My dear daughter got invited to go roller skating a few months back. I was excited for her; it was a chance for her to catch up with school mates during the holiday break, so I readily accepted the invitation on her behalf. Furthermore, I had fond memories of my own childhood, going to parties at the wonderful (and now unfortunately closed) Skateline.
Or…at least they were wonderful memories, at first glance. In any case, we arrived at the rink, and gathered skates for her. As I laced them up, she asked me: “What now?”
“How do you skate?”
……I don’t really know, actually. “You put one foot in front of the other, and push!”
So we enter the rink. Arcadia quickly falls over. And over. She holds on to the side rail as I told her to, and we begin shuffling around the room. She looks at me and says “This is HARD!!!”
“Yeah, honey. It is”.
“How do I do it better?”
I didn’t know what to say. I had NOTHING. In that moment, absolutely nothing. My dear daughter was clasping onto the side rail, wobbly on her skates, looking for help, for tips, for confidence – for me to say “My dear, THIS is how you roller-skate. This is how you succeed!” But I didn’t know how to.
The reality rushed at me: I was horrible at roller-skating, as a kid and now. I never got better or improved my confidence. I still refuse to put skates on now with the fear of falling on my ass time and again.
I had nothing in my experience that could help her. It was beyond me.
How do you live/lead/parent/pastor/work beyond your own experience?
We look to our own present and historic experience as a measure of what is true and what is right. In many circumstances, this model is incredibly helpful; this has worked in the past, so it will work in the future. Repeated Experience = truth. But this approach falls flat when we are confronted with a question, or moment that does not sit within our reality or experience.
How can I teach you to roller skate when I’m terrified of skating myself?– Me
A character in a book I read recently had his father die when he was just 18. Not only was this a tragic event, with significant consequences of growing up without a father, but his father’s early death at 38 also prompted an assumption and limitation that the protagonist couldn’t and wouldn’t live past the same age. How could he parent beyond his own father? How could he “adult” beyond that which was modelled to him?
You may have asked yourself questions like
How can I have a good marriage when I wasn’t modelled one as a kid?
How can I be a good parent when my own childhood was traumatic and less than ideal?
How can I ‘adult’ when I can’t-or haven’t- been trusted with responsibility?
Of course, this is basically the tenant of growing up: you will – we all will come across situations you haven’t dealt with – it is the essence of learning: We incorporate new information into our psyche and make adjustments accordingly.
But the annoying thing about adulting and responsibility, is that you have to do it – with an audience. Unlike the ‘wonderful’* exploration time of adolescence and youth, there are significant consequences or dependent people that will experience the result of your choices. This is the essence of responsibility: other people are in your care.
This is awesome (at times). But it is equally hard (at times). Growing up can be hard.
When I started high school, I remember looking at the year 12s thinking how old and grand they were; they were the leaders of the school and the ones we aspired to be. But 5 short years later, when I was one of those year 12s, I didn’t seem that big, or that old, or anyone to aspire to
“This is it?”Senior year me, to year 7 me.
Unfortunately, that question still rears its head. When will the promised land of surety, all-encompassing wisdom come? That golden promised land of adulthood where I can eat all the snacks and know exactly what I’m meant to be doing?
Of course, we all have these fears. And of course, we don’t know everything – we never will. It is a fallacy and unhelpful ideal that we will suddenly turn on a dime and be all knowing and all powerful. But the question does remain – when we are those adults, and we are in a place of responsibility, how are we supposed to handle challenging experiences? When people are looking towards us for guidance and wisdom, protection, when our kids look at us and ask: HELP ME? – and we don’t know how? What happens when our personal experience is not a resource – in fact, there is trauma, regret or shame that screams louder than any helpful response?
— What happens when we don’t have an answer?
There is a leadership adage that states you can’t teach what you don’t know. I looked it up and apparently Batman said it. In any case, the thought of only leading where you’ve been – is that helpful? The myth of personal experience would tell you so. You can only be an authority from your own experience. But the reality is that you will constantly be faced with situations – as a leader, and especially as a parent, where you haven’t been, and you have nothing to draw upon for reference.
Back in the roller rink, I had NOTHING. In that moment, like, absolutely nothing. I had nothing in my experience that could help her. It was beyond me.
