Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Learning Character on the Diamond

My son Daniel recently finished up his second season of Little League here in Texas, and in addition to sharpening his skills and acumen on the baseball diamond, there have been some key character lessons he's been able to glean from this past season.

Some of those lessons are fairly common in most athletic or artistic endeavors. For example, practice leads to good performances. There's an importance in persevering even when things get rough. A team which supports each other performs better than one which is wrought with infighting and finger-pointing.

There are some other more lessons that I think he's picked up, as well. For example, Daniel was pretty much cemented in right field for most of the season, with an occasional stint at second base. Why? Daniel's one of the weaker fielders, and you place them accordingly. The coach wasn't malicious about it, but I realized later in the season that Daniel knew exactly why he was placed in right field (He actually told me "Dad, we need to put our best fielders in the infield. And I'm not that good right now."), and he wasn't wounded but matter-of-fact about it. Instead of sulking, he worked hard with me to ensure that he could be the best right fielder he could be, playing catch with me and working with the coaches to get better. I couldn't be prouder of his self-awareness, his focus on the benefit of the team and his willingness to keep trying.

Two weeks ago, I think one of the best character lessons took place. Our four-team league entered the playoff stage, and his fourth-seeded Indians faced off against the top-seeded Yankees, who had lost only three times during the season. Surprisingly, Daniel and his mates jumped out to a huge lead against the Yankees and eventually after a final rally, they ended up leading 20 to 1, at which point the coach discreetly at the on-deck circle told Daniel and his teammates to purposely swing and miss at every pitch until the end of the game. Absent a league mercy rule, the coach took it upon himself to end the game himself.

When I asked Daniel about what happened, I tried to instill upon him the moral behind his coach's actions. I explained to him that there are times where actually "failing" is a good thing, because it's for the benefit of another person. Now granted, it was pretty clear in this case that continuing to milk walks and swing for the fences leading by such a large margin would be an egregious act of running up the score, especially for a Little League game for nine-year-olds (and to be fair, this wasn't a Hallmark Channel situation where the team forfeit their right to the championship game so they could advance the team with the kid who had cancer, or even the true story of how an opposing team 'negated' a technical foul for an opposing player who had recently lost his mother). But the principle of being less as a means to benefit others is an important one. It goes to the premise of altruism and sacrifice, when choosing the "less optimal" thing for yourself is the right thing to do. Daniel will have plenty of times in his life to choose the right thing in those sort of situations, and many of those decisions will be difficult.

As a side note, Daniel and the Indians went on to the Championship game a few days later and proceeded to win it all, 10-4 over the Red Sox. As Daniel was fortunate to be one of four kids in his league who were on back-to-back championship teams, the next character lesson will be realizing that winning championships in baseball isn't a entitlement.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

These Walls Are Funny...

One of my favorite movies of all time is the Shawshank Redemption, and when I was surfing the news one evening I came upon an article which seemed to be a case of life imitating art.

Walter Unbehaun, aged 74, recently robbed a bank and calmly waited for police to arrive in order to secure a return to prison, a place in which he spent almost his entire adult like; a place which he longed for as home. So just to clear, a free man walked in with no disguise walked into a bank and committed a crime, and expressed joy when the police came to him to take him away. The article describes Unbehaun as "bored and lonely" as he spent his days watching television or drawing. In a court filing he compared his life at the trailer park to living in a prison isolation "hole."

As a parallel, the Shawshank Redemption features a number of prisoners, one of which is Brooks Hatlen, an old-timer who expresses grief upon getting paroled. After struggling with adopting to life "on the outside", Brooks commits suicide, leaving his friends still in prison grappling with understanding why. As they mourn, one prisoner, Red, makes the following observation about the prison walls:
These walls are funny. First you hate 'em, then you get used to 'em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them. That's institutionalized... They send you here for life, and that's exactly what they take. The part that counts, anyway.
There's a lot of reasons why I love this film, but reading this article reminded me of how we easily fall in love with parts of our lives which are actually negative and destructive, but hold on tightly to them because, well.... they're comfortable. I'm not just talking about things such as addictions to drugs, alcohol or porn (all of which apply), but more subtle things such as a predisposition to be self-centered or self-focused, or an inclination to lash out in criticism and contempt as a means of masking one's own insecurity.

I'm convinced that a lot of what we'd call "sin" fits into this category. We know that these things are wrong and destructive, yet our souls and hearts are so broken and deceived that we succumb to the fallacy that we'd rather live lives as prisoners as opposed to living free. Jesus himself speaks about "proclaiming freedom for the prisoners" and his fulfillment of that prophesy. Tragically, like Brooks Hatlen and Walter Unbehaun, we too often look longingly at those prison walls.