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You’re Not Superman

July 1, 2020
Five Fascinating Facts From The New Muhammad Ali Biography

The story’s told that once Mohammad Ali was flying to an appearance and the air got turbulent. The pilot came on the PA system and asked the passengers to fasten their seat belts. Then, of course, according to protocol, the flight attendants (who were called “Stewardesses” back then) came through the plane making sure everyone had complied. Ali didn’t fastened his seat belt. The Stewardess stopped and asked him to please fasten his seat belt. He looked at her and said, “Superman don’t need no seat belt.”

Without missing a beat, the Stewardess said, “Superman don’t need no plane.”

At Ali’s level of fame and success, it would have been hard to not see himself as bulletproof. He could float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. The world was at his feet. In his day, he was one of the most famous and recognizable personalities in the world. Maybe THE most famous and recognizable. He was The Greatest. Undefeated and defiant of all comers.

Until 1984 when he met an opponent he could not and would not beat. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. At first, it only slowed him down. But eventually it took him out.

The few public appearances we saw of him in his last few years made it undeniable. Ali was not Superman. He wasn’t bulletproof.

Of the many things the last 4 months have taught us, one of the big lessons would surely be that we’re not bulletproof, either. Not as a nation. Not as communities. Not as families. Not as individuals.

That’s an ugly reality. Especially for Americans. We’ve been born into and bred in defiant independence and individualism. Independent individuals don’t like being reminded that we’re not bulletproof. We especially don’t like it thrown in our face and then rubbed in.

Well, Covid-19 and the mandated lock-down(s) and inconveniences threw it in our faces and then rubbed it in.

There are probably some outliers who didn’t alter their lifestyle in March of 2020, but the rest of us made some dramatic changes. Some of us saw our income slashed. Some even lost their jobs. Others lost their business. We all had to get used to our house and property being the extent of our travel and outings. We had to get used to seeing our family and friends online and not in person. We got used to – or tried to get used to – church being online and not happening in the building we were used to, with the people we were used to. Socially distanced high-fives replaced handshakes and hugs. It got old fast.

As a culture, we took a pretty sharp turn from our normal practice of boldly going where no one had gone before, to huddling in fear and anxiety because of what our media outlets were proclaiming as a falling sky. Social media got even nastier than it already was. We became hyper-vigilant against an invisible enemy.

I can (and do) push back against what I think is an irrational fear reaction to the threat of a virus that kills 1% of those who contract it, though I’m sensitive to the fact that there are many other perspectives than my own. I can rail against the forces and institutions that I think are protracting the crisis (though this isn’t the point of what I’m writing today). What I can’t do is make it go away by the force of my will. Superman don’t need no plane, but I’m not Superman. I need a plane. I’m not bulletproof.

I think there are lots of applications for this truth that apply into marriages and families. You don’t have time to read about all of them, and I’m not smart enough to know all of them. But here’s one.

I cannot control my family and/or marriage into a secure place. One of the unmovable truths of life is that I don’t get to control much of anything other than what I do about what happens to me. The most I can do is influence outcomes. Trying to control outcomes always eventually results in push-back and counter control, which ends in frustration, anger and bad behavior. Unfortunately, for lots of us, this doesn’t keep us from trying to control people and things.

There are some wholesome motives for desiring to control. Sometimes we want to keep people we love safe from things we know about, but they don’t. That seems legitimate. Sometimes we just want what’s best for all of us, and this desire urges us to try and control things so that what we think is best will happen. That also seems legitimate. One of the things I’ve learned, though, is that good motives don’t erase the probability that bad things almost always come from control attempts.

My personal theory on control is that the root cause of it is fear. So many broken behaviors come from fear. When the God-given gift of the instinct for self-preservation gets jacked up beyond it’s useful limits, fear gets behind the steering wheel of our life, and we end up in the ditch. Unfortunately, we often drag others there with us.

To have no fear seems appealing to me. How great would it be to face every day with not a drop of fear? How many bold and courageous steps would I take?! How much would the world be changed?! It sounds great.

Except that’s not how it works. Fear has a legitimate function. If we had no fear, we would have very short lives. Appropriate fear cues us to think about consequences and the costs for our actions. It prompts us to evaluate the risk – usually against the reward. There are some risks that just aren’t worth taking. Fear helps us set ourselves up to sort this stuff out and live within reasoned and reasonable boundaries.

But when fear is the master instead of the servant, it will push us to attempt many things that are not good. Among them are control attempts.

Here’s another thing connected to all this. When we attempt to control things, people, outcomes, we’re making an assumption that we know best how to get the best outcome. This may occasionally be valid, but most often it’s not. You’re a smart person, so there’s no doubt that you would have some good ideas. But your ideas, like mine, are no more bulletproof than you, like me, are. Some of us are smarter than others, but none of us is really that smart…

The Apostle Paul wrote a thought that applies here, in Romans 12:3. For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.

I like the J.B. Phillips paraphrase of this: As your spiritual teacher I give this piece of advice to each one of you. Don’t cherish exaggerated ideas of yourself or your importance, but try to have a sane estimate of your capabilities by the light of the faith that God has given to you all. 

So what might this sane estimate of your capabilities look like in your marriage and family? I’ve got a couple of ideas about it. Here’s the first one: having a sane estimate of your capabilities requires HUMILITY.

One of the best definitions for humility I’ve ever heard is that it is knowing what you’re capable of, and being glad to do it when and how it’s appropriate.

Don’t mistake humility for false humility, though. False humility is just a ploy (sometimes a subconscious one) to be begged to do something. We “aw shucks” and look down because we really want someone to marvel at how humble we are, and tell us a few more times how they’d just love it if we’d come to the rescue and do whatever they think we could do.

C.S. Lewis said that humility isn’t thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less. I think he was on to something.

One of the greatest things humility does is usher in grace. I believe only the humble will experience grace and then dispense it. A family and/or marriage that’s marked by grace will thrive. And that can only happen when humility makes room for it.

Another thing with this is connected to CAPABILITIES. In a marriage and/or family where grace is alive and well, there is enough emotional oxygen for people to develop, build and refine capabilities.

Part of this is OPPORTUNITY. Which requires PERMISSION. Permission and opportunity encourage growth and development, the seedbed of robust capability.

An interesting thing about developing capability is that it will virtually always involve failure. Very few people ever entered the water on a dive with no splash the first time they tried it. Or put a tiny power fade on a 330 yard drive on their first attempt. Nobody shredded a guitar solo the first time they picked up a guitar. Failure is a necessary part of learning. But if a marriage or a family doesn’t have enough grace to permit failure, a couple of things are likely to happen.

First of all, nobody will willingly attempt anything that carries the possibility of failure. The negative consequences of failure are too much.

The second thing is that because of this fear of failure, some will continue to do the activity or behavior at a tentative beginner level, but will never get any better at it. They’ll settle for whatever level they’re at. Which is usually mediocre.

In a marriage and/or family where grace is alive and well, people are encouraged to attempt, even if there’s a possibility of failure. And that builds capability. Capability, not bulletproof-ness.

We’re not bulletproof. That’s why we need grace. First of all, from God. And then from and to one another. In a world that resists being controlled, humility that invites grace makes fantastic marriages and families where sane estimates of growing capabilities are the hallmark.

From → Marriage, Parenting

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