“Hey, watch this!”
As a high-school freshman, I managed to break both bones in my leg throwing a discus. I was not in Pamplona, Spain, running with the bulls. There was no crevasse I’d vaulted somewhere in Denali. It was a regular-season track meet. Several cute girls had come down to the field to watch. A circuit-breaker shut off in my frontal lobe as my ego, id, or hormones said, “Hey, watch this.”
How many great “fails” begin with famous last words?
“What could possibly go wrong?”
“Hold my beer.”
Or the legendary boast, “Hey, watch this.”
Comedian Brian Regan describes telling a story at a dinner party. He had a couple wisdom teeth removed. “That ain’t nothin’,” someone chimed in. “I had four of ’em pulled.” Regan described the guy’s interjection like an Airborne Ranger parachuting into the theater of combat, blasting out a better wisdom tooth story. When your hidden agenda is to impress, it’s usually concealed about as well as he describes. And it leaves an emptiness behind.
The temptation to manipulate what people think about you can be subtle. It can even creep into a mealtime prayer. Perhaps you’ve been there. “Do you mind saying the blessing?” someone asks. Suddenly your hands feel like duct tape. You try to say something meaningful, or at least coherent. Then awkward adverbs like “victoriously” begin to creep in.
Rather than stepping out to risk being sincere, sometimes we project what we want people to see. In the prayer example above, the real message drifted from gratitude to self-aggrandizement. (“I hope I’m sounding spiritual and wise.”) Isn’t it amazing how just saying a few words of thanks to God can make you feel vulnerable? Forget the fact you’re trying to lead people to pause and simply be thankful. Never mind that the food is getting cold. In such moments, we are convinced we can be convincing.
“When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others…they have received their reward” (Matt. 6:8). Jesus is saying, don’t use a prayer to tell people what to think about you. Don’t do that on any occasion. Instead, take courage. Build your confidence by the risk of sincerity. Be a little vulnerable. If you cannot help projecting only what you want people to see, then it may be time to deal with insecurity.
C.S. Lewis’s advice about talking to God is simple and helpful: “We must lay before Him what is in us; not what ought to be in us.” That principle applies when talking to people too. We have grown so used to presenting a wrinkle-free appearance online that many people are isolating themselves behind their curated image. If people do share an opinion, then it’s usually in reaction to someone else’s. We have lost the will to be curious about what others think because even that feel like too much vulnerability.
I’ve come to distrust wrinkle-free appearances. It takes courage to be known by revealing the wrinkled questions we harbor. That’s why teachers have to say, “There are no bad questions.” Our questions make us a little transparent. They are a kind of confession.
Questions reveal some lack or some desire. Asking them may push you outside your comfort zone. You can get burned. An Airborne Ranger may swoop in with all the answers. But the failure to take this kind of risk in conversation has created our current epidemic of loneliness. This need and desire to cultivate rapport with a trusted few reveals the wonder of wondering together. It takes a some risk. But among a trusted few, it’s a sacred thing to ask what is in us, and it’s a sacred thing to receive it.
“You will seek me and find me when you search for me with your whole heart” (Jeremiah 29:13).