“If that’s what it takes to succeed, I’d just as soon fail.” I still remember saying that to my high-school guidance counselor. He’d just explaned to me that my going to college was going to be a waste of my time and my parent’s money. I’m sure he thought himself witty – but he suggested that I might take up a sport, and then perhaps get a scholarship. He talked about the glory of playing football, or wrestling, or baseball. I was thinking, as for football, I wasn’t big, but I was slow – and THAT isn’t a good forumla. When you’re most “explosive” feature is related to illness? Not good for wrestling, and baseball? The three years I played baseball as a youth can best be summed up in a short story titled, “Taking one for the team – how to get to first base without even trying.” Finally it boils down to one thing – apart from the lack of skill, desire, talent and devotion. I wasn’t about to shower with the other guys. That’s it. It’s why I took gym seventh period (when possible). So, according to him, I was “destined to fail” (which is I guess the kind of guidance you get from a public school counselor in WV). So I gave him the line, “Showering with other young men? If that’s what it takes to succeed…”
I suppose now that we’re in the post #metoo movement, that might be understandable again, but prior to, in the “don’t be a homophobe” phase of public accusation, I was accused of that. Let me assure you, it was more the result of a particular guy maknig fun of me for not develping body-hair and at the same rate as the other guys. I developed a dislike of disrobing in front of other guys. So, I tried to make sure gym was my final class of the day or just stank up the joint for the rest of the day. Which pretty much fed the whole “failure” thing. Don’t get me wrong, I was just as much a bully with my mouth as I received – yeah I was hurt, but I also hurt. I hurt a LOT of people.
But making sense out of that came later, because, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. I made honor role the first six-weeks of the eighth grade. I didn’t get in trouble in class. I didn’t really do much of anything with my Shawn Cassidy bowl cut (ten years after the Hardy Boys went off the air) and thick brown-framed glasses (tortoise shell?). But if you look at the pictures – baby I was a happy kid. I played saxophone in the band. I played soccer, and baseball (outside of school when I just stank up mom’s car on the way home). I was, a good freakin’ kid. But then I decided that playing a solo in the Jazz band wasn’t success. Getting good grades wasn’t a success. Being the teacher’s favorite – not a success. What made you a success?
Gotta have a girl. GAHAG.
My dad used to tell as story about me at the age of five. I was playing in the sand while we camped at the beach. He was sitting in the screen tent with his friend discussing God the universe and everything (probably NASCAR). A woman walked by in a white bikini, and I stopped playing, looked up and stared… for a while… then asked my dad a question that in today’s non-cis awareness was as inappropriate as it was pressing. I wanted to know why women’s bodies were so different than men’s, and after he answered, I explained that I really liked the difference. I proposed to a redhead in the first grade. I “dated” another girl in second… and by that I mean I gave her something that someone had given me and she accepted it. I never went through a “girls are gross” phase. I liked girls, most of my friends were girls, and my grades plummeted into the “I just don’t want to have to repeat this grade” levels. I was grounded on a regular basis.
And then it started – the “What do I have to do to get girls to like me” phase, and chasing that success can be mind-bending. How do I know. There is a picture of me – somewhere – wearing Oakley sunglasses, a sleeveless crop-top, short-shorts, Chuck Taylor tennis shoes and a painters cap… and I’m break dancing. Two years later? There is a picture of me with a “Kentucky Waterfall” of hair down the back of my head, jeans, a concert shirt, Oakley sunglasses (those things were expensive) and Chuck Taylor tennis shoes. Neon shirts, cut-off jeans, wrestling boots…. guyliner (years before the term was coined) spandex pants under intentionally cut-up jeans) and half-a-can of Aqua Net on my head to my hair closer to Jesus. I did stand-up comedy. I rode skateboards. I played roller hockey. I did a LOT of things in the pursuit of girls – and I was successful, almost every semester, but yet – I was a failure. Because every single relationship (to a person) no matter who it was with or who ended it followed the same course.
“New and Improved” – learning enough about the other person to be what they “want/need” more than the person they’re with/mourning. Not a night in shining armor, but maybe one wearing flannel. This is where I learned out to cook about five things really well.
“Damaged Dating” – This is when you figure out that while you said you really enjoyed opera, and you had every intention of actually enjoying it because it’s only a few hours out of your day, but it makes your teeth itch and you become aware of your body physically aging while you sit in a dark room trying not to stand up and yell “FREEBIRD!” at the top of your lungs. This is why I know a little about a lot of things. I can tell you why you don’t really want to reference Wagner and it makes you feel weird about the influence on Heavy Metal… (Oh, and I’ve seen Armored Saint AND Garth Brooks live).
