My favorite show on TV is The Voice. I was watching it recently and a contestant, talking about how his dreams were on the verge of coming true, said, “You can do anything you put your mind to.” This is an oft repeated phrase in North American culture, meant to motivate people to great heights, but it’s only partially true. Can we do anything we put our minds to? Strictly speaking, no. I can’t touch my nose with my tongue. I can’t wiggle my ears. I purse my lips and blow and no whistle comes forth. EVER. I can’t keep a hula hoop swiveling about my hips and I try every time I come across one, much to the amusement of those around me. I can’t find my missing socks. I can’t command the weather and this is a sore spot for me. I can’t change another person and I’ve learned it’s not advisable to try, because it ends badly. I can’t stop myself from getting old, shriveling up like a pea with freezer burn, and dying. I can’t see with my eyes closed. Now I’m just being ridiculous, but maybe not. Words have power. Why don’t we say what we mean? Why would we want to set people up for failure?
Certainly, we can try and do many things we put our minds to, but our physicality, gifts, personalities, environment, resources, attitudes, and resilience, all play a part in whether we’re capable of doing something. Let’s consider the purely physical aspect. Show me a squat, portly prima ballerina, a giant gymnast, or a willowy lineman on a football team. Some skills and professions seem to require a certain build. This is not to say that exceptions don’t exist, only that they’re exceptions and not the rule. I’m 5′ 2″. I can walk under light fixtures and through caves without having to duck. I’m not built to play on Canada’s Women’s National Volleyball Team and I’ve tearfully accepted this, but I would’ve made a smashing hobbit. Helen Keller, the famous blind, deaf writer, would never be allowed to operate a motor vehicle and for good reason. She wasn’t able to see where she was going! No amount of mind games on her part would make up for this shortcoming. My husband is color blind. When he was ready to choose a career path, there were numerous occupations he was barred from due to this disability, occupations that he would’ve pursued had his eyesight been normal, one being a police officer. He took a Criminology Degree in university and did a ride along with the police service. We laughed at the idea that he’d have to describe to his fellow officers what an offending vehicle looked like so they could join him in pursuit.
“This is Officer Krause requesting backup. I’m in pursuit of a male suspect in a green, no, red, no, green, uh…hmm…I’m not exactly sure what color it is, but it’s a Ford Focus and that guy is flying!”
It’s common knowledge that we’re born with strengths, proclivities toward certain skills and activities. One is a whiz at numbers while another is adept at stringing words together. One designs and builds a table while another whips up and serves a scrumptious meal on said table. One leads a country while another heads up a classroom. Sure, we can all think, maybe do a cartwheel, run, boogie on a dance floor, sing, and learn to play an instrument, but the real question is can we do the things we want to do in a remarkable way? Not necessarily. Not everyone can be a brain surgeon or a scientist, a circus performer, an athlete or dancer, a singer or musician.
The field of music is a case in point. Some people are musical and some aren’t. I have a couple of friends whose parents pushed them to pursue the piano, believing they were proteges and, as adults, neither of them plays. Lessons do not a musician make. A person can spend hours practicing to become proficient and still not be able to rise above cold machinations. It takes innate talent to coax beauty from an instrument. Or so I thought. I recently read a book that stated that practice over a ten to twenty year period, continuous plodding rehearsal, according to one study, could produce greatness. I wonder how many people in this world have the kind of focus, drive, resources, and time for such a commitment.
My mother was a music teacher and choir director in her younger years. At one of the churches my father served as a pastor, she directed the choir and was stuck with the unpleasant task of telling one of the choir members, Agnes, that she could no longer sing in the choir. Agnes loved to sing, but she was tone deaf. She was also boisterous and blaring. Imagine singing in a choir next to a squawking crow. People standing around her were unable to hear each other or hold their own parts, swamped by Agnes and her shrill, dissonant caws. She was singing, but it wasn’t good singing. Really, could you even call it singing? She had certainly put her mind to it, gave her whole self to it, was probably the most passionate choir member of the bunch, and yet, she wasn’t capable of doing it well or even in the way she wanted to do it, which was with others. Her participation kept others from doing what they were gifted to do.
For some people, it’s not their bodies, but their minds that thwart their intentions. I have untreated Attention Deficit Disorder (another story for another time). My mind often doesn’t want to be “put”. Where others can direct their attention and stay focused despite distractions, my mind jumps around like it’s on a pogo stick. I have to work at being attentive or I accomplish nothing. Butterflies and bird noises, people walking through, clatter of any kind, and my antennae goes up. I can be in the middle of doing something and some stimulus lures me away. I used to always answer the call, leaving a smattering of unfinished tasks behind me. I’ve learned to tell myself to stay where I am when that happens. I also have trouble with prolonged focus especially with chores I don’t enjoy that involve too many steps. These chores are often left half done or avoided altogether. When accomplishing a particular job is a must, my only hope is to chunk it up into small steps taken over a period of time or the alternative, to do the said thing as efficiently and quickly as possible.
