Do you remember learning to ride a bike? The pedal kind, not the vroom-vroom kind. Was it gradual? Did you go from a tricycle, to training wheels, to mom or dad running beside you when you took the training wheels off? Did you move from a no-speed where you pushed the pedals backwards to stop, to a 10-speed, to an 18-speed or higher with curled handlebars and hand-brakes? Did you go from riding in the driveway or cul-de-sac, to riding to school, to signing up for and accomplishing an MS-150?
I didn’t learn how to ride a bike until I was in the 1st grade, and I only learned then because I didn’t want to be left behind. This may not surprise you, but there was no particular gradual process. There was a favorite tricycle I rode and rode and rode. But there was no small bike with training wheels and then mom and dad running alongside me as we took the training wheels away. Instead there was simply a day after school when I went to one of my friends’ homes along with three or four other kids and everyone wanted to ride bikes. There had been several kids in the family, all older than my friends and me, so they had enough bikes in the garage for all of us. Everyone picked out a bike, got on and started riding so I just got on one of the bikes that was left, put my feet on the pedals and took off. I remember wondering if I should tell someone that I didn’t know how – but I guess it seemed like a moot point once I did.
That process is probably the way we all learn to do a lot of things. It’s sorta the “I don’t need no stinkin’ instructions” when we have a cabinet or table laid out in front of us with too many pieces to count and the picture on the front of the box of what it’s supposed to look like. That’s all well and good until we get to the end and have a few pieces left-over that look like they might be important to the stability and functionality of the furniture in question. Then we have to decide if we want to tell anyone that we might not have completely known exactly what we were doing. And that’s hard to admit. It requires vulnerability, an admission of imperfection, and pro-active confession that sometimes we think we know more than we really do, and acknowledgment that we may even have a few things left to learn and may need help in the learning.
We are living in a chapter of time where admitting a weakness or a mistake or the knowledge we still have things left to learn is vilified. We are all supposed to already have all the answers, know how to do everything, and be assertive and confident that we have nothing left to be taught or brought to new understanding. If we had stopped our ability at math at the 4th grade – addition, subtraction, multiplication, division – wouldn’t that be enough? Why algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus? Want your house to stay standing in a strong wind? Want your doctor/nurse/pharmacist to have a working knowledge of percentages, fractions, grams and milligrams (re-look at those prescription bottles). If we had stopped our English, reading, and vocabulary at the 4th grade – complete sentences, nouns and verbs, using a dictionary, those interminable spelling tests, beginnings of overall comprehension – wouldn’t that be enough? Why then diagramming sentences, research and term papers, Moby Dick for gosh sakes – “Call me Ishmael” – really??? Who needs to know Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God), Toni Morrison (The Bluest Eye), Alice Walker (The Color Purple), Maya Angelou (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings)? They are black women authors, why would their voices matter in a primarily white privileged and dominated intellectualist society? Mmmmmm, are those offensive and fightin’ words? Or are they a little too true? Might knowing the world we share from a different perspective challenge us in ways that what we learned in the 4th grade didn’t? And who wants their abilities, their already-decided-upon view of the world, challenged to change? I’ve already decided I’m not racist and as long as someone of a different race doesn’t come along and make me feel uncomfortable, I’m perfectly fine with my openness and lack of racism.
Why, friends? Why is humility so difficult? Why is it so hard to imagine that God might have new things for us to learn about old stories? If we didn’t stop our education around math and English at the 4th grade level, why do we expect our understanding of God and our faith development to stop at 3rd grade bible presentation, or 8th grade confirmation, or graduation out of youth group? Do you suppose God has new things for us to learn about God’s creation (the world and each other) maybe even each day? Maybe even from perspectives other than our own? Or are we done with the learning because we have all the answers of faith and because something new might make us uncomfortable?
My elbow is hurting like crazy again. You know I had that miracle shot in May, and I decided that was all I needed. For the first time in as far back as I can remember, it didn’t hurt anymore. Voila! Life is good and the answer to an injury when I was 14 years old was as simple as that. The doctor told me the shot would probably only last a few months – what did he know, anyway? So now I have another appointment in a month. I’ve already decided they will give me another shot and I’ll be good as new again. A doctor friend did remind me that there is some pretty major damage in there and that a shot might not work forever. Ha! I say. Because it doesn’t fit into my schedule to assimilate any other ideas or new information. Therefore, since the answer was a shot before and I lived through it and it stopped hurting, that’s the answer from now on even unto eternity? That seems kind of silly now that I see it in print.
I did start riding a bicycle without much of a learning process. What I didn’t say is that I also went home with my dainty white anklets bloody around the inside of my ankles. Since I didn’t tell anyone I’d never ridden before, and I didn’t ask any questions about any of the intricacies of riding a bike, I didn’t know about the chain and the pedals and having lacy anklets that could get caught on the chain or between the pedal and the frame and it could then dig into your ankles and make them bleed. But hey, a 1st grade girl with bloody white anklets who didn’t cry when it happened looks awfully tough, right?! Until she gets home and starts telling her mom and they peel the anklets off and the injuries seem waaaay worse than they felt when you were riding all cool and collected and fakingly nonchalant with your friends. Then your mom has to convince you that riding a bike again will be okay and that it’s a pretty good deal that you learned how to do it, and that maybe next time you could ask someone some questions and it might be easier. Perhaps a lesson I’ve been working to learn for nigh onto 56 and ¾ years by now. You?