“Maintaining” – Well, there is a holiday coming up or we’ve already been together x number of months, might as well ride it out. This is how you get and give pen sets. This is also the same level of relationship people have right before graduation (a friend of mine and his wife have been through four graduations together – THAT’S LOVE boys and girls). This is the best possible time for breakups because they’re usually the most “mutual.” Neither is feeling it, and it’s become more trouble than it’s worth. This is where Divorces should be – but most of us hang on for one reason or another and then come to the one that makes headlines.
“Destructing” – This is when you wish you hadn’t combined checking accounts. Rings get thrown into rivers, cars get keyed, pets are kidnapped… This is an emotional escape that isn’t related to abuse. It’s just a relationship that went on too far and now one (or both) of people have to make sure to make a point. This is when friends (that all seem to be mutual) end up lost and divided as well. My favorite example is a friend of mine that, after an incredibly bitter divorce, was left with a ten-year old S-10 pickup, a lawn chair (one of the sweet ones) and a television set… and he was happy. He got to keep his retirement! But seriously, they’d reached the point of their relationship where he was willing to pay any “freedom tax” to get clear. He and his wife haven’t spoken since she tried to lecture him in a Krispy Kreme one day (in a town of a million people, she just happened to follow him in) and he reminded her that, according to the “entire state of Kentucky” he didn’t have to listen to her anymore.
So – I was successful at getting into relationships, but not very successful in staying in them for more than a semester. So I did something that was heretofore unmentionable to me. I took a year off. I intentionally stopped dating for 12 months. I started figuring out what I liked (playing guitar) and what I didn’t (skateboards, although I still have mine). I had to successfully become “me” in order to find a good match for me. Because here is the thing. The women who were kind enough to spend time with me were, almost to a person, incredible, smart, attractive women. Sure there were a few that did things like ram their cars into ATM booths in the middle of otherwise empty parking lots or dye their hair so blonde they were one step short of “clear.” But the main symptom of the bad relationship was they were dealing with someone that was growing-shifting and changing on almost a daily basis. I still struggle with that (just yesterday I hated pets with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns and today I’m fine with them) and most people do because we’re complex – or at least that is my excuse. When I met my wife TJ, we talked about the most important part of relationships for me and I said that I can’t be in a relationship where their is no forgiveness. If you want to hold a grudge, or if you have a good memory I am very difficult. Because, when I ask for forgiveness, I’m done. Most of the time my guilt is gone, and I haven’t felt shame since 1999. If you want to hang on to it, that will eventually become a problem, because if it comes back up, I probably won’t remember it, and if I do, I will have considered the matter closed. That makes me exceptionally hard to live with.
I also get angry for days… but that’s an entirely different thing.
So, I figured out how to be more successful at relationships – it didn’t guarantee anything other than an awareness of when to jump out of relationship plane singing “I’ve got to be me!” like Bert Convey in Cannonball, but even that is helpful because I know I am capable of great commitment, loving long-term and most importantly, how to managed the ins and outs of love with a partner over time. So, I guess that’s success?
But what about professionally? Oh, I was going to be the first millionaire in my family – that lasted about four months. Door-to-door sales, not really me. “Hi, my name is Rob, can you reject me?” was not really my thing. It was kind of funny if you think about it. I had to dress up every day, go out by myself and be a self-starter, a real go-getter, and our weekly meetings in the office were supposed to jack us up emotionally so we were ready to go out there and win! We were going to be winners – my response, more wha? who? than WA-HOOO!. I got sold, but couldn’t sell. If you designed a job specifically not-for-me, outside sales would be it. I’d have more success as a baby-seal clubber than filler-brush man. I also grew up privileged so I knew some things about stuff.
Example – my mom and dad had a houseboat. Every good weather day we would drive down and enjoy a day on the lake. If we left the dock, we had no air-conditioning and had to bounce around in currents of other more expensive boats. IF we stayed at the dock, dad had to work on it, repair this, replace that… He also had, at one point, a jet-ski – this thing made me believe that money could in fact buy happiness. They’re great things, right up until the moment they break or suck something up in the intake, then they’re a nigh-impossible to move buoy that just floats around heading in the opposite direction of whatever direction you were trying to go. Sailboat – awesome, that thing was great fun. Custom van – cool, but now illegal because our little ones need “safety” not plywood benches with no belts. We had pool memberships (which are great until you date a couple of girls from the pool, then it takes on a very weird vibe). Living at home, I had a lifestyle I could never have on my own (my dad told me to spend every penny from my part-time job because I had more disposable income than I would ever have in my life – he was right).
