Old Stuff

Few things will chip away at your happiness than the thought that you should be happier.

This morning I moved a Word file from my “In Progress” folder to the “Old Stuff” folder. Most of the time, when I move such a file to such a place, it’s an occasion for mourning. It means the project has been abandoned, along with an idea that I’d once been excited about–one that I’d spend hours trying to shape into a coherent narrative that other humans might derive meaning and pleasure from. But whether by my own judgment or by a a string of rejection notices, these pieces have been deemed lacking and so relegated to Old Stuff. Alas, most of the words I write end up in this file, never to see the light of day. Most of them never should.

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The first page of my essay in Sport Literate. It’s a thrill to see your work in print, but also a reminder of all your work that sits unused in the files.

Today, however, I had a much more auspicious reason for opening Old Stuff.  I moved an essay called “St. Anthony and Buddha Bike Through the Desert” into a tiny subfolder labeled “Wins.” With its appearance in Sport Literate‘s fall edition, it joined a dozen or so non-church related pieces that I’ve published in different venues. The Wins folder is my modest literary trophy case, and “St. Anthony” is the newest and highest quality entry to date. I should be ecstatic.

I’m not.

The problem is that my Wins folder pales in comparison in both size and scope to the rest of Old Stuff. The other subfolders represent various categories of failure. Novels ranging from partially written to fully polished but not in print. Columns published as a pastor, dating back to the era when I thought–naively, as it turns out–that determination and well-formed ideas were enough to steer my religious tribe away from self-destruction. Short stories and essays that were never any good to begin with, but which help me trace my maturity as a writer, such as it is.

If my estimations are close, I think I have in the neighborhood of 500,000 words of material in the Old Stuff file, representing about 25,000 printed pages and untold thousands of hours of work. When I add up the old church-related columns with the Wins folder, I can see that about 10% of the words I’ve written have been read outside of my immediate circle.

With numbers like that, no wonder most of the writers I know focus more on their failures than their successes. I’m no better. But I’m trying to be. Ironically, the clan that has made me more determined to celebrate the wins is not literary, but athletic.

As it does in much of American life, sports has an outsized place at the university where I work. Since most of my students are also athletes, I’ve had to learn a fair amount about what makes them tick. And one of the clearest and most overwhelming lessons is that athletes on almost every level hate to lose more than they love to win. This trait, called the Krauthammer Conjecture by the late columnist of that name, is every bit as evident in an NAIA cross country runner as it is in Max Scherzer or Lebron James.

In fact, I’d go so far as to postulate that most of us spend far more time thinking about our regrets and failures than our successes. If I tell a student she did a great job at the choir concert, she’ll talk about the notes she missed. If I tell an actor he nailed a role in a production, he’ll inevitably mention the lines he dropped. Something in us is wired to remember the negative and to confess our failures, even in the face of success.

So it’s my mission today to let the Old Stuff go. The failures of the past will collect their dust whether I mind them or not. In the meantime, I have a new story out in the light of day. That may not represent wild success, but it is an accomplishment. The Old Stuff isn’t going to get in the way of my enjoying this victory.

I hope you can find a similar happiness today in your own successes. And I hope you are surrounded by people who care more about those than any failure you might also carry.

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Paws without Claws

Sweet enough when she's sleeping, Sammi is a terror when provoked.

Sweet enough when she’s sleeping, Sammi is a terror when provoked.

In our household, we expect guests to live by three general rules:

1)      Make yourself at home.

2)      Be careful backing out of the driveway (it curves deceptively at the end).

3)      Don’t pet the cat.

The third rule usually gets the most double-takes, especially from animal lovers. What kind of cruel pet owners would deny affection to such a lovely creature as our Sammi? And why deny our guests the chance to stroke her sleek fur and hear her purr gratefully?

Because, in the words of my eldest son, “She’ll try to gnaw your hand off.”

While Z’s statement is certainly on the dramatic side, it is in keeping with both the cat’s character and my son’s experience.

Sammi comes by her malice honestly. When she was a kitten, some of the youth from our church would sneak over to the parsonage during worship and tag her with water guns—a “game” my wife and I did not find about until years later, or else we would have put a stop to it. The poor cat was so traumatized that she licked herself bald. Her hair grew back once we left that appointment. Understandably, her trust in children did not.

By the time our boys were born, Sammi was set in her ways. Even a decade later, she will allow my wife and I to pet her most of the time, but not Z or J. If the kids come near, she will swat and snap and occasionally hiss before she runs under the bed. She has no front claws, so there’s no real danger to them. But it scares them when she swats, and it hurts their feelings to have Sammi respond to gentleness with fury. Most of the time, they avoid her.

On occasion, however, Sammi decides that the time has come for a battle of wills. She sits in the hallway and will not budge as Z or J approaches. About once every week, I turn the corner to see one of them locked in a staring contest with Sammi, afraid to move past her.

