yet because there are times when you struggle to say something, anything, right or to express something with care or to laugh at yourself.  Sometimes the emotion comes out all wrong and in that moment I know you're still working on it.  And that's okay, because life is messy and growth doesn't happen in a straight line.  And if we're perfect then goodness can't leak out through our cracks.

What I want to say is don't focus on performance so much -- good or bad.  Focus on honesty and genuineness and virtue.  Let the real you leak out as you are going, and more and more and more.  Because you never know when someone will see it and grab onto it and be inspired by you.  Even now. Even in this place that you're in.

A few months ago, my angsty friend -- the one who wanted to take me to task for my faith years after high school and who has actually made a wide turn, following Jesus herself for several years now -- wrote to me to connect me with another friend of hers who edits a very cool magazine.  In her email that introduced us to each other she said this,
I've known and loved Deb since I was 15. She's always paved her own path. She's never been a follower of the masses. She had crazy hair in high school and I never understood how she could get those pieces of hair to stand straight up the way they did. She never settled for mediocrity nor did she conform to fit in amongst the silliness of high school kids. She had values, standards and dreams before I ever even woke up. She was wise beyond her years. She was an inspiration. She still is. And she wrote me hilarious notes to read throughout sophomore and junior years of high school. She was the smartest girl I knew in high school. I idolized her. (But I never told her cuz that would have been way too much honesty and risk back then).
Somehow, maybe on what I thought were weak days, I stopped performing, stopped trying to be someone that I wasn't. I am honored that this is the actual impression I made, that I let someone see my true self because the things I remember are the screw-ups and the idiot decisions and the hypocrisy I was touting. After all, I was supposed to be following Jesus into my restorative life purpose not following boys with cigars into dark cornfields.  But God just loves to redeem everything.


*Yeah, that's actually his real name.