Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Tackle Football

On my last day of high school, a group of senior parents hosted a picnic. The idea was to keep us sober for a few hours, I suppose. I stayed away from booze in high school--read Monday's post and you might understand why--so the picnic didn't make much difference to me. It was just time to socialize. Act stupid. Learn a few more lessons about life before graduation.

Some classmates started a game of two-hand touch football. A tackle happened when someone on the other team touched two hands to the back of the ball carrier. No one got hurt this way, right? The quarterback had a "five apple" count to get rid of the ball before he could be rushed. At some point, while I was playing quarterback, a kid on the other team (let's call him Bob) quickly growled his count, charged forward, and threw me to the ground before I could ditch the ball.

Bob--a classmate since 8th grade--had suffered a lot of insults during high school. He'd been the brunt of too many jokes. I wasn't innocent, but I wasn't the ring leader, either. Regardless, Bob chose me to be the lightning rod for his rage. Nearly twenty years later, I still remember the look of anger on Bob's face when he tackled me--as if he took all the pent-up frustration from the last four years and clobbered me with it.

I haven't thought of that moment in years, but as I sit here, trying to say what needs to be said, it is the moment which comes to me. Two lessons came alive in that moment, two vital lessons I understand now.

The first lesson is fairly obvious and somewhat overplayed: some people will not like me. Bob sure didn't. Maybe he burned through all his anger in that one, fiery moment because we've had cordial conversations since. Maybe he, like me, grew up and now understands high school students do stupid things. Mean things. Reckless, thoughtless things. And while we certainly felt like adults at the time, decision-making wasn't our chief skill. I gave Bob plenty of reasons to be angry. I made fun of him. I'm not proud. But--and this is perhaps the most important part of the lesson--I wasn't the only one to say hurtful things. He simply chose me and that moment. I didn't "earn" it any more than anyone else.

As I've grown older and a touch wiser (I hope), I know it's not just the Bobs of the world who will find reasons to dislike me. We all want to be liked--maybe it's some primal, evolutionary tic--but seeking universal acceptance is a lost cause. It's something I've fought most of my life. I've hurt myself in the pursuit of "likeability". And poor Bob never asked for all the abuse we hurled at him. He never did anything to earn our "dislike" but be who he was.

Now, at 37, I know we all have to be who we are regardless of how others receive us. Polonius might have been a bearded blow hard, but his advice to Laertes is as sound today as when Shakespeare penned it: to thine own self be true. At least when you are true to yourself those who like you--and love you--will do so for you. One must be honest with him/herself before sharing with the world. It's an old lesson, not one I invented, but a good one. If you're honest with yourself and the world still tries to hold you back... that's about them--not you. Keep moving forward past the sea of doubters. You don't have to be like Bob and knock one to the ground, but keep moving forward.

The second lesson which Bob taught me, the most important lesson, is simple, but it's a rare human who can take it to heart. When you want something, really want it, you have to throw yourself at it body, heart, mind, and soul. You have to go for it, dive, hope, and if you land in the dirt, bloodied knees and bruised shins, at least you've lived.

Look, Bob took plenty of abuse before he knocked me down. Life kicked him around enough before that afternoon in May of '93. If he missed the tackle, what was one more trip to the dirt, one more bruise when his ego had taken a beating? But he didn't miss. He hit me, hard. And the look of satisfaction on his face... priceless. Priceless enough that I can close my eyes now, twenty years later, and still see it. Bob was really alive at that moment, really living.

I'm living, too. I'm throwing myself into the tackle, going for it all or nothing, throwing my mind, body, heart, and soul into it. And yes, it's about more than me; it always is. I want my boys to understand how precious life is and not cower from it when bad shit happens. I want resilient kids who can love and laugh and live through all the hard stuff. I want them to grow up with minds that hope, hearts that love, and bodies that wear enough scars to tell good stories. In the process, I suspect each one of them will earn a beautiful soul.

I want them to know that when someone amazing comes along, you love her as hard as you can and you move forward with no attention to those who would hold you back.You throw yourself into the tackle whether you make it or not, all or nothing. Life is too precious not to.

Yes, there's more. There's always more.



Anonymous said...

Love these lessons! Reading this is a good reminder to look back at lessons perhaps I've missed from the past and to pass on lessons I've already tackled. Thanks for sharing!

Daniel Powell said...

It's great to see you back online, Aaron, and I echo the sentiment that these last two essays are awesome. Your mom sounds like a great woman.

Thinking of you and your boys...