I Refuse to Be Good Enough

Shel SilversteinLooking at the writings of Shel Silverstein, you can see what a wonderful life he had.  It was a life that surely wasn’t touched by tragedy.  The Giving Tree, A Light in the Attic, all of these stories that are deep, yet light and happy.  Let’s contrast that with the person who wrote A Boy Named Sue and 25 Minutes to Go – a song about a man who wants to kill the father who abandoned him has a boy and a song about a man on death row with 25 minutes to go before he’s taken to the gallows.  The person who wrote these songs must have experienced some tragedy or deep moments in his life and indeed he did. 

The mother of his daughter died the day before his daughter’s fifth birthday.  Six years later, that same daughter would die suddenly at the age of 11 of a cerebral aneurism.  In addition to music, he loved to write and draw.  As a child, he was ridiculed by his father for his love of the arts.  He would tell him that he would never make anything of himself because he was only focused on junk that would never lead him to success.  He once left some cartoons at Playboy to be considered for publication.  He never heard back and so he went to the Playboy offices to pick up his illustrations when he was met by Hugh Hefner himself.  Hugh said that the man’s work was great and gave him a check on the spot.  He went home, threw the check down on the kitchen table in front of his dad and said, “There.  I did what you told me was impossible.  Now I’m out of here.”

That man who went on to write numerous soundtracks, songs, cartoons, poems, books, and plays, who wrote music for Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, Belinda Carlisle, and many others is the same man who wrote The Giving Tree and A Light in the Attic.  Shel Silverstein knew tragedy and had plenty of obstacles, but he was determined to succeed and did.  In order to succeed, however, he had to draw from the dark parts to create work that was shared in the light.  This is Shel’s story, this is our story, and this is the story of the Hebrew people. 

The Hebrew people were stuck in Egypt.  God sent Moses to free them.  The pharaoh would not budge until God sent numerous plagues to convince him that God was not messing around.  Finally, the pharaoh accedes, but then changes his mind at the last minute as the Hebrews are heading out of Egypt.  He sends soldiers on chariots to track them down and kill them.  The sound of hooves beating against the ground gets louder and louder and the Hebrews go into a panic as they run faster and faster but many can’t keep up.  It’s bad enough that they can’t seem to put any distance on the Egyptian army chasing after them, but then there it is.  They come up over the hill and there before them is the Red Sea.  It’s done.  It’s all over.  There is no where to go and just when they thought they were finally free they are going to be slaughtered like sheep here on this seashore.  Everyone is yelling at Moses because he brought them here.  Moses is mad, confused, and feels betrayed. “Why did you send me to save these people when we are just going to get killed!?”  Then God says, “Then do something about it.”  Moses raises his hand and the Red Sea is opened and a path is made with a wall of water on either side.  “Go!” Moses yells and the people run through the sea, not believing their eyes. 

There’s something to remember here.  The Hebrew people had been in Egypt for 430 years.  This generation knew nothing of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  This God was completely new to them and they had no idea what that God could do or what they could do with the help of that God.  They were slaves in Egypt and were perfectly content to remain so until Moses went to them and reminded them of who they were and whose they were. 

They ran out to the other side and the sea collapsed on the Egyptians running through the water.  The people celebrated and sang and danced as they rejoiced that God had defeated their enemies.  This makes up a great story.  It has all the elements – the beginning, the rising action, the climax, the resolution, and the conclusion.  Well done!  Except, this wasn’t a complete story and never is.  It was only a minute fraction of a story that existed long before them and will continue to exist long after us.  We can’t forget that there was a lot of complaining, anger, and disgust before Moses could convince the Hebrew people to leave Egypt.  You would think they would have been ecstatic about leaving, but they weren’t.  They wanted to stay.  Then, soon after they sing this song about how badly God kicked the Egyptian’s butts, they start to complain and fear and want to go back to Egypt. 

Once they came out of the water and made it safely to the shore – once the celebrating and revelry was winding down and the sun started to come up – they could now see that they had nothing in front of them but desert.  They would wander in that desert for 40 years making no progress and only longing to be slaves again back where things were familiar and oddly felt safe.  As they wandered, they would have to keep returning to that water because we need water to live.  The very thing that they thought would be the death of them, the very thing that they feared, they very thing that they rejoiced for having come through, they had to go back to because they needed it.

