It’s track season here in Track Town USA, which means the whole city is out running in the rain or, in my case, cheering on middle school athletes while standing in the pouring rain.
Track and field has always been one of my favorite combination of sports to watch: the hurdlers and high jumpers who seem to defy gravity; the sprinters who fly down the track as if on winged feet; and the long-limbed distance runners circling the track lap after lap.
We all gush over the standout athletes, those kids who, even at this young age, seem destined for collegiate and Olympic glory.
However, the ones who have me cheering the loudest aren’t the record-breakers. They’re the kids at the back of the pack, the small, knock-kneed runners who trudge on even though they’re a lap behind, even though, toeing the starting line, they know they’re going to come in dead last.
These kids are never going to be Olympic athletes. But something tells me they are going to be great human beings. They are putting themselves in the center of the arena, the epitome of vulnerability.
When was the last time you did something knowing you would come in dead last? Or dared to do something that terrified you?
In Brené Brown’s book “Daring Greatly,” she delves into the idea of vulnerability. To be vulnerable is not to be weak. It’s to allow ourselves to love, feel joy and accept our own imperfections.
Most of us, Brown has found through her extensive research, mask our own vulnerability with shame, the idea that we are bad and unworthy of love. This shame culture happens to the extent that we fear our lives will be nothing but ordinary.
“I see the cultural messaging everywhere that says that an ordinary life is a meaningless life,” Brown writes. “And I see how kids that grow up on a steady diet of reality television, celebrity culture and unsupervised social media can absorb this messaging and develop a completely skewed sense of the world.”
When I read this, I think about those kids at the back of the pack. You see, most of them are sixth-graders. They are young and eager, still open to new ideas and new ways of thinking. No one has told them, yet, that it’s embarrassing to come in last, to get lapped by their genetic superiors.
As Brown writes, “Nothing has transformed my life more than realizing it’s a waste of time to evaluate my worthiness by weighing the reaction of the people in the stands. The people who love me and will be there regardless of the outcome are within arm’s reach.”
There is a woman in my church congregation whose lessons in Relief Society are a wonder. She doesn’t shy away from difficult topics. She teaches with absolute vulnerability, throwing her heart right out on the table.
It is something to behold, and far from making the rest of us uncomfortable, her lessons are a spiritual cleanse. Because of her vulnerability, we are all able to share in an open and honest way. There is debate and even disagreement, but it’s done in an environment of love.
I come out of her classes feeling as if I’ve trod on hot coals and come out safe on the other side.
How do we get to this point, where we can do what I see this teacher do, week after week?
Brown says it’s possible. It comes through building what she calls the four elements of “shame resilience.”
First, we must learn to recognize shame and understand its triggers. We must call it on its face.
Second, we practice critical awareness. We look at the messages or expectations that drive our shame. We ask ourselves, are these expectations realistic or attainable?
Third, we reach out and share ourselves and our story with others. We practice empathy through connection.
Fourth, we “speak shame.” We talk about how we feel and we ask for help from others when those familiar shame triggers descend on us. When we call out shame for what it is, we get to own our story. And, as Brown writes, “when you own the story, you get to write the ending.”
There’s a kid on my sons’ track team who runs hurdles. He wears a neon yellow shirt and sunglasses, even in the rain. He’s so short the hurdles come up nearly to his waist.
He knocks down every hurdle as he runs. Sometimes, instead of attempting to jump the hurdles, he’ll climb over them, one by one, until he reaches the finish line.
Clearly this young boy is not hurdler material, yet he participates in every race, finishing dead last and grinning at the world like he’s having the time of his life.
When he finishes, I glance around. Everyone else is grinning too. We all want to be the kid in the yellow shirt.
I hope he, and the rest of the kids who dare to come in last, never stop running. I hope they look at every hurdle in their way as something not to walk away from, but to climb over.
I hope this because I want to believe that we can all dare greatly, with love, vulnerability and a belief that in sharing our story we can all be stronger.