“Go on,“ I tell them. “She won’t hurt you.”

“She’ll swat at me.”

“Maybe. But she doesn’t have front claws. All she can do is pat you.”

“But she looks mad.”

“It doesn’t matter. She can’t hurt you.”

“But…”

And so the argument goes, until the cat gets bored with it and slinks away to terrorize dust bunnies.

I’ve been realizing lately how much of my life is spent in similar fear. I run into an obstacle whose only weapons are surprise and intimidation. It may not have power to hurt me, but it scares me into inaction with threats about what it might do and what I might lose.

Sadly, I often run across this in my job as a pastor. Sometimes it’s from colleagues whose insecurity turns them into bullies. Often, it’s from lay people whose unresolved fears lead to issues with control. Most frustrating of all, I sometimes see our denominational leadership resort to intimidation tactics for no better reason than to get people to do what they want.

When mature Christians give in to such tactics, we do no service to anyone, much less to God. What we need then is a little perspective, and perhaps a little courage to go along with it.

We mature Christians need to remember that we have all we need in Christ. We may lose an argument, and we may even suffer at the hands of those who abuse their power over us. Jesus certainly did. But nothing can ever be taken from us that would diminish the love of Jesus within us—not our pride nor our appointments nor even our lives.

When we learn not to be afraid of those who wish to control us, we are free from more than just the discomfort of fear. We are free to see behind the bluster of our adversaries. We can seek to understand the way they are, and by understanding to treat them with a bit more kindness, even as we resist their efforts to frighten others. We are free to move, and free to love our enemies, and free to live happy lives.

When seen through the lens of Jesus, those who would intimidate us are all paws and no claws. We can walk past them without fear.

Life-sized Fear

Forget Disney. Nevermind Six Flags. When it comes to Van Meter family vacations, the geekier the better.
No surprise, then, how our Chicago vacation turned out. We ate Chicago style pizza, saw the Cubs lose, and managed to check a few other must-do items off our list. But we spent most of our time and money at the Field Museum.

Like any world-class nature collection, Chicago’s Field Museum has plenty for a curious family to get excited about—totem poles, ancient Egyptian relics, an incredible array of dinosaur bones. But for Jonathan, our youngest son, the highlight came in the darkest corner of a special display.

The exhibit featured bio-luminescence, the ability of animals to generate their own light. The most visible examples are lightning bugs, but those are far too common for Jonathan’s interest. Literally his entire life, he has been captivated by deep ocean animals. The world of his imagination is populated by hatchetfish, angler fish, and most of all Vampyroteuthis infernalis—the “vampire squid of hell.”

At age seven, Jonathan can tell you almost anything you need to know about the vampire squid. It is a living fossil, the last of its kind, not quite octopus nor squid. It lives at preposterously low depths, where sunlight never reaches and the water contains barely enough oxygen to survive. When threatened, it raises its arms to fan out the cape of skin between them, releasing as it does a light-producing bacteria that confuses predators. Its undersides are equipped with fearsome looking spikes, and its dark maroon color gives it an even more devilish appearance.
Seen up close, the Field Museum’s model of a vampire squid brought out the creature’s dramatic appearance. Other children stared up at the display with wide eyes, goosing each other and whispering “Boo!”

Jonathan was unimpressed.

“It’s too big,” he said. “Vampire squid only grow to about twelve inches long. And the spikes on their arms are not bone. And they don’t swim like that.”

It was hard not to be a little deflated by Jonathan’s reaction. Zachary and I were thrilled with Wrigley Field and dinosaur bones, which Jonathan cared nothing about. If he was going to make a memory on this trip, it would be at this apparently disappointing exhibit.

A moment later, however, Jonathan made the best of discoveries. The last room—one that the day camps and pre-school groups blitzed through without stopping—contained dozens of actual specimens, preserved in jars. And in the center was a real vampire squid. For Jonathan, this was rapture. We waited almost an hour while he examined the “vampire squid of hell,” finally prying him away with vague promises about the gift shop.

I can’t say exactly what Jonathan learned from that vampire squid specimen. Likely, he only confirmed things he’d already gleaned through countless library books and internet searches.

For his proud (and equally geeky) father, the lesson was a bit more philosophical. The vampire squid’s appearance, coupled with the mysteries that continue to surround its life and behavior, make it an object of fear. When we blow it up to three times its size and hang it from the ceiling, it’s not hard to imagine it wrapping those arms around our heads and sucking out our blood.

But that’s the imagined fear, and not the reality. In fact, it is a small and delicate creature, a peaceful scavenger, and object of wonder. It may be from the dark and the depths, but it is certainly not from hell. It is part of this fragile earth, same as we are.

It makes me wonder what else I have misunderstood, and what my fears look like in actual size.