Another poignant example of the fact that our minds don’t always cooperate with our aspirations is a friend of ours who has since passed. When my husband was in university, he was living and working part-time at a downtown mission that helped the homeless. On the day he moved in (he was required to live onsite), he was surprised to find he’d be rooming with a former gang member and drug addict. Chico had a tumultuous history full of pain and violence, but had given his life to Jesus. His sincere desire was to become a counselor, to help addicts find healing, hope, and new life, but he was basically illiterate having only a grade school education. He also suffered brain damage from his drug abuse affecting his ability to think, plan, reason, and make good life choices. Unfortunately, his mind wasn’t the only obstacle he would have to overcome. He was barely off the streets and living below the poverty line. He had very few healthy, high-functioning friends and he also struggled to extricate himself from his former life. Years later, we found out he had died of a drug overdose.
I’m not trying to squash people’s dreams. I believe people should dream big and do whatever it takes to make their dreams a reality. Like a pile of important papers needing our attention, dreams languish in the mind giving way to regret, If they’re ignored or denied. James 1:17 says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights…” If our dreams are healthy and good, they’re from God. Dreams are about hope, creativity, industry, and beauty. All the amazing things ever done in the world began as fanciful musings where someone was brave enough to painstakingly translate them to words, hands, and feet. The very best of us are dreamers and doers both.
When we have the dream in hand and we’re moving along the path, it’s best if we define success for ourselves. Many define success as notoriety and the reaping of monetary rewards, but that’s a limited definition. I’ve had people encourage me to write a book. I could write a book, if I wanted to. I’ve thought about this and it’s not likely to happen, though I don’t want to completely rule it out. My definition of success doesn’t currently include being a published author. I like the freedom blogging gives me. My ADD makes me a random person and so my butterfly brain lights on what it will. I’m free to reflect on whatever I want and share it here. I don’t have anyone telling me it won’t sell or it’s too long or it’s inappropriate or it’s not good enough. I don’t need to have a cohesive theme or research or footnotes. Writing papers in college and university, piecing together other people’s thoughts and arguments was painful for me. I gladly left that behind.
I’m also not interested in trying to sell a book. I’ve seen authors in bookstores sitting at tables by themselves with their book in front of them, the thing they birthed, the product they poured their being into, their choicest thoughts and deepest convictions offered up. They don’t look excited to be there, but bored and some even forlorn, probably because they don’t have people crowding around them snapping up copies of their book. I had a woman call out to me from her table once and when I politely declined to look at her book, she chased me into the stacks thrusting it at me. It was an incredibly awkward moment. I never want to be that person. Of course, we all believe we’re special and have something worthwhile to say, but not every one is going to connect with you or I. There’s a world of people clamoring for attention and attention is in short supply in the age of the internet. Congratulations for making it this far down the page and I thank you very much. The fact that others are willing to read what I write is a blessing and I regularly thank God for my readers. I know myself. I’m a columnist, thinking and writing about whatever captures my attention and imagination in the present. I believe I’m successful, because success for me is simple; it’s in the writing and the sharing.
The new wisdom is that we should identify our strengths and run hard after them rather than trying to shore up our weaknesses. This makes sense to me. I made a reference to volleyball earlier. Volleyball is something I was never able to master. I watched other people gracefully cup that spongey, white ball and send it soaring high into the air. For me that spongey, white ball comes down and it feels like it weighs 10,000 pounds and my fingers crumple underneath it and I might as well just hit myself in the head with the ball and get it over with. I know I’m capable of learning to play volleyball. If I put the practice time in, I could learn to do it well enough to play the game at a barbecue, but why? Why would I give time to something I wasn’t initially good at that I don’t care about? I’ve played it many times over the years and it’s never clicked. I’m all for learning new skills, but I prefer to pick up those that bolster my strengths. I can’t play volleyball really means I won’t ever play it well, because I don’t want to. I’ve let it go to pursue those things that come naturally to me.
If we have a vision for the future, ours and others, let’s take it seriously and work to see it realized. If we enjoy doing something, if we’re passionate about it, let’s strive to do it to the best of our ability and our enthusiasm will, undoubtedly, be contagious. We must welcome mistakes as helpful teachers allowing us to hone our skills rather than failures we can’t recover from. If we achieve the measure of success we’re gunning for, let’s take time to relish our accomplishments and if we’ve managed to jump the inevitable hurdles we encounter, let’s share our stories, so that others may be enlightened and encouraged.
We can do most anything we put our minds to. We may never be virtuosos or headliners, but we can love what we do and do it with all our might. I hope to avoid the pitfall of getting hung up on the destination. Remember how many famous people have checked out early by committing suicide or overdosing on drugs?! The wealth and acclaim obviously isn’t enough. It doesn’t satisfy. It doesn’t make life worth living. We’d be better off emulating the humble dog hanging his head out the window of a car on the freeway, his fur blowing back, his tongue lolling out, lapping at the wind, a look of sheer glee on his face. What an intelligent creature! He gets it. He knows what happiness is. It’s about enjoying the ride.
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