Everybody imagines that at some moment of great struggle they will heroically rise to the occasion and be that shining champion so adored by the masses, tipping their hat to the cheering throng. Every one of us has fantasized of stepping to the plate and "jacking one out of the park" in an All-Star game. Perhaps not in baseball, but in ballet or business or some endeavor or another. No one daydreams of striking out. The Leaders' Notebook today is not for the untarnished winners. Today's blog is dedicated to all those who have ever failed at anything. Anything. Which of us has never swung and missed? Which of us has never, ever embarrassed himself? Which of us has never wept alone filled with regret and the terrible sinking feeling that this time I've blown it for good? My earnest prayer is that this edition of The Leaders' Notebook will somehow encourage someone out there who, filled with self-recrimination, doubts that he will ever get to bat again. Today's column is not for the All-Stars. Today's column is for:
The Strikeout King
He returns to the dugout in shame. His head bowed low to hide the moisture, the embarrassing childish dew he cannot banish from his eyes. The other boys look away. A few lamely call out vague and unsubstantial words of faint encouragement. Good try. That's ok. They are not heartfelt and he knows it. The condescending pity stings as painfully as the strikeout. No one moves to sit by him on the bench. In fact there is a barely discernible nudging away, a distancing of themselves as if sitting too closely would infect them with his failure-hood. He sits alone. He has struck out and there is no cure for it. The "out" lies there on the floor of the dugout, limp and horrible for all to see. It is not just any out. It is his out. All of his teammates have made outs before, of course. But not like this. Not when the team so badly needed a hit. Not such embarrassing outs as his, swinging wildly twice before jumping back in fear from an inside curve only to hear the umpire call it a strike and the batter out. Horrible.
Only those who have truly failed at something important to others and wounded those others in their failing can even begin to understand the excruciating aftermath. A business failure, a moral failure, a collapsed marriage or defeat in an election; failure brings shame. Of course, in Christian circles, moral failure is the worst and therefore brings the worst shame. It's the aftermath that is a blade drawn out slowly, far more painful than the exact moment of failure itself.
Those who have failed must deal with a multiplicity of wounds all of which, to one extent or another, are self-inflicted. The Strikeout King will soon discover the bitter truth that there are teammates in the dugout who delight in his failure and who will use it for ammunition against him. Yet what can he say? He himself loaded the gun and handed it to them.
In the dark afterward of failure there lurks the crippling sense of disqualification. The Strikeout King slumped in the end of the dugout feels exiled from the fraternity. He dares not crack jokes? Could he ever again high five like the others? The mark of Cain now emblazoned upon his forehead nullifies his place at the Little League Round Table of Future All-Stars.
The fact that this scarlet A is less visible to his teammates than to him makes it no less awful. What if none of the others can see the mark? So what? He can see it in the mirror and he reckons himself utterly and eternally cast out of the Fraternal Order of Cooperstown.
What strength of character it takes for him to rise from failure and, bat upon his shoulder, step back up to the plate. Especially with mockery both real and imagined pouring down like cold, sarcastic rain upon the shame-soaked sod of his mind. Not so much that moment itself as the fear of that moment can be absolutely paralyzing. Crippling fear can turn the strikeout to a slump and the slump to his quitting Little League, and THAT, he thinks, to everyone's relief. All these thoughts are playing inside the batter's head, destroying his concentration and further eroding his confidence. Soon he begins to fail because he has failed, and, in his mind, he fails because he IS a failure.
For the defeated politician to run once more. For the player sent back to the minors to ever again make it big in the big leagues. For the bankrupt business tycoon to scramble back to the top of the heap. These take Herculean effort mentally and emotionally, and seldom succeed. The greatest, most heroic prize may well be the most undervalued. The Comeback Award is often viewed as a glorified Sportsmanship Trophy given to really nice guys who simply cannot play and everyone knows it. Yet in fact it ought to be among the most treasured.
Admirable indeed are the iron men of the league who never slump, never fail, never fall but seem to rise from glory unto glory. They field every grounder in errorless perfection and they are flawless at the plate. Their consistency is wonderful to behold, a treasure of faithful strength. Yet the one-time loser, the failed star who battles back from his wounds, self-inflicted and otherwise, is also to be cherished.
Jacob's limp, manifest proof of the lost wrestling match, is also his badge of courage, mute testimony that after the pain-filled night, he did at least rise to struggle forward. The embarrassed failure, grappling within himself to overcome the inner accusation of disqualification, is sadder but wiser. Humbled, even broken, he lifts his shameful head and, picking up his bat, strides back to the plate. The cruel voice within him screams to run for the locker room and then to a farm in Vermont. Crueler voices pour down from the bleachers. You're a bum. He knows this. Agrees with it. Yet his name has been called over the PA. It is his turn to bat. Whether he deserves another chance is not his to decide. He rather thinks he does not, but the announcer has spoken. This is it. Either run for it or go for it. He makes his choice as bravely as he can, not feeling brave at all. He squares his shoulders and heads to the plate. This time… This time, he thinks… Now not so confident as he was once, he steps in and readies himself. This is it. His team needs him to do his best even if his record makes the doubters doubt and the snarky critics mock. He cannot even bring himself to be angry with them. Everything they are saying is probably true. Or worse. Little League. Minor league. Major League. The wounded lad is father to the failed professional. It's the same game.
He has friends, supporters who from the stands shout words of encouragement. Shake it off. You can do it. You're the man. He is grateful but he hears the doubt in their voices. Why not? He doubts himself. This is it, he scolds his weaker self. That was then. This is now. Dry-eyed he glares at the feared pitcher, famous for his high inside curves and notorious for beaning scared failures. This is it. Just stand in there and do the deal. If you were disqualified, the announcer would never call your name, ever again. Just stand in there and swing the bat.