Learning that is meaningful usually involves making mistakes and getting dirty. Regrettably, we oftentimes short-circuit authentic learning by relying on the “Coles Notes” (Cliffs, if you’re American) instead of reading the whole book. We offer cheat sheets to our kids, our friends, and even to ourselves. “For their own good” (we think), we want to control information and situations and choices in order to avoid mis-steps and unpleasant outcomes.
Our intentions are loving; armed with our deeply-held beliefs and our heightened 20/20 hindsight, we want to save one another from hardship and heartache by providing shortcuts and life hacks that reveal the best way forward—and while we certainly do want to learn from the experience and wise counsel of others, it’s difficult to really own something until we’ve wrestled with it ourselves.
Blind acceptance doesn’t allow for authentic understanding. External motivation may offer immediate results, but the results don’t tend to be lasting. Separation from apron strings, following the road less taken, wrestling internally, discovering for one’s self—these intrinsically motivated discoveries, that can sometimes look like “straying from the path,” may actually have more staying power.
With our own children, there are phases of parenting where we provide black and white rules and enforce consequences so that they’ll be safe and learn how to act appropriately. But as our children mature, extrinsic rewards are no longer sufficient; sometimes we have to let them figure it out. We continue to provide boundaries and wise counsel, while also recognizing that they need to experience and learn for themselves in order for the roots of understanding to be profound, far-reaching and hardy.
A bunch of years ago, we put a three-storey addition on our home. When the builders dug down for our new foundation, it produced a temporary dirt mountain that was a dream come true for our kids. In the span of hours, that dirt mountain transformed into something spectacular! It was home to several Tonka trucks, diggers, My Little Ponies and Hot Wheels cars. It was covered in elaborate road systems. It had villages and caves, horse pastures and “sand” castles. Our dirt mountain provided many hours of entertainment.
One day, I went outside to find my, then, 4-year old daughter and 6-year son old standing on a wooden toboggan at the summit of our dirt mountain. I watched, frozen, as my precious babes stood, one behind the other, legs braced, both hanging on to the rope (because “safety first!”) and began scooching themselves forward.
My initial inclination was to yell “STOP!” and rush up the mountain to their rescue. They clearly needed to be bubble-wrapped for their own protection! Instead, I took a deep breath and calmly asked myself: In this situation, is good parenting rushing in to save them from possible injury or is good parenting letting them be adventurous, figuring out on their own that this standing-toboggan-ride likely won’t end well?
Realizing they probably wouldn’t die, I bit my tongue and watched them descend. It was a rough ride, but there were no broken bones. Reflecting afterwards on their maiden voyage, they agreed, together, that once was enough. They learned from their experience. And possibly even better, they began the process of learning to trust themselves.
I wonder how often God does this with us? He certainly doesn’t question his own parenting like we do, but I’m convinced he must grit his God-teeth when he watches us scooch our toboggans over the edge of steep inclines. He allows it because he has given us free will to choose, and he knows we’ll learn something valuable that will hopefully inform future decisions—but it doesn’t mean he likes to see us hurt or that he orchestrates bad things to teach us a lesson.
Trial and error, multiple failures and re-vamped editions are often a necessary part of the process toward becoming whole, authentic people. This applies to becoming fully who we were created to be, to discovering our talents, to honing our skills, to refining our characters, to finding the right path, to making a discovery and even to embracing personal faith.
When I began the process toward authenticity in my early twenties, I was somewhat cavalier, sometimes inadvertently offensive, and definitely not smooth. It was a rough ride down the dirt mountain, but God let me do it. He knew I had something to learn about navigating being real and discovering my true self. And I did learn it. But not without a few wipeouts along the way.
I’ve never done ‘neutral’ very well. I can formulate opinions on the fly, muster passion for just about anything and expostulate in such a way that others may perceive me in ways I did not foresee or intend.
When I first felt the call to be ‘real,’ I leaned into it enthusiastically, not realizing yet that others mightn’t enjoy my candor. I intentionally chose to make myself vulnerable, sometimes with the wrong people. I was expressive with my thoughts and opinions without thinking through how I might be interpreted.
I’ve explained before that I see most ideas, situations and feelings in pictures and metaphors. This can lend a very visual component to my words that might work well for writing, but can sometimes make my spoken words sound extreme.
One such occurrence, that makes me cringe and laugh to this day, illustrates the point. In my early twenties, while volunteering my time with youth, I once prayed passionately…out loud…in a large group…that God would “remove the religious poles from peoples’ butts.” Mmhmm. You can already imagine how this went wrong. While I was envisioning something like scarecrows—fixed in place by nature of the poles, unmoving, no autonomy—and was using the metaphor to pray for freedom and grace, others were picturing something quite graphic and unpleasant. Oops. Thankfully, it was before the days of viral tweets or the damage might have been far worse. As it was, people were offended and I was mortified.
I’d like to tell you that I learned to perfectly temper my words after that first time down the dirt mountain; that no offensive thing ever exited my mouth from that time forward and that my words were never mis-interpreted again. But, it did happen again. And again.
In fact, recently, a friend laughingly told me that I talk about punching people in the face a lot. Startled, I realized that I do say that a lot—though I sometimes modify it to involve a throat punch. I am not a violent person in the least—for me, it’s all metaphor and humour—but based only on my word choice, I can understand how others (especially those who don’t know me well) might question whether I have a serious problem with aggression. So, yes, I’m still learning to temper my words.
Throughout the years, God has continued to provide wise counsel through his word and through his people, but he has never forced me to get off the toboggan. The result, over time, is that I have learned to discern what is mine to own and modify versus what is on others to deal with, because their offence was the result of something in them. I’ve figured out how to hold in tension living freely and honestly and living with sensitivity for those with differing world views. I’ve had to learn to walk the very fine line between paranoia (worrying constantly about others’ perceptions of me) and living from a place of love (caring enough for people to choose the kind response).
Two decades have passed since those early years of learning to be real. God allowed me to experiment, to test, to falter and, sometimes, to fail miserably. Even when others tried, he didn’t bubble-wrap me or impose a strict code. Just as we don’t want our kids to act a certain way because they’re afraid of us or to hang out with us because we make them, neither does God force us. He doesn’t want programmable robots!
Instead of external control in the form of law, his grace is what allowed me to become the “me” he’d intended (a process that is ongoing. Clearly.). His kindness and forgiveness gave me space to figure out a way to walk that was deeply real. No one was compelling me to act a certain way. No one was forcing me to choose God. I was choosing God, because he first chose me. I was acting a certain way because I embraced with joy who he’d created me to be.
He gives us the space to figure it all out. He refines our character using real life situations. He allows us to learn what we’re made of through hard lessons. He wants us to hang out with him because we love him, not because our parents or some other influencer loved him. He wants us to trust him and lean hard on him because we know ourselves he is trustworthy. He wants us to choose his path for us because we understand that it’s the best path for us. He wants our understanding of him to be authentic. He wants our learning to be meaningful.
And sometimes this means learning the hard way…and maybe a risky trip or two down a dirt mountain.