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. 

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Dragged Into Vocation

On Palm Sunday on the streets of Portland, Oregon, two rectors in scarlet chasubles paraded down a sidewalk with their congregants, a bright red wagon, a stuffed llama, palm leaves, and rainbow streamers. With jubilance they sang “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!” to the greyed maritime skies, likely perplexing those they strolled past on their way to the church building. Their throng of color, formality, harmony, and comedy exuded dissonance, but this was the summoning of a divine and subversive power, calling out a cry of relief and possibility. 

The service was held just outside of the church doors that day, the Rev. James M. Joiner preaching. In the opening of his sermon, Rev. Joiner compared the perspective of the horse vs. the donkey when approaching a parade, throwing his body into the gait of each animal—his were excellent donkey impersonations. As he went further into the description of the “king” on the back of the donkey, he described a person who was largely interested in turning the powers of the world on their head, subverting dominance, violence, coercion, and greed. The donkey would be the perfect fit because Jesus had absolutely no interest in looking like anything that screamed “Pax Romana.” Later he noted something else about Jesus via social media—Jesus was a Drag King.

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Getting Out of the Way

I have been taking classical voice lessons for several years now, a training I underwent as a teenager and returned to as a thirtysomething. In 2015 when I met my new vocal coach, I brought along with me my dog-eared copy of Schirmer’s 24 Great Italian Songs and Arias, Soprano Edition. After warming up, I chose a piece that I was once assigned in 1995, to see how I would fare 20 years later. 

I was comfortable with the swift melismas that hid the higher notes from my anxious eyes, but when I was asked to hold a high G for a whole measure, I suddenly tightened. On my end, I decided I needed to gird my loins, summon my strength, and force that note out into the sanctuary with every muscle in my body. 

“Sounds like a Hail Mary,” my teacher suggested, gently noting that I sounded a bit like a train whistle. “The trick is to get out of the way—you don’t have to push the sound. It’s like grace—it comes on its own.” 

I should have known that signing on with an Episcopalian for voice lessons would also mean spiritual direction, because there was profundity in his advice to “get out of the way.” 

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Resting into Vocation

Over this last year of COVID-19, Christian Nationalist uprisings, the murder of Black and Brown people, and the general fatigue of living in so-called “historical moments,” like so many others, I have had difficulty with focus, feel uninspired, and live with a kind of perpetual brain fog. My body has also asked for a lot of sleep. 

Though I would claim the habit of occasional insomnia, this year feels like an exception. Rather than a second wind at night, there have been many occasions where I’ve settled down with my spouse to watch an episode of “Star Trek: Next Generation,” a nostalgic creature comfort from my adolescence, and I have fallen asleep, drool on my pillow, by 7:30 p.m. This year of isolation may be a time for exploring all that Netflix has to offer, but I am afraid I’m not going to stay awake for it, so I’d better not risk watching any new television shows that are more than half an hour in length. 

I serve as Chaplain at a small liberal arts college in southeastern Indiana and know that I am not alone in my exhaustion. We’ve been teaching hybrid courses. We’ve been contact tracing on top of the work that we usually do in a given semester. We’ve been trying our best to foster a sense of community in the thick of anxiety, uncertainty, and masked social distancing. By the time that the Winter term rolled around, it felt like we were simply extending the previous term, sleep crusted in our eyes as we roused from a holiday break. Faculty members asked if I would provide some kind of “opening worship” to begin the semester, and I turned to the Revised Common Lectionary to see what it had in store: the call of the prophet Samuel, roused from his slumber by the voice of God. I was immediately drawn to the text: here was a call to vocation while sleeping. Samuel didn’t carve out a time with God when he was feeling perky and entirely focused, but this didn’t matter. “Is it you, Eli? Why do you keep waking me up? What? You didn’t call me? Great, I’ll go back to sleep.” 

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