Monday, June 13, 2022

A Fine Line- Warriors Do Go Home and other "Heroic Thoughts"

My mind is back to classical literature this weekend. Part of it was taking some time to listen to an audio version of "Walden" and my constant enjoyment of God's creation that transcends words.

But I also have been reviewing some past, epic 'competitions' as we prepare for the 50th year of Briarwood football and a podcast I have been working on.

Years ago- I was immersed in Ulysses by Alfred Lord Tennyson and began writing a paraphrase of that work (and the poem, Odyssey, by Homer).

 The story of Ulysses (Odysseus) has long been a source of inspiration and thought experimentation.... especially when living in the world of competition. The themes of competition, pride, success, failure, are rich and deep- including the warrior's desire for a name and the longing for home. I frequently paraphrase Tennyson when I think of new challenges and new seasons…. and the ultimate goal of any team.

Let's spend some time in this epic poem and think through some 'heroic thoughts'.

It may be that foes may wear us down. It may be we shall wear championship crowns, And be like great champions past, whom we knew. Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho' We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven…..

that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made TIRED by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and NEVER to yield.

Those lines from Tennyson ring more true every year- Tennyson knows the longing to get to the battlefield and leave a mark....

cAs competitors, especially as we grow older, we are like Ulysses who soon grow weary in a life of leisure when we have tasted the fire of battles and won. Most coaches I know get tired of the summer pretty quickly and are ready to get back to the grind and the fight.

I have been still too long now- you only think that rest, leisure, and escape will still the soul.
But already I am dreaming of where to go- I need a wall and a mountain in my path I no longer need anyone to applaud my glory or understand my motives.

It is precisely this line that explains why I don't plan on retiring anytime soon. And if I do retire, it will likely be to a new wall or new mountain.

The mistake is thinking a person has to MOVE to find these walls or mountains. Too often men apply the wrong opportunity to their desire to keep charging… it isn’t a new wife, or new job, or new car, or new life… it is simply opening your eyes to the opportunities around you and dare to make a difference.

My scars are all that must stay attached
I long to remember the important things forgotten in the fog of battles that few recall
It is a loss to know that everywhere I have been is now long behind me, but I carry parts of every stop ahead in me
I am weary from waiting and dull from peaceful sleep. I am rusting too early from a lack of activity Will I end my time in a furious panic of all undone? Little remains: but every hour is saved From that eternal silence, something more, A bringer of new things; and vile it were For some three suns to store and hoard myself, And this gray spirit yearning in desire To follow knowledge like a sinking star, Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

A competitive spirit, though misguided and even sinful at times.... does not prohibit the Lord from channeling a man to heights he never imagined. But always pursue them with a warning..

"Those who transgress boundaries in their all-consuming life search for knowledge, riches, power, and prowess will overreach themselves until their pact with the devil destroys them. " Os Guinness

Ulysses creates quite a tension and is one that I believe most men struggle with. 

We are enthralled by and called to heroic narratives. Any honest evaluation of our ambitions and intentions can never disregard a desire to be the champion.

At least I did.... I wanted the ball in the last seconds with a chance to fight and win the game. In some ways, yes,  it is a yearning for significance but in other ways, it is just a recognition of how a man is wired.

The tension is palpable though.... straining through heroic desires and domestic duties. Because as much as I have always wanted to conquer in far away fields of battle, I also never wanted to be a man who had won the battles on the road, but lost dramatically at home.

Here is a fine line.... a competitor must fight- but for the right things and for the right reasons. And the balance is so subtle. I get sad when I look at some of the blood from sometimes misguided culture wars. Worse still, are the wounds of domestic battles. Competitors must learn when to stop fighting. We can be so right, we are dead right and we end up killing people with the truth. And the victims get seared hearts.... and may never come back to learn the way of soul satisfaction and life. As coaches, our battle is to win kids more than games...but we can do both. And the coach HAS to win his family as well.

I remember as early as 1996 pleading with the Lord to allow us to be a football state champions. But my prayer was always... 'Lord, if You allow this please let me see that I still have my faith, my family, and my friends." And God was gracious and faithful, He did allow that experience in 1998, 1999, and 2003. And in each case, my faith, family, and fiends were still intact.

So it is a tension, a life long tension.... Where is the battle? Where is my heart? What is the right thing to do? and How do I decide what it is and, more importantly, HOW to do it?

Now this is where a healthy sense of self suspicion HAS to come in. Men, we HAVE to be skeptical of our intentions.

One of God's greatest saves in my life was His guidance and providence to get me home more. And early on, it was hard to do.

When I was a very young coach.... eaten up with football and the passion of pursuing championships, it was much easier to stay at the office for LONG hours, more film and more planning. And I was never alone-  we had a core group of young warriors like me who were going to climb the mountain with all we had.

Going home was harder. Going home to my house of 3 very young girls and a wife strained to the edge wasn't always a pretty picture.

At work, I was in control and the system I was working on was clean, organized, and there was a clear evaluation at the end of every contest and season. It was easy to chart growth and it was satisfying to get approval and support.

Home was harder. It wasn't organized nor clean.

But God worked a miracle in me. Early on I made myself go home... before long I wanted to go home. And I learned to embrace the tension on both sides.

Because BOTH need a ton of attention.... if you are going to do it well. 

The hardest part is that if you truly are doing it well, there will be tension and misunderstanding on both sides.

My wife still felt that football was my mistress and she and the girls needed me more. My job demanded more than I was giving it as well. The deep nuances of football along with a full time teaching position can never be explored fully.

Do NOT get me wrong... I messed it up ALL the time and there were too many times I was home physically, but withdrawn and engrossed in mental pictures of x's and o's.

