Persistence – what does it look like?

The end of the calendar year can often look like one of two things to people: a time for reflection or a time to scramble and finish whatever project was begun way back in January. Several folks will float between both categories, naturally, and do so till December has ended and the new year has begun. Some will even be fortunate enough to have their eyes completely on the year ahead, content with leaving the year behind. I find myself as one of those ‘floaters’ – alternating between reflection and completion. There’s plenty I’ve completed and plenty I’ve yet to complete. There are still many goals out there, but there is one solace that keeps my unfinished ventures in a healthy perspective: my persistence.

To some people, persistence is a way of life – an invaluable character trait. Nothing comes easy in life so anything easy just can’t be worth the effort. Failures may come, but it’s the failures that define and mold those who count themselves as survivors. From there, they adopt an enduring will for anything else that crosses their path. For others, persistence may appear to be wasted time; wasted energy; or even wasted talent. Only swift results with immediate impact – anything other than that is not a worthy investment. Persistence through lengthy challenges can be seen as inadequate planning. Instead of weathering an impossible storm, one’s persistence should be in finding what’s best for him, not what’s the most challenging way to do something. Staying in one place for too long may be a sign of weak-mindedness; a person who has yet to find his way in life because of immaturity or inattentiveness to his own desires. Because that’s what we should be persistent about – personal happiness and personal gain; not personal challenge.

One may look at either ideology and be quick to attach it to a certain age group or even a generation. Persistence belongs to the older generation, but the younger generation will argue that persistence belongs to them. And depending upon what angle you’re looking from, you can make these same assumptions too – that persistence really does belong to any one generation – depending on the source.

But, as I type this short entry, I can’t help but feel like persistence doesn’t belong to any one generation. Nor does it belong in any one part of life necessarily. That any generation’s persistence is always motivated by one thing: hope.

Hope is what drives anyone to be persistent; be it through challenges, through personal development, through jobs, or life in general. There must be hope at the end if there is to be persistence in anything. Otherwise we would find no need to attach ourselves to the future we are all heading towards. And it’s this faith in hope that keeps me persistent in life, as it should anyone else. No matter what the trials may be or what generation you find yourself within.

Staring Down Train Tracks

That's a long way....

That’s a long way….

The view is daunting; overwhelming, to a degree. Staring down train tracks – specifically the ones in this picture – can be as intimidating as they are miraculous. The long rows of steel and iron have sat where they are for decades, giving the impression that whatever has passed through here has done so without fail and without interruption for quite a while. Longer than many people’s lives, no doubt. It’s a fascinating realization, at least to me; one I claim due to my heritage. My grandfather worked on trains, my father made a living in steel, and now my youngest brother wishes to make trains some day. There’s definitely some “steam and iron” in our bloodline. And that’s a really cool thing.

My family’s path hasn’t always been as clear as these train tracks though. In hindsight, sure – we can look back and see the patterns of chosen vocations – but human foresight is not always so resolute. Physical train tracks, however, can be planned out, laid down, and carried forward so that we may see the entire journey. And if there are trees, rocks, a small crevasse blocking the path – well, we simply remove them. Obstacles are no longer obstacles; only the track remains. The distance between Point A and Point B is bridged.

I’d love to get super-philosophical with this concept. Straight roads; man’s desire for clarity; man’s need for land domination; man’s inner struggle for authority – there’s a plethora of ones I could go into. But I’d rather not go down that route. None of those topics apply to why I took the picture. Rather, I snapped it for quite the opposite: to remind myself of how I should not be thinking.

Men, in general, have an innate yearning to be visionaries. To claim what’s been set before them and make it their own. I feel that pressure daily and at times, it can be utterly maddening. But in some sense, I enjoy the challenge. After all, it’s freeing when a plan comes together. And equally frustrating when it does not, but it’s even more frustrating when the plan is hidden from your sight. I used to think that the last option was the most difficult one to deal with – to work around; to navigate. But I have since come to understand that there is a fourth road, one that’s not as easily discernible unless you find yourself in the midst of that road: it’s when a vision is cast ahead of you, the road is open for the taking, and all that need be done is begin. But once you start, and you see the path is without deviation, you begin to wonder to yourself – is this a trap? Am I seeing the big picture so that I can be trapped by it?

Alright, so I’m getting a tiny bit philosophical here.

