Wil was tough and athletic and brave even at age eight, but also still a kid and therefore vulnerable in certain ways. I remember throwing a pillow from across the room right into his face, and making him cry. I of course felt awful, but it helped me to remember that wow, he’s eight, and he can be hurt and wounded and broken to the point of tears. And the next time we played, I went a little easier on him. But he didn’t play any less hard. At all. In fact, being reduced to tears the previous time somehow made him a little braver. And yes, it was a cautious bravery…he had realized what could happen and the pain that could result…but he wasn’t going to let it immobilize him, or otherwise keep him from playing KIOSSSSSSSSK! and having incredible amounts of fun just because of the fear of something bad or undesirable happening. He probably didn’t consciously process all of this, but it was quite observable to me.
Fast forward almost eight years. We were hanging out during Thanksgiving weekend. And playing football out in the yard. And it was touch football, with a bunch of other boys because we didn’t want anyone to get injured as we weren’t wearing pads. But Wil has grown into a young man at this point. And touch football – without any real contact, without any bumps and dives and collisions – just doesn’t cut it anymore. It is just kind of lame to him. So, he would push off a little at the line of scrimmage when the ball was snapped (perfectly legal), he would use his arms and his body to get better position when attempting to catch a ball (again, perfectly legal), and he would let me or whoever else was guarding him feel the weight of who he was, who he is. And honestly, I got a little annoyed. I remember kind of snapping at him after a particularly rough play (I was a bit upset!), saying “Dude I am seriously going to LEVEL you.” And I partially meant it. And he smiled, and replied, “Alright!”
And then we played basketball. Wil has made his high school’s basketball team, and we’ve been shooting hoops together with his awesome brother Davis for years. But here again, lots of physical contact, and demonstrations of strength and power and presence were visible in full force. Wil would lower his shoulder just a bit (perfectly legal, he didn’t charge into me) when driving the lane towards the hoop. And he would use his lower body position and arms to box out and make room to get a rebound. And he went up HARD for blocks, and shots, and would do anything he needed to do to help his team win. He didn’t care about whether he was possibly being careless. He didn’t care about potentially getting hurt by playing too intensely or recklessly. He didn’t hold back. He just let it all out, with no hesitation or regrets.
And all of this was absolutely wonderful. I freaking LOVED seeing it and experiencing it, and it made me so happy. Wil has firmly entered the phase in his developmental trajectory where it is all about him testing his strength. Seeing what he is capable of. And tangibly believing and understanding he is capable of absolutely anything. John Eldredge (one of my favorite authors) writes about how when he came home from work, his three young sons would lie in wait to pounce on him and tackle him, to rise up against and push against their dad and his strength and what he represented. And personally challenge the current order of things, where the father was bigger and stronger and dominant over the sons. And those sons were recognizing their own potential, realizing that they were growing into their own, and seeing that they too “have what it takes.” And how beautiful of a thing it truly is, because we all need to do this at some point, at many points.
Perhaps the best examples occur when we are navigating the difficult years of adolescence, and trying to figure out exactly who we are, and what we are capable of. Here, we tend to rebel against authority, and rules, and institutions, and the structure around us, and the reality set before us. And it is a good thing, in part. It helps us to really come into our own skin, to recognize our own power, and ability, and – for the first time – really, truly own it. How else do we come to fully discover and understand that our behaviors and choices and actions all have significance, and implications, and affect ourselves but also affect others…in good ways that might positively impact the world but also in bad ways which can cause unimaginable pain? This has to happen; parents just hope it happens in a reasonably healthy manner. With Wil, it definitely is. And what I have seen in him is such an encouragement to me in terms of how I want to live, and how I want to keep living.
I feel so strongly that we need to test our strength not just while teenagers, but all the time. And not just physical strength – it may have nothing to do with you being fierce on a sports field. Perhaps for you, it’s more related to emotional strength, or spiritual strength. We must test our strength, continually over the course of our lives, and not in possibly destructive ways, but in ways that somehow can make us better. Perhaps by making us braver, and less concerned about the opinions of others, and less hesitant, and more operating from our heart’s desires – regardless of the outcome. I posted a status update about this recently – how maybe we could love others more freely without being so afraid of rejection all the time. Maybe we could put our reputations on the line more often instead of being paralyzed by our concern that the bottom is going to fall out and we need to hold ever so tightly to what we’ve gained, or gathered, or earned.
Maybe we could just take more risks in general, in order to remind us that we are truly capable of doing anything. I mean, it could be as simple as jumping into a freezing cold pool. Or meaningfully complimenting the overworked cashier at the grocery store. Or working to improve our punctuality for others, every time, no matter the inconvenience and cost to us. Or actually sticking to a commitment to eat healthier no matter what, or spend more quality time with our significant other no matter what, or grow in self-control by not complaining and gossiping no matter what.
Or maybe we could think about others and what benefits them so much more…instead of constantly thinking about ourselves, and what benefits us. Yeah it’s hard. Sometimes miserably hard. And yeah, sometimes you won’t feel like doing it – perhaps most of the time. But it matters. And you know that. Deep down, perhaps way deep down, something is telling you that you really should do it. Because deep down, perhaps way deep down, you know how you want to be, you know how you dreamed you would be, and you know that it will help you make progress. It will make things better, internally and eventually externally.
Doing all of these things DOES make us better. And stronger. It just does. We need to grow in that direction, and we need to tangibly and continually demonstrate to ourselves that we have strength, and resolve, and determination, and a weight to us that we can feel and that others can feel. We don’t just want to take up space, and we don’t want to just slowly waste away. If we are alive, let us be fully alive. Otherwise, what is the point? Think about what God might be telling you right now, in terms of what you could do to come back to your truest self, to start moving again in the direction of “better” and “stronger.” It could be one small but difficult thing. Maybe do it today, as your first step. And maybe tomorrow, or next week even, you can take a second step. And let me know if I can help in any way. Seriously.