The most difficult part was that I did suffer professionally at times from others who questioned my commitment to the job because I wasn't one of those who stayed at the school every night and every activity. I stayed as long as I needed to get the job done- but my main mission field was at home.

I think one of the worst things we can ever do is go to someone and let them know that we noticed that they WERE NOT there. In m early years as a head football coach, I heard that too much from my supervisors. Why weren't you at the basketball game? Why did you not attend the play? Why did you leave campus so early? Please, I ask you men- don't do that. It is ok to have an honest sit down and talk through strategies....But defend your employees who are dads more and be willing to please the 'never satisfied fringe' less.

As a man who has seen his children grow up and get married and celebrating 34 years of marriage... it was time WELL spent. I wish I had even spent more!

And, it can happen the other way as well. Every spouse has to evaluate when it is very legitimate to ask "Why are you working so late, so much?" - yes, that has to be asked. But there are times the questions needs to be withheld if you see that there is an honest effort to fight the tension.

The hardest thing? Now that I look BACK.... now that I am an empty nester and a grandpa and my professional life now approaches 4 decades? My enemy all along has been that time never stops...

Time is the gift that doesn't keep giving.... and video images and pictures from years ago are beautiful and haunting all in one emotion. The game never loves me back... but my family is always there with love and care.

So what to make of all this rambling?

The tension remains even as we age...what is the call? Does it change?

No- it still is the struggle to lay the passions before the Lord..... 

He is not ever calling me to bask in self-indulgence and luxury. Yes, He gives me SO many opportunities to have fun, travel, fish - more than I deserve... but He does it only in spurts and commands that everything is done in His timing and under His authority. And, thankfully, I have learned that He is the best One to trust in regarding these things.

But how to decide often ISN'T a clear road sign and I do believe He allows a lot of blessed options.....

So let's walk with our hero, Ulysses for just a little bit more.

And let's wrestle with the tension.... IS HE:

A warrior hero who still desires to matter... who still feels his skills are good?


A self-centered, foolish seeker of adrenaline beyond any boundaries who sacrifices his family and domestic duties along the way?

Again, I apologize to Alfred, Lord Tennyson for the paraphrase....

What profit is there for a warrior king to sit in idleness?

My life is nothing but routine.

My wife and I are growing old and I rest in my home and try to sort out what it means to govern a people who never rise above their base natures.

My people? They are no different than any human... all they care about is to eat, drink, and gather with no regard for anyone but themselves.

My heart has always pulled me in a different way.

And my memory constantly recounts the bloody battles and glory that fade too soon.

I DID become someone- as I early on told the Cyclops with force and power- 'No I am not NOBODY... I am ULYSSES, Sacker of Cities'.

Indeed, my greek name now indicates what my reputation will always be... A person on an 'odyssey'.. a heroic and risky desire to travel, discover, fight, and prevail. As has been said, "always roaming with a hungry heart".

My life is changed now- I am part and parcel of all I have met- cities across the globe, men across all cultures and I have been honored and revered by them.

But even then, each new discovery was a bridge still to worlds unknown and battles un-fought.

I have fallen many times in the mere exhaustion of the pursuit. And though it feels so good to lay there for a time... it isn't long until I began to despise the rust and distrust the leisure.

The sound of a ticking clock begins to haunt me. There is too little time remaining.

And I am vexed beyond boundaries. I want to go and do it again, knowing full well that it is an unquenchable thirst... the knowledge I pursue is a sinking star that I will forever chase but never capture.

What is distressing me more than ever is that I see a visible opportunity in front of me... the ships are ready, the crew is set. Isn't it enough to know that if I can still go, I should still go?

I still have the skill to perform noble tasks. Isn't my work still undone?

Death and darkness are on the horizon, don't I need to launch now?

Will not my heart leap on the launch?

Do I not need to feel my face set like flint against the wind and against the odds?

It may be failure... but again, it may be the most glorious victory yet!
We may experience the golden times again of what we once knew.

True, I am not as I once was. There was a time in the past where I found the crossroad of success and achievement.

Today, I am what I am. We are what we are.

But what is the golden pursuit?

To once again find the unity of equal hearts, pushing the will when the flesh has failed, to get up after we have fallen, and press on until the very last breath.

The glory is the battle together, even more than the trophies of championships.

Tennyson said it much better... but it helps me to redraft it in my vulgar vernacular.

So what do we make of this?

Heroic or selfish? Hard to know and impossible to judge.

The biggest mistake in all of this is the absence of the Creator. Indeed, in the original poem, Tennyson acknowledges the household gods, but idols offer nothing in guidance or evaluation.

Here is another way to look at it.

This poem is HONEST... this is how we feel.

We are caught in this vicious cycle of what we are supposed to do and what we long to do. And relying only on our human passions, we have no help in the process.

The biggest problem is that we may be wrong on both ends.... what we think we are supposed to do may in fact be a human contrivance bolted down by conventional wisdom. At the same time, our heart passions are impossible to dissect between nobility and autonomy. 

Ulysses could benefit from God. And we will never find the balance without Him.

God helps in a weird way... He doesn't show us what to do... He allows and reveals over time and it is always still a step of faith. Maybe even a 'trust fall'.

So to my fellow competitors- wrestle well... dig in to the Scriptures, lay it all down in prayer. find a way to fight harder, stay relentlessly positive... but in the battle, never forsake the God who saved you in sacrificial mercy, and cling to the family who you are called to do the same.

Be a glorifier... not a glory-stealer.

And love others.... even a loss for the sake of another can be a championship!

Hopefully this has been some good food for thought.

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