Just because we can doesn’t always mean we should.
When do we learn that lesson? One of those life things that we learn along the way? One of my friends has suggested for years that we collaborate on a book entitled Things You Can’t Tell People. I think one of them is that just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. It’s sort of a riff of what we all heard in high school: “If all your friends were jumping off a cliff, would you do it as well?” The problem is that sometimes my answer was a resounding “yes”! That never went over so well with the parental units.
I was in a meeting early Monday morning with a couple of folks I highly respect from the church. At one point we were talking about real estate, but really the conversation was about the essence of how we make decisions. Part of what happened in the economic crash in 2008 was the housing market blowing up, if you recall. I remember in July of 1998, being 35 years old and appointed to Baldwin First, and agreeing with the decision of the Trustees to sell the parsonage.
A wise real estate agent in the congregation told me I’d do better building a house in a newly developing area than trying to purchase a historic house that would most likely require renovation and ongoing costs for delayed maintenance. So I went to a mortgage lending company and they approved me for $350,000 to build a new house. WAHOOOOO! I had great credit, not much debt, and I’d just started my first stint as a lead pastor of a church. I know, right?! I was all that AND a bag of chips (didn’t know about Chester Cheesecorn yet, *snort*). A Senior Pastor AND a $350,000 brand new house at 35? Life couldn’t get much better. Now be aware, my salary was about 10% of that mortgage qualifying total. It was plenty for me to live on in the community, pay my bills, and hit a McDonald’s drive-thru now and again so I was fine. BUT IT WAS NOT ENOUGH TO BUILD A $350,000 HOUSE with the accompanying mortgage! I’m no rocket surgeon or brain scientist *snort*, but even I knew I had no business with that size of mortgage or house – but how tempting, right? Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.
Why didn’t I just go for it? Why didn’t I just figure that I could find a way to pay a mortgage and look at it as an investment in my future, you know, a calculated risk? Probably because I’d made smaller and more survivable mistakes up to that point. While in seminary with little to no money, I walked into a fitness club with no intention of joining, was told they had a “new member special” happening only for that hour on that day, and that for $900 I could get an 18-month membership which was a 20% saving but only right then. Yup, I signed the contract, gave them the credit card my dad had given me to use for “emergencies” (not working out was a terrible emergency for me in that moment) and then later had to call my dad and try to explain my decision. We worked through it, and there were consequences… but I never forgot it. Just because we can, doesn’t always mean we should.
So sometimes I wonder if we try to shield our kids from learning those lessons because we know the learning is going to cause them some pain. One of the things I often say at weddings is that the people gathered behind the couple at the wedding, most particularly on those first few rows, would like to put the couple in a hermetically sealed bubble-wrapped box to make sure that they stay as happy as they are in that moment for the rest of their lives. But that those of us who’ve lived a few more years know we can’t do that, nor would it be fair if we tried. Relationships grow stronger not only through moments of unabated joy but also through times of deep struggle. Are we willing to let those around us that we love more than anything struggle in order to find their way, their strength, and a clarity of thought that comes from mistakes as well as success? Just because we can protect our kids from some of life’s mistakes, doesn’t always mean we should.
I have a friend who says that the horrible “F” word that is forbidden to be said in our society is failure. And that we would do well to help our kids and one another understand that failure is NOT the opposite of excellence; that we can strive for excellence – not perfection – and understand that sometimes failure is actually a part of reaching it because of what we learn along the way, maybe like, just because we can, doesn’t always mean we should.
So just because we can intimidate someone with less understanding, less ability, less opportunity, less physical strength, doesn’t mean we should. Just because we can buy or build something bigger, better, and shinier doesn’t mean we should. Just because we can qualify for a mortgage too large for our income and allow it to feed our ego, doesn’t mean we should. Just because we can walk in privilege because of our racial or ethnic background, our education level, our gender, our age, doesn’t mean we should. Just because we can exploit the earth’s natural resources for our own comfort and personal gain, doesn’t mean we should.
In this season of graduations and honors and awards ceremonies and concerts and assemblies and rites of passage that move us from one chapter of life to another, maybe we work at communicating a message to one another and our kids that failure is a part of life’s journey and what they learn from it can help build a kinder and more compassionate life. Maybe we more intentionally look at what is most important to us and decide to use our resources more toward what we value than how we believe the world judges us. Maybe we decide NOT to step in to help or save our kids every time they make a questionable decision BUT STILL, in the midst of facing hard consequences, let them know our support will never leave them while they make their way.
Brene’ Brown is a favorite author for many of us on staff, and the short segment she has with Oprah below from a “SuperSoul Sunday” conversation helps illustrate what we learn from owning up to the hard lessons of life.