Another Monday comes and I just wanna breathe
Cause it’s a long, long week for someone wired to please
I keep taking my aim, pushing it higher
Wanna shine bright, even brighter now
Wish I would tell myself: “Don’t try so hard.”
“Don’t Try So Hard,” Amy Grant
When I was 9 years old, I broke both the bones in my right wrist playing in a pick-up game of tackle football with my neighborhood friends on a rock hard sandlot just across the cul-de-sac from where I lived. It’s one of those memories that’s as fresh today as it was the day it happened. I was streaking down the middle of the field en route to what seemed like an easy touchdown when I was struck in the back by the human equivalent of a semi-tractor trailer. His name was Ken McCray. Ken, who was, by a considerable measure, the biggest kid in the neighborhood, clumsily launched himself onto my back WWF-style and drove me and my right wrist into the ground. The pain that ensued was excruciating. I remember getting up without a word, walking across the street into my living room with tears pouring down my face and having the following predictable exchange with my mostly intolerant dad: Me (looking down at a hand that now hung limp at a 90° angle to my right arm): “Dad, I think I broke my wrist?” “What do you mean you ‘think you broke your wrist’?” he replied. “It’s not broken – just move it.” Me (about to pass out): “My brain is telling it to move, Dad, it just doesn’t seem to be listening!” And with that, we were off to Baptist Hospital, where my arm was casted just above the elbow and put in a sling, where it would remain for the next 6 weeks.
Most would have used the occasion to at least miss a day of school. It was after all only the third grade. But missing school was not really something that ever crossed my mind – not that it would’ve been a viable option even if I had suggested it – and so the next day, after momentarily basking in the attention that casts, black eyes, etc. invariably garner, I settled into my front row seat in Ms. Chena’s class at Howard Drive Elementary as if nothing had happened. It was business as usual. Before the class was over, Ms. Chena came to me and explained that she had taught students with broken right arms before and would gladly make arrangements for me to complete assignments that didn’t require writing. “That won’t be necessary,” I told her – not entirely sure where those words had come from – “I plan to learn to write left-handed!” I don’t know which one of us was more perplexed by that statement. I’d never really done anything left-handed in my life, save for swinging a baseball bat – poorly – but, having made the commitment, I wasn’t about to back out. It’s who I was – even at 9 years old. In the days that followed, I actually did teach myself to write left-handed, much to my and Ms. Chena’s amazement. She was effusive in her praise – to me and to my parents. I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about, until I got to be 50 years old and started to think about it – “it” and what “it” symbolized.
There’s not another 9 year-old on the planet who would’ve done what I did – not a single one! So why did I do it? What exactly was I trying to prove by learning to write left-handed, who I was trying to prove it to and, most importantly, why did I feel the need to prove whatever “it” was at all? Why couldn’t I be satisfied being just like every other right-handed 9 year-old with a broken right wrist – taken a day (or two!) off of school, milked the broken arm for all the attention and special privileges I could and enjoyed a few weeks respite from written homework and classroom assignments? Why did I feel compelled to try so hard? Why did I feel the need to go the extra mile – and then some – even to the extent of volunteering to change something about myself as fundamental as the hand I wrote with?!? Why was I so quick to want to prove myself adequate, capable, up for the challenge? Unfortunately, I never stopped long enough to ask, let alone try to answer any of those questions and it was unfortunate, because over time the character traits exhibited by that 9 year-old boy seeped into every corner of my life – sports, my work and, most troublingly, my personal life, especially when it came to relationships. In some of those arenas those attributes have their advantages and their rewards; but, trust me on this one: they have no place in the world of relationships. There, the price of trying too hard is too steep.
But try too hard, I did – repeatedly. You see, while most would simply grieve a broken heart, milk it for all it’s worth and move on (the relational equivalent of taking a day off from school or a month off of homework), I took the “try too hard approach.” I simply refused to be derailed by “the break” or the message it implicitly (or explicitly) carried with it (i.e., that I was somehow inadequate, that if I were just a little different, a little better, a little more perfect or did a little more (or less) something, I’d get the love I wanted and needed). Instead, I viewed it as a challenge – in much the same way that naïve 9 year-old boy dealt with his broken arm. I redoubled my efforts – intent on “proving” to the object of my desire/affection that they had made or were about to make a big mistake, that I was “their man” and I was willing to do just about anything to prove it – even if it meant changing things about me that were fundamental to who I was. Actually, it turns out I was the one making the “mistake.” You see, while I didn’t understand it at the time, relationships, at least those that are healthy and mutually fulfilling, are not intended to be that way. They are the one place all of us should be able to fully, openly and unapologetically be who we are – and expect to not only be accepted but loved precisely because we are that person!
Mrs. Chena did her level best to teach me an important life lesson that day. In an hour of need, when I quite literally was “broken” and vulnerable, she offered compassion, understanding, empathy and support. She wanted me to know that, in my brokenness, I was still enough, that I already had more than demonstrated that I was an exceptional student and that it was “okay” for me to take my foot off the accelerator for a moment – without fear that it would somehow alter what she thought of me. I’d like to think that if Ken McCray had broken both my wrists that day, I would’ve gotten that message, but chance are, knowing that 9 year-old boy the way I do today, I’d now be one of the few able-bodied 55 year-olds on Earth capable of writing with his mouth instead!