Reading: The Reverend Linda Anderson

Columnist Linda Weltner tells this very comforting story. “My husband,” she writes, “plays the tuba badly. No, wretchedly. Execrably. With unforgettable inexpertise. After my husband played ‘When Irish Eyes Are Smiling’ at my older daughter’s wedding, as a way of welcoming our son-in-law’s Irish family, his father created an award for Jack that read, in part, ‘for a spontaneous public performance which demonstrated an originality so stark that it stunned the audience, rendering them incapable of meaningful response.’

This did not hurt my husband’s feelings. He knows the impact his music has. This is a man for whom practice means playing all the notes, right or wrong, at least twice. His tuba, purchased at a yard sale for $100, looks as if it’s been run over by a truck. His entire repertory consists of five songs which run the gamut from ‘Happy Birthday’ to ‘So Long, It’s Been Good To Know You.’ Still, the phone rings and people ask him to do a gig at some special event, an occurrence which happens more frequently than I might hope. He doesn’t get nervous or decide to polish up his technique a bit. He glows. He basks. He’s unabashedly delighted. And delightful.

At his first note, audiences burst into hysterical laughter, and the more earnestly my husband attempts to render a recognizable melody, the harder they laugh, until they leap to their feet, choking and cheering. I understand why he’s in demand.” He dares to be imperfect. And people love him for it.

Falling Short: The Reverend Linda Anderson

I love the story of the tuba player. I love it because I’m the sort of person who has high standards for myself. I want to do the best I can, which is a good thing. However, attached to that is a desire to do everything well, which is not particularly a good thing. I’m an only child, which may have something to do with it. Only children have no siblings to compare themselves to. They have adults and when children expect themselves to behave and achieve as adults do, it can be a set-up for disappointment and feelings of failure because those expectations are not realistic. I am still learning that doing everything well is not the same as doing the best I can. I am still learning that sometimes my best is just not very good. This desire to do everything well brings me dis-ease and discomfort in those times when I want to do better than I’m doing. I don’t want to have my imperfections so obvious to everyone. So obvious to myself. And it only increases as I get older.

Which is why I love the story of the tuba player. There are times in our lives when we will not meet our own standards, our own desires, much less those of others. For some those times start early, with learning difficulties in school. For others they come on the job. For still others they come in sports. For many of us, limitations show up as we age. We simply cannot do what we used to do well. How do we deal with that? It takes courage to allow ourselves to be imperfect, and by that I mean to allow ourselves to do our best, even when the outcome is not very good. It’s a lesson I learn over and over again, imperfectly. How about you?

A number of years ago I went to Arches National Park in Utah. I went for the beauty of the land, which I found to a stunning extent. I also encountered, also to a stunning extent, my own inability to do something as well as I thought I could; as well as I wanted to. In other words, I encountered my own limitations. I encountered so many of them at one time that the story bears telling.

The first thing I do in a national park is go to the ranger station and see what’s what. I stamp my passport and peruse the ranger programs and guided hikes. In Arches I found something called the Fiery Furnace hike and I asked about it. The ranger looked me up and down and took out a sheet with some pictures on it. First, she said, You have to have good shoes. I do, I said, here they are. (Holding up hiking boots.) She said, You have to have a backpack and carry water. Okay, I do that when I hike. Actually, I’m a careful hiker, always carrying a poncho and a hat and a flashlight and a knife and a first-aid kit as well. Then she showed me the pictures. You have to rock scramble; see those people on their hands and knees? You can’t be afraid of heights; see those people on the ledge? You must be willing to jump over crevasses, also. I began to waver, inwardly, a tiny bit, but I assured her I was okay with all of it. I mean, this was my only opportunity to walk down into the furnace, into an unmarked area that was not open to hikers except with a ranger, or a special permit. And I could do it. I hiked. I did weight training and aerobic exercise. It was only two miles – a comfortable distance. Okay, it was billed as a moderately strenuous hike, but I optimistically focused on the moderate part, paid my $6 and pocketed my ticket. I showed up the next day, 4 pm, in the Fiery Furnace parking lot, suitably booted and backpacked. The ranger counted heads, 22 of them, and off we went.

