Article for October 23, 2011

A Father’s Journal

In the early Seventies, Wilt Chaimberlan, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, and Gail Goodrich had captured my admiration.  I wanted to be an NBA star.  For several years, I would spend hour after hour perfecting behind the back, between the legs, over the shoulder spin moves that would make my audiences of thousands roar with approval.  I would make Albert Pujol’s style, buzzer beating shots that would somehow save the world from nuclear holocaust.  To my millions of adoring fans, I was, in a word, “amazing!”


A funny thing happened between the blacktop of my driveway and the hardwood of my grade school basketball league.  I went from “The Amazing Tom Wagner” who could somehow shoot a sky hook over Willis Ried and Kareem Abdul Jabar’s outstretched seven foot hands to four foot six Tom Wagner who regularly traveled on his way to the hoop.  I was okay, but I really needed some coaching to master even the most basic fundamentals of this game.


This Sunday’s reading about the Golden Rule” (Matthew 22: 34-40) reminded me of the difference between the products of the mind verses what we produce in the real world.  The words, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” truly are written on every human heart.  When you explain “The Golden Rule” to anyone, they instinctively get it.  Have you also noticed, however, that like everything else on this planet, “the devil is in the details?”


Understanding something intellectually and expressing it behaviorally are two very different things.  It is as different as dreaming of hitting a ninth inning, two out home run in a “do-or-die” MLB playoff game and actually hitting a ninth inning, two out home run in a do-or-die MLB playoff game.  The former can be achieved by almost anyone.  The latter takes decades of discipline, coaching, and grueling practice.


Several years ago, a real-life example of the need to coach one another in “The Golden Rule” was brought home to me.  My wife and I hosted all of the boys from my son’s First Grade class for his seven-year-old birthday party.  He requested that we hold the party in a local park so that we could compete in a kind of Olympics.  Because my wife and I would serve in the combined roles of teacher-referee-counselors-enforcers for twenty hyperactive (i.e. normal) boys during these Olympics, we entrusted our daughter, who at the time was in fourth grade, with the task of photographing the party.


At the end of an exhausting several hour day of untangling, shepherding, soothing, and redirecting this swarm of kids, we surveyed my daughter’s documentation of this event.  Instead of photographs of the party we thought we had just hosted, we discovered on our digital camera, about twenty photographs of Fourth Grade girls (older sisters of these First Graders).  In the right context, pictures of my daughter’s classmates with Cheeto’s stuck in their noses might strike me as funny or cute.  Not on this day.


By Fourth Grade, my daughter could recite The Golden Rule with the best of them.  When she was confronted with these pictures, she nonetheless laughed.  She needed some serious coaching.  My wife and I decided to put this discussion on hold until we could calm ourselves and get our parental “X’s” and “O’s” straight.


When we got back to her, we spoke with my son in the room.  As she began to laugh, we asked her how she would feel if we had no photographic record of one of the big parties thrown for her.  She attempted to change the subject.  “No honey.  We have pictures of your parties, and can show them to you.”  She still tried some evasive maneuvers.  By now my son was grasping that there was no photographic record of his party.  His eyes welled with tears as he expressed his disappointed.  She became silent and sullen.


I was afraid that she would feel that we were ganging up on her.  I asked her to go on a walk with me.  In the course of our walk, I exercised self-calming techniques and whispered an internal prayer for wisdom and peace.  I had to firmly block a lane she wanted to drive down that involved self-justification and a critique of my parenting style.  I made her view the game tape of her brother’s disappointment just a few moments ago.  Finally, her eyes filled with tears.  Now was the time for tenderness.  I scooped her into my arms and shared that I have made similar mistakes, and that it is okay to goof up, but that it is important to own up to those goofs and make it right.


Next, the conversation shifted to how she could make amends for the way she had harmed her brother.  With help, she decided to take digital pictures of all of his classmates, and to interview them about what they most liked about her little brother.  Next, with the aid of her computer wiz mom, she would compile these pictures and interviews into a booklet to give to her brother for a birthday present.


With the help of a little coaching, and a whole lot of grace, the Golden Rule was transported from the blacktop of my daughter’s imagination onto the hard wood of my family’s real world life.  Perhaps I’ll never hit a buzzer-beating jump shot in my life, but as my daughter and I returned home from our twilight walk, I thought I could just barely make out the roar of a crowd cheering for my daughter and me to come out of the dugout to take a bow.

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