But I desperately wanted her to learn – despite me. So I did the only thing I could do: I walked with her. Slowly. Around the rink. I helped pick her up as she fell. We slowly made the circuit, watching as her mates got faster and increased confidence. We had rests when she got tired and upset, and I encouraged her that she was getting better and better. (Was she? I hoped so).
I think about that afternoon all the time. Because it speaks to me about the true and human desire to lead well, to parent well, to be people that can role model truth and wisdom and knowledge to the people in our care. But it also speaks to me about the real – and often unhelpful – IDOL that we make of past experience being the core source of authority in our lives.
If I don’t feel it, it mustn’t be true.
if I haven’t known it, it mustn’t exist.
When it is good, personal experience is a beautiful and seductive thing. We ‘feel it’ in our gut, and we make future decisions about relationships, careers, faith, money, based on our past encounters. Why shouldn’t we? It makes sense – I did this in the past, and this good thing happened, or this felt good, and so this is how we should repeat it in the future.
In championing personal experience as our sole litmus test, when we encounter new information, we make judgements accordingly. We dismiss what sits outside of that experience and put boundaries on that truth or reality.
Now this works – until it doesn’t.
Not only can it predispose you from dismissing truth outside your own scope or story (and consequently reduce the opportunity to change your mind despite new – and possibly correct- information), but what if your personal experience or history was terrible? What if, in many moments, “I’ve got nothing”.
Does this mean that you are unable to make good choices or be in a position of responsibility?
Of course not.
Truth as only experience is unhelpful – or dare I say it, even destructive, when we are vulnerable, depressed, exhausted, in pain, or hopeless. It accuses us and ‘others’ people who ‘have it better’ – or worse than us. It is not always a helpful litmus test.
My dear father grew up in a home that was far from rosy. There was significant depression, anger, resentment, and alcoholism. My dear mother grew up feeling misunderstood and ignored by her parents. And so they both determined that the family they built would be the opposite; they would tell their kids they loved them. They would feel appreciated and cherished every day. And so, largely, that is what they did. I am grateful for growing up in a home that was the result of people endeavouring to choose the opposite of the own personal experience.
Many of you have successfully done the same.
But I look to my daughter now growing up, and there will be increasingly more moments where I don’t know the answer. With both parents gone by the time I was thirty, I don’t have an example of being parented as an adult for when my own children become adults. How do I parent beyond my own parenting experience?
How do we live – and lead – beyond the limits we experience?
The most helpful thing to do first is recognise that we often don’t know. If appropriate, we can share this fact and look for the answers with those looking to you for guidance. Or we draw upon our village to stand in the gap for you where your own knowledge/wisdom/skill doesn’t speak. That’s the beauty of growing up and living in relationship and community – indeed – that is the point.
The second harder – but equally important task, is to say that it’s ok that you feel anger, frustration, jealousy, or shame about your own experience, and how you wish it was different (at times). It doesn’t make you a bad person. And it doesn’t make you unworthy of that responsibility. The championing of personal experience above all else is a cultural trend of individualism which is awesome – until it isn’t. And hear me – it is not the only way to see the world.
We can learn from others. We can borrow the strength, knowledge and experience of our culture, faith, family, history and community. We embrace our vulnerability, and then we act in GOOD FAITH for the future. That’s the best – and only – thing that we can do.
Your own ‘lack’ of experience in that specific context does not disqualify you from being a person of guidance, peace, support and safety for others.
Experience as King may in fact be a really big lie.
Maybe we can lead and adult past our experience. It just requires humility, presence, community, and maybe a little bit of faith.
Back to the roller skating: While I was wallowing in my own perceived inadequacies, trying to comfort both of my young and adult selves, my dear girl delighted me that day. Because –
She kept getting up, and tried again. And after our third excruciatingly slow circuit, she said to me: “It’s ok mum, you go sit down. I’ve got this.”
I was stunned. Her confidence, and her fortitude was glorious to see. I cheered her on and never felt prouder of her.
We went roller skating again a couple weeks later, and her persistence continues. She’s currently working to earn roller skates of her own.
Maybe her experience can teach me too. x
*please note: this is not to say that choices in youth don’t have consequences. but you get the point i’m trying to make here.