First, she went too fast. I mean she downright galloped into the furnace. The kids loved it. Right away I found myself at the end of the line. I do walk slowly, so I expected this, even if I didn’t like it. With me at the back of the pack were four others: a man from New Orleans, who wanted to linger so that he could take photographs; a man from Australia who obviously hadn’t gotten the word about sturdy shoes and wore Teva sandals to this hike and needed to proceed gingerly; a young guy named Matt, another slow walker; and a friend whom I had run into unexpectedly on the hike. It was fine until everybody seemed to disappear into a hole in the ground. It turned out to be a crevasse that you lowered yourself down into by gripping the rock with your fingernails. It was kind of exhilarating, but my backpack kept getting in the way. A liter and ½ of water, flashlights and first aid kits and ponchos get heavy. Plus I had my camera, with a big telephoto lens. So Matt took the backpack, somewhat to my chagrin because I wanted to do it myself, but mostly to my relief.

Next we squeezed our bodies through an opening in the rocks that made any MRI tube look spacious, only to find ourselves in an open-air cave whose roof was an arch above our heads. Magnificent. I retrieved my camera just as the ranger galloped off again, but the five of us stayed behind to rest and take pictures. Mistake. In order to get out of the open-air cave, we had to proceed, spider-like, across two rocks about two feet apart from each other with nothing solid that I could see between them. This time the man from New Orleans took my camera as I propped my back and arms against one of the rocks and my feet against the other and inched my way across like a sideways crab. I looked up and my Good Samaritan was taking pictures of me with my own camera. The man had a sense of humor.

They call this area of the park Fiery Furnace because the sandstone, already pink in color, turns red in the later afternoon when the rays of the sun light it from an angle low down in the sky. Anyway, emerging from the crevasse, we reached the bottom of the furnace. We stood at the base of the sandstone, looking up at the red rock and the almost unbelievably “true blue” of a sky, as e e cummings puts it. Every now and then a raven would add its blackness for contrast. We walked along comfortably in the sand for an all too short amount of time and then we began climbing. We climbed on rocks that held no foothold, no toehold and no handhold. The ranger and quite a few of the other hikers turned into mountain goats at that point and skipped up the rocks. But not me. I got on my hands and knees and literally crawled up. Two hours and ten minutes into a three hour hike. I was shaky. This hike was a challenge. At this point the ranger was periodically calling back to us to ask if everything was all right. The guy from New Orleans always said yes. I wondered.

Something happened to me then. I was finished. My whole body started to shake. It wasn’t that I was afraid of the heights or the scrambling or the jumping as much as, 2 ½ hours into the hike, I was tired. The pace was too fast and so I never fully rested before we set off again. My heart rate never slowed down enough. I was probably dehydrated. My pals told me to drink water, but it nauseated me. About this time the ranger called back to see if we were okay and the group said yes, but they looked worried. My friend had some Gatorade and it stabilized me for the last leg of the hike, a series of ups and downs over the rocks. The ups weren’t bad, but the downs were steep. I took them sitting down. As we approached the end, the man from New Orleans put his arm around me and said I had a lot of courage. He took one last picture of me with my camera and we parted ways. The ranger cheerfully waved goodbye and once more I was safe and sound in a paved parking lot above the Fiery Furnace.

Has it ever happened to you that you have not been able to do something very well, something you wanted to do well, either because of a lack of aptitude and/or a lack of knowledge and/or circumstances beyond your control, or perhaps because your body simply could not do it? Have you ever been among the pack in the back; the ones who can’t keep up? What was that like for you?

The experience of my own limitations, so glaringly obvious among a group of people without the same limitations, taught me a lot. To a large extent, we measure ourselves against one another and a part of our self-esteem rests upon those comparisons. I learned what it feels like to fall short of my own hopes for myself. I expected that I would have found the hike easier. I assumed that I would have done better. I wanted to do better. I hated that I was at the back of the pack and everyone else seemed to do better than me. Also, I felt frustrated. Frustrated because I couldn’t figure out how to negotiate the rocks and I didn’t have the benefit of seeing how people in front of me did it because they were too far ahead. I was frustrated that the ranger didn’t slow down, despite our asking her to. And finally, I was frustrated because the hike was so hard for me. It was so hard. I had expected a challenge, but not Mount Everest. I felt surprised and kind of embarrassed at such a manifestation of my own limitations.