I say this only because I know so many who are staring down train tracks, wondering if where they are headed is some sort of a trap. They see the finish line, but for some reason, that’s the problem. Is my career going to fulfill me? I’m a single parent, what does that mean for my dating life? Some external force seems to be dictating the path. Point A to Point B appears to be set in place and the journey doesn’t look to be a “enjoyably-manageable” one. “What will I do if I get stuck halfway?! I won’t be able to go anywhere!”

Don’t be discouraged by this. External pressure should not dictate internal longing. Using my own life as an example, I didn’t want to be controlled by external forces. So I asked if He (God) could help me out with that. That seemed like a good place to start. What’s funny, in retrospect, is that when I asked God how to do this; asked Him to set a vision before me – He actually did it. He gave me a clear path – devoid of those external pressures – showing me where to go. But here’s the strange part: I buckled. For when I saw the enormity of that vision in its entirety, I got frightened. Whoa. “What if I get stuck on these tracks? Is this all you have for me?!” The clear path was there, but now it looked like a one-way ticket to a trap. And I hated feeling that way, especially since I asked for it in the first place!

So what gives in this scenario? Why did I suddenly feel this way? The answer is actually very simple: I still wanted to trust in my own devices, which in turn, made the destination appear impossible to get to. And that sort of thinking can lead to immobility; it can also lead to “trap-mindedness”. It’s an invitation for external forces to once again play a factor – the very thing you asked to be guarded against. “If I get stuck though,” you may say. “I can only go backwards, right?” Well, and this will sound cliche’, you have to trust that the obstacles will be removed – just as they had been when you first asked for help. You see, God hasn’t changed; only our perception of where we are on the tracks has changed. Getting “stuck” can merely be a matter of losing faith, disabling ourselves based on an experience we had. The key is – and by no means is it an easy one – reengaging the original vision. Reminding ourselves of who brought us there, who cast the die, and who set the path for trotting. It wasn’t a family member who told you aren’t good enough; it wasn’t an article you read about the impossible nature of dating;  and it wasn’t a bad experience that you believe should define you. None of these things bring life. And none of these things take you further down the tracks.

If that much is true, then do not lose heart wherever you are on the path. I’m forever learning this myself. Slowly, it’s becoming clearer to me how God desires us to have faith in His foresight, not our own. Getting caught up in the vision, its size and scale, invites too many factors that shouldn’t matter. So do not entertain what lies in the woods. Instead, be encouraged by the path that’s calling you forward. Whatever that may be.

 

The Difference a Year Makes

It’s been a year since I spoke to inner city youth on pursuing dreams; a whole year. I’ve been fortunate to mentor and inspire young adults in one-on-one environments but a whole year since I’ve been granted an audience larger than a mere handful. I’ve grown much in that frame of time – as a person and as a writer – just like any other person can or does. And recently, I was granted the opportunity to repeat what I did a year ago: speak in a classroom about what I do.

This wouldn’t be like what I did before though. This time, it would be pre-teens and new teenagers; a whole other animal to work with in a classroom setting. Last time, it was 9th and 10th graders, but this time, it would be middle school students. To any teacher who knowingly takes on the task of teaching 7th and 6th graders, I applaud you. Better yet, I say ‘you’re amazing’; you deserve a ton of credit. When it comes to these ages, the interactions can be as tender as they are hostile. The differences between a 12-year old and a 13-year old are vast; vast like an ocean, I’d say. Becoming a teenager can be like sailing off to a new continent, not knowing what to expect, but you have to go because you don’t have any other option. And that’s a maddening concept. You’re on a boat and there’s no way you can get off. The land behind you is dead or dying and your only escape is somewhere across the open ocean. But it’s not an escape so much as it’s a predetermined destination. And when you land, you find a place that’s nothing like what you left behind. It’s frightening to many, and for good reason.

I say this because I knew what I was getting into – a land full of angry inhabitants who want to be heard as much as they want to left alone. Quite the hypocrisy, but you tread lightly regardless. It was “Career Day” at one of our local city schools; a day I recall as being one filled with weird guests who had something called “jobs” and one day I would have a to choose a “job” myself. The usual suspects would come year after year to my school – police officers, nurses, firefighters, and sometimes other teachers. But never was there an author, I remember. There was never a professional wordsmith; a person like Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, or R.L. Stine walking through the archways of my alma mater. Not that I claim to be on their level – I just don’t remember one being at my school’s “Career Day”. So this was exciting. For me, it was, but to the kids? Well, who is to say that they had any interest in listening to me or what I had to give them.

