Your Hardest Belt is Your White Belt
I'm sitting in a cafeteria in Maryville, Tennessee, waiting for my daughter to finish her All-East Choir tryouts. She's not nervous this year like she's been in the past. She's a senior, and she knows the ropes. She has learned that life goes on after you make it to State, and she has learned that life goes on after you don't.
Before her sophomore tryouts, she practiced obsessively in the car on the ride down. That was the year I tried to ease her jitters by pointing out all the cute, red-headed tenors before the big audition. She giggled, and paced, and got through her first big scare, but there's no need to do any of this this go around. This year, she's a couple years older than almost everybody. The ginger that would have turned her head three years ago now looks like a little brother.
She's grown, see. She's learned to jump in and do the hard thing and manage the jitters. That's the goal--it's why we encourage our children to belly flop into all sorts of risks at this age. It's the grown-up version of holding our baby's hands while she takes her first few barefoot steps on the hallway carpet. "Go. You can do this. And you can survive and try again if you can't."
This year my daughter also started Brazilian JiuJitzu, which has been a quirky and hilarious journey. If you know anything about the art, you know that people don't "like" JiuJitzu. They fall in love with it.
Frankly, I'm astonished that a teenage female has the courage to walk into a practice room with ten huge adult males twice her size and learn to flip them on their butts, but she does it. I sit on the bleachers to watch, biting my nails and holding my breath. I pray for her bones, and I laugh, and I yell things I never thought I'd say in public--things I've only ever yelled at a television while watching Rocky.
Over my past few months of hanging out with ninjas, I've picked up one of my favorite sayings from the martial arts community:
"The hardest belt you'll ever get is your white belt."
Blue, purple, and black belts say this to newcomers as a statement of affirmation because it takes a long time (two years) to rank up in this complex martial art. Yet all those experts want beginners to remember that 99% of people in America never even achieve a white belt because they aren't willing to walk into the room to try something new.
You win the first day you show up for class, feeling stupid and awkward. You win even bigger when you show up for the second class after spending your first session feeling like a fool. You failed, and you were worse than everybody, and you'll never get this right, and it's too hard... yet here you are again not giving up. Bravo.
As I wait for my daughter to finish her choral tryouts, I am watching clusters of rural Tennessee families pass in and out of the cafeteria doors. Little bands of teenagers are walking out of their auditions, some with tears in their eyes, some complaining about the sight reading, a few saying they aced "Ave Maria" or botched the Whitaker. From their accents, it seems that more than a few come from tee-niny towns in the mountains, but here they are, glorious and brave because they've learned to sing a few lines of Bach in German.
One girl just passed me singing still, singing what she just sang in a tiny room full of tension, a song now pouring from her lungs in relief and delight. She likes that song. It's part of her now.
She showed up here this morning because she was willing to invest in beauty. She showed up because she was willing to believe that her small voice had a shot at something wonderful. She might never make it to All East or to All State, but that little songbird was a flutter of levity as she nearly danced through the doors. It's over. She did it. I'm so darned proud of her.
I got tears in my eyes a few minutes ago--maybe because I'm a teacher, maybe because I'm a mom--I can't tell. I was trying to grade reasearch papers, but I couldn't focus because I kept wanting to grab these kids and tell them what they've accomplished already.
I kept wanting to make all the choral teachers and parents stand and make an ginormous arch with their arms for all these kids to run through. I want to applaud for them, and find cheerleaders to call out their names, and assure them all that no matter what results they get two weeks from now--showing up today was practice for the rest of their adult lives. This stuff is so much more important than any of them realize. No matter what happened in there, they've won already.
Our school's cross country team keeps a meme in the hall of our school. "Run the mile you are in," it says. I think about it all the time. I remember those words and tell myself, "Do the next thing, and do it in faith and with all your heart. Trust this minute's resources. Eat today's manna. That's all you have to do right now. That's it."
Jump in. Try. Engage. Look stupid. But keep going.
Get a cramp in your side. Fall on loose gravel. Then finish that mile. That's a win.
Goof up the sight reading. Mispronounce the German. Walk out of that room on your own two feet and promise yourself you'll do better next year. That's a win.
Botch the MLA citations. Forget to match your pronoun and antecedent in number. Wreck your verb tenses. Then go in to writing lab to learn to do it better. That's a win.
Stand up for a lost cause. Have the conflict. Pray and leap. Be willing to apologize if you mess things up. That's a win.
Ask the girl out who rejects you. Try out for the role in the play you'll never get. Love your someday enough to flub up your now. Believe that there is grace enough from Jesus for your weakness, grace enough to begin what we can't learn without failing some along the way.
Then get back up. Run one more mile. Do the humiliating, awkward, faith-laden work of a white belt. Receive the awkwardness of learning, knowing that some failures are victories in themselves. This is where all of the greatest things begin. I'm proud of you for taking a single, wobbly step. I'm even more proud of you for taking a second.
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(This post is dedicated to my brave friends Mitzi Pierce and Jessica Rogers and their warrior children. It's especially dedicated to Xander, who has taught me more this week about the fierce, proactive work of reconciliation and forgiveness than any book I have ever read. Miss Becca loves you, X-man. And kiddo, you have no idea how much I needed your example this week.)