On grit, repentance, and changing one’s mind

In our First Year Seminar at Hanover College, we spend the start of the fall semester with our first-year students discussing the merit of “grit,” often assigning a TED Talk with Angela Duckworth. Our hope for the students is to provide them with an alternative framework to perfectionism, suggesting that they can interpret the mistakes and failures of their academic career as part of a “long game,” or as a necessary step in their growth as human beings.

Duckworth has been criticized for her “grit” work, citing the deceit in the Noble American Lie that “hard work, endurance and drive” will somehow always pay off, despite our many systems of oppression and absurdly unequal distribution of opportunity. In a recent podcast with Brene Brown, however, Duckworth has noted that most of the criticism she has seen of her work is better aimed at what we have thought she has said, or in our meritocratic interpretation of her studies. From her own perspective, the development of “grit” is the capacity to persevere through mistakes, failures, and changed mind(s). It might mean determining that something is clearly not for us, and changing path(s) accordingly, rather than “forging ahead” towards something that will bring us neither joy nor life: “hard work” in this instance is certainly not valorized for its own sake.

In my own understanding of “grit” as I have attempted to share the concept with students, I wonder if it might also be framed as the capacity to acknowledge inadequate patterns of thought, or to jump off into the deep sea of theological content, to repent from where one has been. If we return to its Greek origins, to “repent” is an act of “turning around,” or determining to take a different course than what has been done before. For those identifying as followers of Jesus of Nazareth, this is at the heart of vocational life. 

Rev. Robert W. Lee IV of Unifour Church in Newton, NC is a fellow Carolinian who has embarked upon this adventure of repentance publicly. As a direct descendant of the general by that name, he has written an autobiographical account, A Sin By Any Other Name: Reckoning With Racism and the Heritage of the South, narrating his own ever-evolving choices questioning white supremacy, beginning with the removal of a Confederate flag from his bedroom as a teenager. This has striking resonance for me, as I did the same in Charlotte, NC after a high school teacher put Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States in the syllabus. Suddenly that pencil-sized “historical flag” on my desk offered from a nearby historical homesite meant something very different, and needed to be removed immediately. 

Lee has become quite a celebrity in his interrogation of his ancestry, leading to a renunciation of white supremacy after the death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, VA. Offered at the 2017 MTV Music Awards, likely it was the first instance of a Call to Confession at the venue. Though it may feel like the aspiration of many a minister (certainly in my circles) to be given such a rare opportunity for pulpit supply, Lee was not provided a hero’s return to his congregation at the time in NC: he quickly resigned in a space of turbulent conflict over his remarks, receiving threats of violence along the way. His actions were part of a process of faithfulness, and oh yes, many consequences to his vocational commitment were far from welcomed. It takes courage to live into reality that changing a mind is not only possible, but necessary. 

Several years after evicting a Confederate flag from my bedroom, the Daughters of the Confederacy called to ask if I’d be interested in a membership—great news, they noted, I had Confederate soldiers on not just one but BOTH sides of my family! With as much drama as possible, I hung up the phone (knocking it off the bed) to proclaim that I wasn’t going to be one of those white people. What I failed to see, however, is that I was at the start of a process, a “turning around” that would interrogate my complacency with this corporate sin of white supremacy for the rest of my known life. No matter what quantity of post-colonial criticism I read, no matter how many marches and rallies I attended, my work would be cut out for me. To change one’s mind is a constant dance in vocation, and it has no point of arrival. The Rev. Lee has not arrived. I have not arrived. 

This is the potent, life-affirming and deeply threatening work of vocation. We humans (particularly those of us that are melanin-challenged) have often assumed that vocation is fixed, clear, linear, and determined. We take a path, we embark, we master, we arrive. We don’t make mistakes, and we refuse to fail. That’s just simply not how it goes. We take a path, get hopelessly lost, turn around. We wake up the next day, repeating the cycle, hoping to be a little less lost. Our orienteering may be better or worse. 

Here in the little town of Hanover, IN, there has been a decades-long controversy over the local school district’s “rebel” mascot. The local story around the decision is conveyed as a “rebellion” against joining with a neighboring school system in the 1960’s, though this rebel character looks a lot less like James Dean and a lot more like Colonel Sanders. The Confederate flag has been flown at games in the past, and over the last several years, the “Retire the Rebel” movement has stirred again. In a recent craft fair, a friend and neighbor of mine had her “Retire the Rebel” cross-stitch design banned from the sale. In her kind, gentle questions to the school board and larger community, she’s been called a communist, an outside agitator, etc. It’s a familiar litany to many but speaks to a deep fear and rather clunky armor of defense: we Southerners, Midwesterners, Californians, New Yorkers are afraid to be in process, afraid to confront the “not arrived” status of our biases, anxieties, and prejudices. 

Repentance terrifies us because we’ve failed to consider it as a vital part of living into vocation. Imagine what good things may be unleashed if we insisted that yes, part of our growing by necessity will involve turning around all of the time without any point of arrival. Our journey is not made in linear progression but in circular pattern, learning, evaluating, stumbling, hoping. In my own skin this is a strange and new perspective, and I acknowledge that it scares me, too. I will have to rely on that which is external to me, in community with others and with the Divine. As Howard Thurman relayed in The Search for Common Ground, no self-actualization happens outside of community with one’s neighbor, creation, and Maker. We don’t grow as rugged individuals, but as kin held accountable and encouraged by all of creation. We have permission to grow, and can turn around indefinitely. 

Related posts: On the twists and turns of the vocational journey, see “The Winding Road,” “Reflections on the Camino: Letting Go of Expectations,” “Discontinued: Our Fragile Vocations.” “The Grace of Troubling Questions,” and “Finding Vocation in Loss, Suffering, and Death.” On the challenges of confronting white supremacy, see “Wrestling with White Supremacy.”

Rev. Dr. Catherine Knott is a Presbyterian (USA) minister serving as the Ball Family Chaplain at Hanover College in Hanover, IN. She also teaches in the English Department, and enjoys collaborating with students to help them better live out their belief system(s) in varying roles on campus. She lives with her spouse and three rowdy but affectionate terriers, and loves walking in the woods. Click here for other posts by Catherine Knott.

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