Within seconds of closing the car door, the tears began to flow. My son and I had been walking slowly from the baseball field, making our way between cars pulling in and out between games, parents rushing to drop off children and coaches loaded down with gear for the entire team navigating their path to the dugout. If I had the right algorithm, I probably could measure from how slow my son was meandering and how purposelessly he was dragging his gear bag just how emotional he would be once the door closed. But I wouldn’t need that equation—I could tell from his troubled face, barely holding back the tears as he turned from home plate after his last strike-out. It was a spirit of utter dejection leaking through his pores, that oh-so-familiar look of someone clinging to his last shred of dignity while striving to keep the disappointment from showing on his face. It was the look of shame—a look that we all have experienced, when your face feels red hot because you feel everyone’s eyes focused on you…with pity. As we grow older, some of us have learned to disguise that look with anger—even some of Drake’s teammates have mastered that defensive technique. But not him—not yet. Once the car door closed, I looked back at him and said, “You OK?” when the dam burst.
“I am the worst baseball player! I’ll never get any better. I can’t hit the ball. What is wrong with me? Why can’t I do this?” He went on for several minutes, sobbing more and more, the emotion escalating as he talked. I knew exactly what he was going to say. Before bed a few weeks earlier, I had asked him what things he was most afraid of in his life, and without missing a beat, he responded, “That I will never be good enough as a baseball player.” Maybe that sounds childish and frivolous to you as you read this—the concerns of a pre-teen boy in a sandlot—but what I heard wasn’t silly at all. In fact, as I listened to him crying and venting his frustration, I couldn’t help but think just how mature he sounded. Sure—some of his complaints were tied to his age, but substitute baseball with another issue and I could have been listening to any adult venting their feelings. It was the sound of shame, the sound of the bottom falling out of someone’s confidence. It was the sound of the tipping point between courage and despair.
“A jersey with my name on it”
As I sat and listened to him talk, I was keenly aware of not trying to fix it, but instead, being with him in the struggle. I reached back to pat his knee, and kept saying, “I am so sorry” and things like that. I waited until he seemed exhausted, and then resorted to the tried-and-true “everyone goes through this” approach that had worked in the past. In baseball, it sounds like this: “Who had the most home runs? Babe Ruth. Who had the most strike-outs? Also Babe Ruth.” It was a way to normalize struggle—to make it alright not to be perfect and to fail on occasion. But that approach just wasn’t going to cut it this time. He had heard it all before. He responded, “Dad, they aren’t going to walk me on the majors. If I can’t hit, then I’m not going to make the majors.” His voice cracked as he spoke.
I couldn’t argue with his logic this time. The “majors” are the final step in the Little League ladder, the coup de gras of everything that you have been working towards since you first picked up your bat in T-ball. And it isn’t automatic either. The kids who make the majors really have all their skills securely in hand, and can pretty much do everything well. I shifted my tactics towards more of a glass-half-full approach. “What I saw today was a player who was contributing to his team, and doing some great work on defense. Why are the things that you did great so small in your mind, and the things that you missed so huge?” He didn’t get my question—or didn’t want to—and came right back at me: “I let my team down today. If I don’t make the majors, I’ll never get a jersey with my name on it.” Tears escalated. We had hit a nerve, something deep and central in his life.
I smiled inside at his comment about the jersey, but I had forgotten something important: how badly my son longed for a trophy—any trophy. It was a thing with him. When he was younger, we could have said “run around the block for Easter Seals and you’ll get a trophy” and he would have. It didn’t matter that he had no idea what Easter Seals was, or that the trophy wouldn’t mean anything. It was a trophy, and a trophy says something about you, doesn’t it? A trophy says to all the world that on some arena in some bygone era, you were good enough. Fast forward a few years. Drake played on two championship farm teams, but they lost in the finals both times. No trophy. In his career, he has yet to make the All-Stars either. Again, no trophy. When you finally get drafted into the majors, you are presented with a jersey with your name in big letters on the back. And that is also…wait for it…a trophy. It made complete sense to me.
The truth is that every time my son steps up to the plate, he is asking himself a question that we all ask ourselves: am I good enough? He has a few seconds or minutes to justify his existence on his team—and in his mind, his life—and that is something he has to do it over and over again. Every time he steps up to the plate, he has to prove something to everyone—and frankly to himself. As they say, you are only as good as your last performance. You are only as good as your last sale, as your last verdict, as your last parenting interaction, as your last hit song, as your last…fill in the blank. All of us want trophies, even when they’re not the plastic kind that sits on your mantle. Why? Because you can gaze at them daily and convince yourself, “I am good enough. I am worthy.” But worthy of what?
