For most of my vocational life I’ve had to do battle with the overwhelming need to prove myself. This may have something to do with where I land on the Enneagram. As my fellow Threes will testify, “I succeed, therefore I am” is one of our life mantras. The other is “Produce or perish.”
Then there’s the whole gender thing. On my first day of preaching class in seminary, my professor quoted Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century British essayist: “A woman preaching is like a dog walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” Something inside my 22-year-old heart cocked its head and said, “Oh yeah?” I admit there is a small part of me that’s been trying to prove Samuel Johnson wrong ever since.
Fortunately, periodic moments of clarity about my condition have sent me running to gifted therapists and spiritual directors through the years. Each of these good people, in his or her unique way, has pressed a cool cloth to my fevered brow and whispered, “Relax, dear — God is carrying you.”
Still, learning life’s most important lessons takes time and repeated practice.
A couple of years ago I flew to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to join eight people I’d never met before, mostly pastors, professors and chaplains, for a 40-mile kayaking trip on Lake Superior. “Kayaking by day … reading Flannery O’Connor around the fire by night” said the advertisement. They’d had me at hello.
Still, I was nervous on the flight up from Atlanta. Having never set foot in a kayak, the prospect of flipping my boat in Superior’s near-freezing water terrified me. Just a month earlier there’d been icebergs in Marquette Bay. I kept imagining the short, involuntary gasp the instant my body went under the frigid water, followed by a slow, helpless descent to the bottom. “She died in a wetsuit,” the preacher would say at my funeral.
But of course, our experienced guides were all about safety and spent a full two days with our group, teaching us the standard kayaking maneuvers in a slightly warmer inland lake, preparing us for the Big Water. When we finally launched our kayaks from the southern shore of Superior, I figured I was as ready as I was ever going to be.
“The lake has quite a chap on it today!” shouted Jon, a Lutheran pastor and our expedition leader, as we encountered the loud, massive water. “Just relax and let the paddle do the work, or you’ll wear yourselves out!”
This was good and reasonable advice.
But I am a Three on the Enneagram. And I am a woman who still sometimes feels the need to prove herself. So I clenched that paddle in my determined hands and thrust it into the water as if I were digging a trench. Hour after hour, mile after white-capped mile, I waged my assault on Lake Superior. The others in the group were laughing and chatting with each other across the water from their kayaks. I was breathing too hard to laugh. Plus, it’s hard to feel chatty while rigor mortis is slowly setting in.
By sunset, as we neared our cabin on the shore, my hands were cramping, my wrists were throbbing and my shoulder muscles were a ball of barbed wire. I was in agony, trailing the group by a solid hundred yards.
That’s when Jon quietly paddled to my side and offered an empathetic smile. “You’re not having much fun, are you?” he said.
“I don’t think I can do this,” I said with tears running down my face.
“Trust me,” he said, “it’s better if you don’t clench. Relax your grip and you can go for miles. Breathe. Be mindful of the beauty around you; the silence; the feel of your paddle slicing the velvet water. Not only will you go farther, you’ll enjoy the journey a whole lot more.”
Sure enough, the next day, after a stiff dose of ibuprofen and a good night’s sleep, I let the paddle rest gently in the palms of my hands and traveled the next twelve miles with less effort and considerably more joy.
And now, whenever I catch myself keeping some arbitrary, ridiculous score, or trying to muscle my way through some challenge, I remember Jon’s voice on the lake that day and it heals me, at least enough for today:
Be mindful of the beauty around you.
Relax your grip and you can go for miles.