A couple of months ago, I went to a USA Triathlon coaching conference. In the first session, which was on Sports Psychology and Mental Skills, the speaker said, “I have found that my elite athletes typically have a gremlin—something from their past that creates work ethic and an axe to grind.”
While this concept wasn’t exactly surprising to me, it did make me think about what my own gremlin might be. This was especially relevant because the last few months have been a struggle for me mentally and emotionally—both in my sport and in my life.
I think it’s pretty normal—perhaps even necessary—for an athlete to posses an inherent thirst to prove herself. I think the problem for me is when this thirst comes from a place of doubt rather than from a place of confidence.
During this time, I also happened to re-read the following blog post (abbreviated) that I wrote more than four years ago, during the year I spent volunteering and living with a Vietnamese host family in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Sometimes I am not sure why I am in Viet Nam; other times, however, it is perfectly clear: I have come to Viet Nam for a long, painful lesson in humility.
Last night after supper, Co Van asked me to peel and cut a mango. As I revel in any small task that makes me feel useful—makes me, moreover, feel like myself again—I immediately obeyed.
After staring blankly at the array of knives in the drawer, seeing none that appeared suitable for my task, I gladly accepted the peeler that Chi Hai handed me. Whether Vietnamese peelers are sub-par or whether the skin of a mango is simply more difficult than some, I don’t know. What I do know is that the skin of that particular mango was loath to part with the fruit However, I persevered, hoping that no one would notice how long it was taking me to perform this task. No such luck.
Finally, after everyone had noticed and laughed, Co Van finished peeling and handed the now-naked mango back to me. Ok, I thought, just cut it, surely you can do that much. Next thing I knew, my left pointer finger was bleeding rather profusely, and Nga was running for a band-aid.
The thing that drove me crazy (!) was this: I have cut a mango before. At home, I am capable of taking care of myself: I can do my own laundry, cook for myself, and cut a cake—or even a mango. But people here don’t know that.
Here, I spend my time longing to be useful and to prove myself, and then even the smallest tasks elude my skill and leave me feeling quite inept. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I am an intelligent and capable adult; if I don’t, I feel like I have regressed back to childhood.
And while I suppose a good dose of humility is not an inherently bad thing—I think I’m supposed to say that it is good for me, and maybe it is—I can’t quite bring myself to believe it all the time. The fact is that in some ways I am just a child here; I can’t speak Vietnamese as well as a five-year-old, after all. But instead of recognizing and accepting this fact—being humble, in other words—I start boiling inside and want to scream at my host family and the country, “I am good at some things!!”
But now I have this band-aid around my finger that serves as a constant reminder of…something. I’m not exactly sure what.
When I re-read this, I was struck by the thought, Wow. I’m four years out from Vietnam, in a completely different situation, and I still have the exact same struggle. It just looks different now.
I have successfully peeled many mangos since that fateful incident in Hanoi (though I have been disappointed by the quality of nearly every one after being spoiled by the quality of fruit in Southeast Asia for a year). Now, I cook my own meals, and the people I live with think I am an incredible cook even though most of what I do is blend ingredients together into smoothies (that are too healthy to taste very good) and fry potatoes.
But I still feel inadequate, and feel the need to prove my abilities to other people. I still hate accepting help. Even though I’m four and a half years older now, sometimes I still feel like a child. I constantly compare myself to others, and not just in obvious ways, like in races. I doubt my ability to impact others for the better because of my personality, comparing myself to more outgoing friends who seem to have such an obvious positive impact on everyone they have ever said one single word to.
Lately, my church has been doing a series on the Atonement. Each week the pastor focuses on a different big theological idea, but each week the point seems to be the same, namely: Christ did it all; we can’t/don’t need to do anything to save ourselves.
Last week I sat there and wrestled in my pew, but not because the concept is anything new. My wrestling came from the fact that, if I’m honest, the concept is old and I know it and I believe it, but I don’t very often live that way. Even though I would never say that I’m trying to earn my salvation, I sure as heck act that way.
The good thing, I guess, is that the pastor assured us that this idea is something we probably should wrestle with, that there is a certain tension between “Christ did it all” and “Faith without works is dead.”
So maybe my feeling of inadequacy is my life gremlin, always pushing me spiritually, on the one hand, to trust Christ and gain my confidence from him; and on the other hand, to realize that he did make me good, that I do have special gifts and abilities—that it’s ok to be confident in those and try to do good.
As I concluded four years ago, looking at the band-aid on my finger after the mango cutting incident:
While it is important to accept our weaknesses humbly, I believe that it is also important to recognize our strengths. And even though I fail often, I am good at some things, even if mango-peeling is not always among them.
That being said, the point of being good at things is not who knows I am good at them, but what I do with those skills. And also that, no matter how skilled any of us is, we really can’t do everything on our own. We all rely on others–even if those of us stubbornly independent types hate to admit it.
Because I love mangos, but I also love my fingers. Clearly, I need a little help.
Calah Schlabach (’09) is a Calvin graduate who—let’s just be honest—majored in cross country and track while minoring in English and writing. After a year or so of global wandering, she discovered the sport of triathlon. Calah is currently working as a professional triathlete.