Today I’m not beating my usual drum of social justice and good works for others.  Yes, we still need those, but sometimes we have to take care of ourselves.  Hurt people hurt people.  Think about that.  If we’re not taking care of ourselves and not making progress where we need to, then what good are we to others?  Sometimes when we feel that we can stick with status quo and that things are just good enough where we are, we have to refuse to be good enough.  Good enough is complacency and we will never get where we are supposed to be and never become who we were meant to be if we stay where we are.  Yes, we will fail.  We will fall on our faces.  But we have to keep going where it is risky and dangerous and transform our surroundings into something that is life-giving instead of life-sapping. 

Dan Cherry was an F-4 pilot in the Vietnam conflict.  He was in numerous dogfights and it was usually impersonal because the entire plane that he shot down would go down in flames.  One time, however, he shot down a MiG-21 and the pilot managed to eject before the plane went down.  He could see the pilot with both arms broken as he parachuted down through the canopy below.  Decades later, Dan was visiting VFW posts and he came to one in the Midwest.  He could hardly believe what he saw.  In the yard of the VFW, there it was – the very same F-4 that he used to fly.  It reminded him of the man he had shot down over the jungles of Vietnam and started to wonder what became of him.  He decided that he would find out.  In 2008, Nguyen Hong My and Dan Cherry had a reunion in Ho Chi Minh City.  They ate together at Nguyen’s house where Dan met his family and even held Nguyen’s one year-old grandson.  By going back to his place of fear and trepidation, Dan was able to redeem it and make it a place of progress.

I am always in favor of being content where we are geographically.  I believe that the grass is rarely greener on the other side, but I don’t believe in complacency either.  We would do well to take Mark Twain’s words to heart:

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did.  So throw off the bowlines.  Sail away from the safe harbor.  Catch the trade winds in your sails.  Explore.  Dream.  Discover.

Remember that even though God gave the power, Moses had to lift his hand to part the sea.  The Hebrews had to move their own feet and cross the sea.  If we want to make progress, if we want to go where we were made to go and be who we were made to be, then we always have to tell ourselves, “I refuse to be good enough” and take the actions to get there.

One Response to “I Refuse to Be Good Enough”

  1. John Lovestrand Says:

    I love the Shel Silverstein references. It prompted me to grab his book “Falling Up” and re-read “Noise Day”, one of my favorites. That book remains on Jake’s shelf and it was posted to the Noise Day page, all these years later. Sandra read most often to our boys when they were little, but I also read to them, albeit less frequently, and typically Seuss and Shel.

    I also love the Johnny Cash connection, as I knew that Shel had written “Boy Named Sue”, but I did not know (have never even heard of) “25 Minutes”. (Gotta’ find that and listen to that soon, given your premise description.)

    As often with your sermons, you personalize the message by and through a real world personal story, with emotional and spiritual heft.
    How redemptive that reunion must have been for those two gentlemen. How wonderful the notion of redeeming such an awful time & event into a “place of progress.”

    As to the overall theme, while I understand and appreciate the context here — regarding complacency — I am marginally concerned that in our “winning” fixated culture that some may view not being “good enough” as equivalent to “losing.” It seems to me in this country that we glorify our “winners” and vilify our “losers”, especially in the sports world. Ask Jim Kelly and his Buffalo Bills about going to 4 straight super bowls, and being branded “losers” for their efforts.

    In Beijing, right after having won four gold medals and a silver, Michael Phelps stepped to the podium to take questions from the assembled media, and the very first question posed was to inquire of him as to what went “wrong” in the silver medal race. I’m listening to this and thinking, forget for a moment that he also just won 4 gold medals, but as to just that singular (silver medal finish) race … he was the second best in the WORLD! C’mon Man!!

    To a fault I view some of these ideas through a sports lens, and in youth sports all too often I saw first hand the parent (almost always a father) ride his son for not being “good enough” … instead of embracing what his son was realistically capable of doing and cherishing what his son had done. It may be a fine line, but I am wary of chastising another for having accepted just being “good enough”, as that perception may be distorted and thereby unfair.

    I will never forget sitting in the stands one game (watching another team play, where I knew several of those kids on the field, their parents in the stands) with Lisa and Tracey, and Lisa thought aloud in our presence as she watched them on the field: “What a blessing it is that they have the ability to run and play.”

    I was so struck by the grace and humanity in that seemingly idle comment and observation. It was the positive flip-side of the negative perspective parental comment that I had witnessed too regularly.
    Whenever I lost perspective over a “tough loss”, I reflected back on Lisa’s comment, and it restored by sense of perspective.

    So we may have to be careful, at least in a youth sports context, to discern between complacency and best effort. Because I would argue that sometimes the effort alone, irrespective of outcome, is indeed “good enough” … .

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: