Today there is a wake for my late coach Trent Richards. As shared in this blog last week, I met the man when I was only thirteen years old. I recall the world back then as a bluntly mysterious place. I was too trusting of many people, and seemed to know so little about the world at times that I could not help being victimized by my own naivete.
Times were different, of course. These days the Internet is a veritable Pandora’s Box of what you might want to know about everything from world politics to female and male anatomy. But back then, one gleaned knowledge in parsed bits from what you encountered on your own.
Yet there was great pleasure to be found in really finding something out on your own. That was why my brothers and I enjoyed our birding adventures so much. The first time you find a species of bird in the wild, one that you have never seen before, is a great sense of discovery about the world.
The same was true with the sports in which we participated. Our games were full of self-discovery. It all came down to real experiences with how hard you could throw, how many baskets you could make in a pickup game against your friends, and how fast you could run.
That last bit was a revelatory experience on its own. I’d always done my fair share of running all the way through middle school. When a gym teacher assigned me to run as punishment during class because I did not want to play badminton, I took to the task with singular verve. I’d run the whole hour, and the more it hurt, the better I felt about myself.
This was contradictory for sure. That dichotomy of self turned out to be a bit confusing. What was it within me that sought pain over pleasure or saw them as the same in the end?
As the pursuit of running as a sport began to require sacrifice as well, especially in terms of time and other pleasures such as giving up soda during the season, I felt the thin veneers of naivete begin to peel away. I was learning what it meant to work, and work hard. To see results from that effort. Also to learn what my talents were, and that perhaps they had limits. These were the pleasures and perils of being frightfully naive.
Testing your limits
Because when you run up against your physical limits, and try to push behind, there are moments of truth involved in that quest for self-knowledge. Can you go harder or faster, or do you quit?
I recall well the first race in high school where I pulled a DNF. As a freshman I’d been running for the varsity team. All those new miles and competitions added up to some genuine fatigue. The course was a hilly one out in Oregon, Illinois, on a golf course where we were often out of sight from the coaches. I tried my best to keep going but there was literally nothing left in the tank. I slowed as teammates went past, and it was surprising for them to see me give up. Then I stopped. My chest was heaving and my legs felt like aching twigs, because I was so goddamned skinny.
The assistant coach was a man named Larry Edman. He found me standing there near tears on the side of a hill. He put an arm around me and starting walking me back toward the finish line. “It’s okay,” he advised. “Your body can only take so much running when you’re starting out. You’ve been running varsity and you’re onl a freshman. You’re doing great.”
Those words meant a lot to me, because there was never much quit in me at that age. Wracked by changes in my life and driven by fears that a fourteen-year-old mind could barely conceive, about family stability, and tectonic relationships with friends, it was all I could do to grasp what I needed to do to get along.
The head coach Rich Born was similarly encouraging. He knew I loved to compete and had given my all, even on a day when I did not finish the race. As the season bore on I rebounded plenty well, and we won the sophomore conference meet that year, setting us up to win the varsity conference meet the next.
Transfer of excellence
What one learns from such experience is transferable to so much else in life. Yesterday I went to my art studio to produce some work for an upcoming show at Water Street Studios. On Sunday afternoon it can be difficult to ratchet up the creative juices after an entire week of writing and other ventures. Yet I sat there painting some 6″ x 6″ canvasses and let the brush do the work. In two hours I produced two paintings in a relaxed and impressionistic style. Not too tight or bothersome. Simple observations of nature at both an intimate and broad scale.
And then I started a third. But the juices were no longer there. Significantly, the palette was also almost dry. That parallel gave reason to pause and set down the brush. I thought about the process of reloading all that paint on the palette, and let it go. There would be another day I knew. Another chance to paint.
Building on experience
So life does build on our running and riding and swimming experiences. We learn discipline but also forgiveness. Sometimes we make mistakes and push too far. We get hurt or sick or burnt out. We can feel our naivete scraped right to the bone in those circumstances.
Likely I’ll never understand why I was more naive about life than many of my friends. Or so it seemed. They knew how to flirt with girls, “hustling,” they called it. Some were so bold I was aghast at their methods. One day in the swimming pool I witnessed one of my sports teammates dropping below the water surface to poke a girl in the mons pubis with his finger. She protested at that moment, yet later in life they got married. They are now divorced.
What one learns from all these trysts and tests is that your personal experience is all your own. You can’t, and should not, attempt to be that person who does outrageous things if that is not your style. At the same time, I refuse to shut up on issues that matter to me. All the way back in the 1980s, when I was just 21 years old, I sensed the selfish nature of neoconservative politics. I resisted the daft, dismissive policies of Ronald Reagan with his “trickle-down economics.” I took to the newspapers and landed a gig writing weekly columns on the environment in response to the insane illogic of men like James Watt, then Secretary of the Interior, who by religious means saw fit to treat nature like a commodity to be disposed of by will of human activities.
Later, while working full-time at a newspaper, all the employees were given a personality test that proved revelatory for me. It was highly accurate on both my strengths and flaws. One of those instructions was to learn more about business to improve my acumen. So I started reading everything I could, starting with the Business section of the Chicago Tribune which I’d long ignored. And Crain’s. And Advertising Age. Forbes. You name it. I read it.
