Have you ever stopped to think about how you learned to tie your shoes? It’s a skill which is pretty close to a necessity, at least in Western culture. For me, the experience was rather difficult, yet now I can look back and say that I learned about fear and hope, and how they motivate us. Perceiving the difference between these two motivators is a much more valuable lesson than simply learning how to work with shoelaces.
When I started kindergarten, I was playing with action figures and watching Saturday morning cartoons, just as most 5-year-old American boys do. Unlike my classmates however, I was already at a comprehension level somewhat more advanced than theirs. I read adult-level books on subjects such as astronomy, Egyptology, and paleontology, for example, and enjoyed listening to Haydn and Beethoven symphonies. In short, I was (and still am) a nerd.
Yet whatever intellectual capabilities I may have had, there was one thing which I absolutely could not get down: tying my shoes. In fact, I was the very last person in my kindergarten class to learn how to tie my shoes properly. Despite my interest in subjects like physics, I would sit there for hours trying to figure out how in the world to coordinate my fingers to pull the two ends of the shoelace into a bow.
As the school year wore on, I became more and more embarrassed by the fact that I seemed to be the only one who could not tie his shoes. Frequently, I had to go to my teacher for help, if my shoes became untied on the playground. She would show me how to do it, but try as I might I simply could not replicate her movements. And kids being kids, my classmates started to take note of my inability to learn this skill, and began mocking me for it.
At home, my parents did their best to try to help me learn how to tie my shoes, although with my being left-handed and naturally clumsy, no doubt I tried their patience no end. Despite hours of practice, I seemed to make no progress at all. I became deeply upset, and asked God why He couldn’t just show me how to tie my shoes. Yet I was doing so not because I thought it was important that I learn, but rather so that the kids at school would stop making fun of me. In other words, I was motivated by fear, rather than hope.
Then one day in late spring, as I was approaching my 6th birthday, I remember being in the coat closet – or “cloak room” as they were called in Catholic schools – and noticing that my left shoe was untied. By this point, I had become so used to being mocked that I just accepted it and told no one about the regular taunts I received. I still wanted to learn how to tie my shoes, but whereas before I wanted to do so in order to avoid humiliation, now I wanted to learn how to do it because I was really looking forward to moving up to first grade, and being in school all day long. I knew there was a risk that I might not be able to go, unless I could tie my shoes.
So instead of asking for help one more time, I bent down to try to tie my shoe. And for no apparent reason, everything finally fell into place. Eureka!
I was so overjoyed that I ran out to tell my teacher the good news. I can still remember the look of relief on her face when she found out I could do it. No doubt she had not been looking forward to writing an end-of-year report on whether I was ready for 1st grade, explaining why I still could not tie my shoes.
Last evening I thought of this experience following a conversation with someone whose opinion I value highly. Over the past few months I’ve been thinking about what I ought to be doing with my life, since I just keep ploughing away, doing what I do, but at the same time sensing that I ought to be moving in another direction. To date, I have seen no lifelong instruction manual saying, ”Here’s what you should do next.” The response to my observation was, maybe He already has shown you what to do, but you just haven’t realized it yet.
And that comment brings me back to where this blog post began. Because when it came to learning how to tie my shoes, I did not have a supernatural messenger appear beside me and guide my fingers, no matter how much I wanted someone else to just make things happen for me. People showed me what to do, but my primary goal for a long time was not to improve myself, but rather to escape from something negative. Fear, rather than hope, was my motivator.
Eventually, I stopped worrying and starting hoping. I wanted to succeed and move up to 1st grade, so I could enjoy all of the knowledge I would be able to pick up there. I wasn’t going to get there if I kept worrying. Instead, I chose to keep trying, until eventually I was finally able to achieve what I needed to.
Sure, I would have liked the instant gratification and deliverance from self-doubt that a sudden answer to my prayers would have given me. Instead, I had to learn – not for the first time – the virtue of holding on, and persisting in the face of the unknown, whatever the difficulties. In other words, by having to wait so long, I had to learn how to hope.
And hope does not disappoint.