We went out to lunch, just my son and I, and when food had soothed his nerves a little, I asked him a question: “Remember last year when you were hitting really well? It felt like you were a phenomenal player, didn’t it?” He nodded, a strange look in his eye as he tried to figure out where I was going with this. “But today, it felt like you were the worst ever, yes?” Again, he nodded. “The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, isn’t it? You are probably not as good as your greatest home run or as bad as your worst error. But I want you to know something: you are not loved by us because of your performance. You are loved because of who you are. There is nothing that you could ever do to earn our love or even to lose our love. That is called grace—it is a gift that someone gives to you. So here is my question for you: can you give grace to yourself? That is what this actually comes down to—in baseball and in life too.” Drake looked down at his food, avoiding my eyes, and responded: “Dad, I don’t know what that means.”
As nice as that sounds, I’m not sure if any of us have figured it out. Having someone say that you’re loved outside of your performance feels like the booby prize, like the also-ran, the last thing that we want to hear. Sure, it feels right when you read it here, with no skin in the game and nothing to lose. But when you’re in that situation—looking down the barrel of your own failure—grace feels false, and unbearable. We’re trained from infancy to measure our worth by our performance, a lesson that is reinforced in us on a regular basis. We have to justify our existence every day to feel alright about ourselves. Forget about speaking grace to yourself. Grace must come from the outside—it is a door that has to be opened for you. If we’ve learned to speak grace to ourselves in those situations, it is only because someone somewhere in our lives has demonstrated grace to us first.
But how radically would we be changed if we began to see everything in life as grace, as a gift that we could never earn, if even the things that we worked hard to achieve in life were still ultimately understood as grace? That would mean that our performance would say absolutely nothing about us. We would be freed from that exhausting treadmill of having to prove ourselves over and over again. When we stepped up to the plate, we could swing the bat without any fear—with actual joy in the game itself, and not in what it achieved. We could disconnect our identity from our performance—the very thing that elite athletes and performers can do—so that we could relax and move to the next inning unhindered by the past. Grace is the only thing that can open the prison of performance. Grace gives freedom.
In which the tables are turned
A few days later, it was my turn. I have been a musician all my life. I studied classical voice in my undergraduate program, and would have pursued opera if I had not taken a right turn into the record industry. Now, I am a pastor, but I still have my mind in music, and sing in a community choir every week with a really top-notch conductor and some exceptional vocalists. We sing regularly with the local symphony, and do major works like Beethoven’s Ninth on a regular basis. This spring, we were performing two of my favorite choral works—the kind of repertoire that you dream of—and it was a fabulous opportunity. I had been chosen to handle the baritone solos, and I felt super strong and prepared.
But in the moment, everything went wrong. I had missed the dress rehearsal, and felt sort of out-of-sync with the ensemble. In our hurried warm-up, we didn’t have time to go over every part of the program, particularly my parts. And as I sat there before the concert, I began to worry. My solo opened the fourth movement of the first piece, with no accompaniment. What if I spaced? What if I couldn’t find the line? Sure enough, when we got there, the accompanist played two notes instead of one, and it threw me. I started to sing and stopped because I was on the wrong part. I stared down at my folder in panic as I grasped for the right notes. Finally, the conductor had to sing my part—the ultimate shame—to get me started. But then it got worse. I began to make mistake after mistake in my remaining solos, completed unnerved. At the end of the concert, he made me come down to the floor for bows, which was unbearable. Three strikes. The sound of a baseball hitting a glove. The sound of shame. How will I justify my existence today?
As it turns out, my son was in attendance that day. As we headed for the car together, I was experiencing all the same emotions that he had been feeling, and I knew it. When we got to the car, I turned and said, “Drake, did you see Dad strike out today? What did you think?” Of course, he hadn’t noticed at all. I explained a little more of what had happened, and said, “So how will you counsel me? With a twinkle in his eye, he responded, “You’re my dad. What I heard was great.” And there it is: unbearable grace. It was a door to love that was held open for me. It wasn’t about my performance. You are my dad. You are my son. Grace.
© 2019 Daniel Radmacher