That was the second phase of my formal education, basically. I’d already studied biology, art and English at Luther College. That was my liberal foundation, the values portion of my personality that I have never relinquished. I use these things to face reality.
Then came a spiritual and religious journey as well. Because conservatism was so popular in America, and religious leaders such as Jerry Falwell and other TV preachers were leading public dialogue, I wanted to know why and how they thought. Plus I attended a very conservative Missouri Synod Lutheran Church because that was the church in which my wife was raised. And once the wise pastor that married us retired, I sat through inane sermons from arch-conservative pastors who hated on evolution, gays and liberals.
This was absurd, I thought. I was no longer so naive by that time in life. I’d worked for years and watched stiff-necked decisions made that turned out tragic in business and in the church. I watched people bragging about their righteousness and conservatism cheat and lie and manipulate others. And I wanted to know the reasons why.
So I dug into the foundations of literalism and originalism in terms of religion and politics. I read the Bible front to back several times, and while doing that I read tons more literature on faith and conscience.
That led to a seven-year process in writing a book titled The Genesis Fix: A Repair Manual for Faith in the Modern Age. It dealt with the effects of biblical literalism on politics, culture and the environment. Its conclusions were that conservatism essentially has the Christian faith backwards. It all came back to a focus on legalism that led to ostracizing gays or women or blacks based on biblically literal interpretations of scripture. But those interpretations are naive. They are the real and brutal naivete that are vexing our world. It’s true in both Christianity and in Islam. The most righteous, zealous believers are often the most naive. Pope Francis is now in the process of confronting this naivete on a worldwide scale. But conservatives don’t like to hear it. They know they are being called out for their angry prejudice and fearful belief system.
Jesus and the faith
Pope Francis is merely bringing out the true teachings of Christ, who castigated his disciples for being “dull” or “without understanding” when they could not grasp the metaphors in his parables. Jesus also ripped the Chief Priests of his day, and all those using religion as weapon for control and politics in this world. In fact, that is one of the chief messages in all of scripture. Repeatedly throughout the Old Testament, God warns his people that they should not need kings if they follow the Holy Word. But the people insist on grounds of temporal concern. This earned them the ugly foibles of worldly leaders instead.
There’s a great lesson in all this that applies to our present time. The naivete shown when Christian evangelicals rally around Donald Trump over an opportunity for political power is classically biblical. It is simply a repeat of the horrific tendency in human beings to follow personality over principle. Plus, many religious people are so focused on the “end times” that they misunderstand the obligation to propagate the kingdom of God in real time. End Times theology is vindictive and distracts from the real purpose of faith, which is to love one another.
But let us be clear about something. The act of loving another does not mean forgiving their trangressions without admonition or resistance. Jesus did not recoil from calling religious leaders “hypocrites” or a “brood of vipers” when they needed to hear that their methods were not in keeping with God’s promises. Neither did the fiery John the Baptist back off from using the exact same words when religious curiosity (indeed, naivete) brought the chief priests out to the Jordan to witness what John was doing to save souls. “Go away!” the Baptist essentially said. “And only come back if you’re willing to have a change of heart.”
But they weren’t. And ultimately, John’s own obstinence got his head chopped off. That’s how religious authorities and vain kinds behave when their authority is questioned. They know that their naivete is a patent flaw, the clay feet in the statue of pride and hubris.
One for the ages
I’m no longer naive the way I once was as a child. As a person ages, one does well to recall the words of 1 Corinthians 13, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.”
That does not mean we should all lose our sense of wonder, or cease pursuing childish things in our lives. There is a random healthiness in play, and in pushing ourselves into situations beyond our understanding. But when the Bible admonishes us to ‘put the ways of childhood behind me,’ it is talking about keeping a willing naivete as the foundation of our belief.
We must be cautious not to be deceived through use of faith to excuse our hopes of personal gain.
This is a subtle subject, and many Christians find this distinction difficult to understand, much less sustain. But it is a real and personal distinction one must achieve in order to grow in maturity of worldview, and in faith. It is the tarsnake of faith to find its contradictions as well as its securities.
And if one is not a religious believer in God, the process is essentially still the same, except one substitutes the word “God” with “life” in the following passage to produce a humanistic version of this message from Galatians:
“Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.”
A man (or woman) indeed reaps what they sow. Call it karma if you will. Or just rewards. Whatever you want to brand it. Religious or not, the perils and pleasures of naivete are instructive in this life.
That means you can actually learn much from what you do out there on the road, on the bike, or in the pool. Your personal character is revealed. Your life and its contributions are determined by what you learn in the process.
In some ways, I miss that deep and painful sense of wonder I once owned as a child. My naivete about life produced a feeling bordering on holiness at times.
I recall standing on the bluffs above the Upper Iowa River near my alma mater in Decorah, Iowa. I’d already run thirteen miles in the hills that morning, but felt the need to get out in nature on calmer terms. So I borrowed a friend’s bike and pedaled out to the wilderness beyond town and stood on that rocky ledge above the river. I wondered aloud what it was all meant. The answer is still coming back to me. And I am listening.