Teenagers are complicated organisms; more so than their earlier forms, the pre-teens. Having this knowledge, I wanted to speak in a way that would be engaging, intriguing, and somehow “fun” for the class. How does a one go into a school full of hormone-raged adolescents and keep them interested though? I understand their need for visual stimulation, but hey, I’m a writer. Putting words up on a board would be business as usual to these kids. How was I going to do this and what was I going to talk about and show? Well, the immediate answer I came to was this: I have no freaking idea. That’s when I decided to rely on some divine intervention from God to help me out because alone, there’s no way I could do it effectively. That’s not to say that I didn’t prepare ahead of time. I gathered a couple visual aids, specifically on stories I’m working on, and brought those along with me. That was for starters, but only after asking what might be a good idea to bring along.

So I went to school and encountered the 7th graders first. And truth be told, it was rough. Students could scarcely pay attention for more than a few minutes. But I trudged through on how and why I tell stories, my educational background, and all other things that may help paint a picture of how I got where I was. But all that broke down when I asked the kids one simple question – “do you any of you know what ‘passion’ means? Or do you have one?” The teens didn’t have much to speak on the word, which was surprising to me. Some said it was “something that’s fun to do”; another said, “singing”; and one kid said, “you mean like lobsters or something?” (this boy loved lobsters). I went on to explain that some of their responses were on the right track – save the lobsters comment – but there was one crucial piece missing. “What’s that?” one of them asked and I replied with, “the willingness to suffer for something better, namely a reward”. That’s when I got a ton of confused faces. And unfortunately, my time was up in the classroom.

I walked out of there feeling defeated; like, I’d done a poor job of explaining my work or what drove me to become a writer. The class was hard enough wrangling up to stay attentive, but the reception I received on that final remark really shook me. Not that every teenager should have a clear understand of passion is, but to think that wanting to suffer so as to gain a reward was a foreign concept was disheartening to me. I knew many of these students, if not all, came from difficult backgrounds so suffering or struggling is not unfamiliar. But that was the issue altogether. The reward, the possible gain; the hope was missing. If any one of those kids had the insight or the ability to do so, they may have jumped up and said something like, “well, we already know suffering, but what’s this reward business you’re talking about?” That’s when I sunk inside myself and immediately became angry. Suffering for the sake of something good did not make sense. What reward? What goal? There was none, it seemed. The blank stares made sense and I felt compelled to go back into the classroom and elaborate on what I meant. But there was no time for that – I had another classroom to share with.

This time, it would be the 6th graders. Not as old as the last group and some of them still teetering between pre-teen and teenager. I focused up and decided to stick with my original game plan but this time, get with the program and explain what ‘passion’ means as a whole. Or at the very least, touch on what that may look like for them. I got through the first part of my talk and then came back to that critical inquiry: “Do you any of you know what passion is? Or what that means?” The same responses came through. So I opened up and said, “It actually means that you’re willing to suffer for something so you can hopefully achieve something later.” Again, the blank stares. So I got with it and shared how I’d once wrote a story for a girl I liked when I was 10. I penned a short horror story for her and gave it over to her. My hope was that she’d love it and I’d win her over with my amazing writing talents. And as I told the tale, several of the girls laughed, wondering why I’d resort to something like that.

“Why do you think?” I asked.
“Because you like to tell stories?”
“Yeah. That’s it. And what do you think she said when she read it?”

The classroom went silent until one girl burst out, “She hated it, didn’t she?” To which I replied, “Yes, she didn’t exactly like it that much, at all.”

Every student in the class had a good laugh at that, but when I went on to say how I still wanted to write stories, despite that crushing blow, something clicked for a few of them.

“So, you kept going?”
“Yes. I did.”

It’s been a year since I got to speak in front of a classroom, talking on my life as an author/writer, but more importantly, it’s been a year since I got to speak in front of a classroom on why there’s hope despite any current circumstances. For me, it’s years of sticking with something, committing myself to a craft and not giving in to the doubts that try and intercede. For the students, it could be graver situations like abusive homes, drugs, alcohol, gangs, etc. and that’s frightening to be within. Passion doesn’t exist; survival is the name of the game. So to these students and so many like them, a “guest speaker” is just another adult with an agenda; one they’re not interested in hearing about. But if anyone can bring a story that speaks of triumph – not mindless struggle or silver-spooned entitlement – ears open and heads perk up. All because there’s a hope that something will change for the better.

The storm of adolescence is hard enough, but if there’s a hope that the storm will subside someday, somehow – then that’s much more significant. And worth speaking about.