Having limitations, though, is not the same as failure. J.K. Rowling, in a Commencement Address to graduates of Harvard University some years ago, noted that “Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it.” Many of us can feel inadequate when we don’t measure up to the standards set by the group we’re in, whether they are academic, or physical, or social, or work related. It is not a comfortable feeling and it causes us to doubt ourselves. At the same time, no one of us can indefinitely keep up with someone else’s pace. In order to be at our best strength, we have to find our own pace and if we can, a group whose pace fits our own. It may happen from time to time that you find yourself at the back of the pack, but if you’re going too fast for your natural pace, slow down. Accept it and be true to yourself. Perhaps the failure lies in refusing to recognize, accept, and take care of our own limitations.

When we’re finding footing to be uncertain, we have to pay attention. Even if others have no trouble negotiating it, an uncertain path requires our concentration. One of my disappointments on the Fiery Furnace hike was that I had trouble where most of the others did not. But just as in the case of trying to move at a pace set by someone else, I needed to stay within myself and I needed to pay attention even if the others did not. That’s so hard to do. I think many of us look around and make assessments about ourselves and others. I can cook better than you, you can do carpentry better than me. To some extent we place ourselves in the world through such comparison. It’s particularly difficult to find bumpy a path that everyone else seems to find smooth, to have trouble with footing when everyone else seems to have none. At such times it’s hard to pay attention because it means we have to face up to our imperfections.

The real lesson is that our limitations are not a measure of our worth as human beings. We cannot measure our own value solely by comparison to others. We have inherent value and worth, imperfections and all. All too often we forget that. The lesson remains. When the footing is uncertain for us, we have to pay attention, regardless of how certain or uncertain others find it. If we don’t hold to the integrity of our needs, our footing becomes even more uncertain.

Let others help; even when we’re feeling reluctant to accept help. Sometimes, often I believe, help is there when we need it. That back of the pack crew, especially the man from New Orleans, whose name I don’t even know, greatly affected the quality of the hike for me. Their companionship, kindness and help were priceless and their presence allowed me to marshal my own resources in order to complete the hike. Sometimes, and I would venture to say often, the help of other people is there when we need it.

For exposing our limitations brings benefits. If we will not allow ourselves to do anything badly, how will we ever learn new tricks? How will we ever grow and develop? If we cannot accept our limitations, learning to carry on with them and finding ways to compensate for them, life will become harder and harder, for age brings limitation. If we demand some sort of perfection from ourselves and everyone around us, what becomes of our relationships? How will we accept the limitations of our friends, family, and those we care for? Accepting our imperfection rather than ignoring it or fighting against it or trying to hide it teaches us to persevere and it teaches us to take risks. We can surprise ourselves.

It takes courage to let ourselves be imperfect. To try something and find we do not, or cannot, do it very well, and then stay with it anyway. To stay with all the discomfort involved in showing our imperfections to the world. We learn from this; we grow. Living our imperfection can bring us pleasure, challenge, adventure, fun, and the glorious perversity of a tuba played badly. Life drags us through a fiery furnace at one time and another. In those times, especially in those times, we can’t walk at another’s pace and we can’t measure our self-esteem in comparison to how well others are doing in the furnace. We need to center and ground ourselves, recognize and try to work with whatever in us limits us. Persevere, and accept the help of others in order to get through it. Again, J.K. Rowling from the Harvard Commencement address: “Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.” Learning to accept and work with limitation is life work. May we have the humility to hold our limitations and not only survive, but meet life’s vicissitudes head on, imperfect though we are. May it be so.

Closing words — The Reverend Linda Anderson

20th century scientist Lewis Thomas “We have evolved scientists. . . and so we know a lot about DNA, but if our kind of mind had been confronted with the problem of designing a similar replicating molecule. . . we’d never have succeeded. We would have made one fatal mistake: our molecule would have been perfect. . . . The capacity to blunder slightly is the real marvel of DNA. Without this special attribute we would still be anaerobic bacteria and there would be no music.” Let the blundering begin. Let there be music.

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