But I knew I wasn’t going into finance, real estate, or even some career to make money. My first gig out of college? A House parent at a group home. The second? Social worker. Since then? I’ve been in ministry in one form or another. I am not broke, I’m not poor, I’m middle-class. But that’s like my height. I’m either six-foot or five-ten depending on how accurate the tape at the stop-n-steal is when I exit the gas station. Fact is, I don’t know how to make millions, it apparently takes more luck, favoritism, whatever than I’ve got. Plus, by going into mainstream protestant ministry, I’m pretty sure I’ll likely stay somewhere between “unemployed” and “middle-class” until I retire, or drop-dead of a heart-attack. Either way, as long as my family is provided for, I’m good.
Oh, which brings me to another weird thing. I wanted a big family. In my mid-to-late 40s I was single with a 12 year old son. I turned fifty last week, and I have three daughters and two sons. My daughters range from nearly 3 to 31, and my sons from 12 to 26. Last Christmas our house looked like it was out of a Halmark movie… so check that success off.
And that’s really where I’m going with this – and where I’d like to see you go. I made a challenge for myself. Between January 1st and July 1st I wanted to throw out or donate 1,000 things from my house. I’ve more than half-way there. I still have too much stuff. I have too many facebook friends. Why do I maintain contact with people I haven’t talked to in thirty-years? What good does having some cousin’s friend that spouts off hate on behalf of a better world take up time on my newsfeed and end up getting any thought-time in my head?
In preparation for my fiftieth birthday, I did some thinking, and I decided to reclaim something that I thought a long time ago. “If that’s what it takes to succeed, I’d just as soon fail.” Because years into my life I’ve realized the most success I’ve ever had is when I’m doing what I am called to do by God, loving whom God has placed beside me and doing my best to deepen my connection (love) God, my neighbors and myself. Where I have failed, I have done so because I want to do it like someone else, or for someone else, or selfishly for myself. It reminds me of this message from Paul…
“And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”
I want to ask you to consider this question that you’ve been asked before “What does success look like?” But that’s too easy. It looks like a Lamborghini Aventador, or a jet-ski. A huge house with a big fense, lots of dogs, motion sensing cameras and motion-operated anti-tank systems. It’s a pool in your living room and apparently eating sushi off some naked woman’s body (I’m uncomfortable with that on EVERY level). Is it bling? Is it abs? Is it a girl (guy, non-binary, transgendered…)? My dad once described being rich as watching someone else mow his lawn (after I’d finished mowing his lawn). But here is what I want you to think on even more.
What does success sound like? Is it the laughter of a child that thinks you look goofy when your hat is turned backwards? Is it the subtle chiming of bars of metal when the wind blows? Is it the absence of sirens around the neighborhood? Is it the sound of the waves hitting the beach, or the hum of an engine? Is it silence? Is it loud music, the wind? What is the sound of success to you?
What does it smell like. Is it the smell of coffee in the morning when you wake up? The smell of dinner when you come home? The smell of clean laundry, or a clean bathroom? Flowers? Chocolates? What is the smell of success?
Is it the taste of a sinful desert? Is it wine? That perfectly crafted-in-a-barrel home-brew that you’ve been working on since you got that kit three years ago? Is it a hot-dog at the ball-park or is it a yogurt after yoga?
Is it the touch of someone you love? The feel of the machine in your hands? The feeling of Cashmere or Angora or whatever my bedspread is made out of against skin (seriously, the cat will NOT get off that blanket). The keys banging away while you type? They keys turning over in your hand? What is the feel of success?
Because success isn’t the candidate of your choice getting elected – that is their success.
Success isn’t another thing that can be sold, stolen, broken or lost.
But success can be finding that song that makes you want to hold your partner in the kitchen and dance while the smell of home-cooked foot fill the air. It can be the entire family going out to eat, or hitting the amusement park, it can be lookin in to an empty U-Rent-Me truck after helping a friend move. Success can be failing to right a blog for month, for reasons that you can’t describe, then suddenly having an idea flash through your head that you manage to get uploaded before the next phone call. Perhaps it is remembering an idea, but not a quote from Carl Sandburg about success being, in large part, getting along with your wife.
Thing is, when you are not conformed to the world, Christ makes you a success with God, and grants you the gift of being free from failure. So, live free. Free to let your mind be transformed and renewed regularly so that you may do what is good and acceptable and perfect. With all due apologies to Mr. Sandburg, I believe their is no greater success than that.
God bless you if you made it this far, and God be with your now and forever – Amen