Imagine that you are watching a movie set in the spring of 1979. The screen shows a junior hockey game that has erupted into a full-on bench-clearing brawl. Hockey gloves and sticks are strewn about the ice surface, and all 40 players dressed for the game have partnered up with an opponent. A few of these pairs are actively throwing punches, but most are simply on “guard duty”— hold onto your partner and ensure that he does not enter the fray, leaving one of your teammates outnumbered. The camera slowly zooms in on one particular twosome on the fringe of the melee, the last duo to join the party. One is a goaltender, sans mask, longish blonde 70s hair fully on display for the viewing enjoyment of the many teenaged girls in attendance. The other player is a tall, lean forward.
The goalie intercepts the other as he skates slowly and somewhat awkwardly toward the pack. He establishes a tight grip on his adversary’s arms, just above the elbows. Although he is reasonably tall himself, he finds himself staring at his opponent’s pronounced adam’s apple. His dance partner does not attempt to grab him; his arms remain at his sides.
We’ve moved into a close up now. You can see and hear the goalie talking to the other player. “Hey, buddy, just relax,” he urges. “No chance you’re getting past me anyway.”
No response. The guy is looking directly at him, but remains silent and expressionless.
The goalie ensures that he keeps himself between his foe and his teammates. He has slowed the other player’s progress, but not entirely stopped it. He tries a different approach. A smile, followed by, “Be cool, man. This game’s over. Let’s just hang out over here ‘til they sort this all out.”
Still nothing. Except that the taller one has stopped skating.
Now they are a statue, two warriors face to neck, the goalie’s eyes upturned so that he can meet his rival’s unflinching stare. He tries another smile, a light-hearted half-joking comment or two, mostly just to show (the other player? the girls in the stands? himself?) that he is not intimidated.
But he was. Very much so. I know this because I was him. In 1979, I was a 17 year old goalie playing for the Grande Prairie Northstars junior hockey team. I had left family and friends at home in my hometown of Calgary to pursue the dream; I was going to be a professional hockey player one day. In the NHL. Seriously. Stop laughing.
I didn’t want to fight that guy, or any guy, really. But especially not that guy. All the signs were there; he was a weak skater, unusually tall, and had spent most of the game sitting on the end of his team’s bench. Back then, guys like that were kept around for one very specific reason; they were known as enforcers (aka policemen, tough guys, fighters, goons). The cold stare was merely a confirmation.
I have recalled this event often over the years, and chuckled a little to myself, but only very recently did I consider this startling possibility: What if he was just as scared as I was?
Yes, he was tall, but pretty skinny. And the fact that he didn’t skate well or play much? Maybe he just wasn’t a very good player who was lucky to make the team, but terrified out of his mind whenever they actually let him on the ice. He manages to make it almost all the way through an important game without embarrassing himself, and then a brawl breaks out. He takes his time making his way from his spot on the bench to the ice, and is relieved to find that he ends up with the other team’s goaltender (typically the most harmless of hockey players). But this goalie is a little bit belligerent. And what’s with the smile? Is he mocking him? So he just plays a role most teenaged boys know all too well: don’t smile, don’t talk, act tough.
Two teenagers acting for the camera.
Not long after that incident, I realized that I wasn’t going to make it as a hockey player. I moved on to other things, but I never stopped acting. It became a pattern I repeated over and over again in my life: find a way to fit in, then find a way to stand out. I wasn’t a great athlete as a boy, but I was smart enough to notice that the jocks were very popular. In Canada, the big sport is hockey, so I learned to be a hockey player. To fit in. Then I poured myself heart and soul into hockey in an attempt to become an excellent goalie. To stand out. When the hockey dream died, I became by turns a partier, a Christian, a student, a husband, a teacher, a father. In each area I looked at what other people did and copied them, so I would fit in. Then, in each area, I pushed myself to become the best. To stand out. Learn the part, play the role. Figure out the expectations others have for you, then meet them. Having done that, strive to exceed them.
I do not recommend this lifestyle. Which is not to say that one should not be aware of others’ expectations, or seek to do one’s best. But there is a fine line between healthy striving, and living your life according to the expectations of others. They can look very much alike on the outside, but the latter comes at great cost emotionally, spiritually and even physically.
This has been a hard lesson for me, and a long time coming. If you had asked me even a few years ago to what extent I cared about what others thought about me, the answer would have been, “Not very much. I do what I think is right.” But through a variety of circumstances over time, God graciously held up a mirror that forced me to see myself as I really was, with all of my mixed motivations. To be clear, this was not a pleasant experience.
I’ll not pretend that the turnaround was immediate, or that it is even complete. But I do feel a new freedom to live my life free of the burden of others’ expectations. The freedom to explore more fully the unique gifts, passions, circumstances and experiences that I have been given, and to figure out how I might utilize and enjoy them all in the context of God’s plan and purpose for my life. This, I am discovering, is a much more joyful way to live.
This past summer, I celebrated my 55th birthday and retired after a 31 year teaching career. It represented the end of one phase of my life, and the beginning of another. It was a pretty significant event, I thought, and one worth commemorating, so I treated myself. I got my left ear pierced.
There have been a number of responses. My wife, who was in on the secret, loves it, but my kids were pretty much dumbfounded. Friends’ reactions have been varied: from “Why on earth did you do that!” to “Cool!” to “Mmmm . . . midlife crisis?” (complete with eye roll). Some say nothing, leaving one to wonder whether they noticed. Others glance at the earring, look back at my face, back at the ear, then look away, saying nothing, leaving no doubt that they have noticed. Bless their hearts; they’re being polite.
None of these reactions were unexpected; in fact they were the reason I spent several minutes in my car outside the piercing shop, stomach churning, unsure whether I would have the courage to go through with it after all. But I did it. Why? Because I like the idea of wearing an earring. I think it suits me. Not necessarily the “me” that I have so often tried or pretended to be, but, I think, the real me. Introspective, creative, quirky, ironic me.
So I did it. And now, every time I look in the mirror, I see it, and it reminds me to just be who I am, and not worry about who everyone else thinks I should be.
No more acting for the camera.
“Now I live and I breathe for an audience of one,
because I know this journey is my own.”
— Sara Groves