I knew Mike because I was close to his family while he was growing up. I remember sitting with his father at one of his 8th grade basketball games. Mike was new to basketball, but he’d had a growth spirt. So, the coach recruited him for his height. Height was the good news; lack of experience and skill was the bad news.
Mike wasn’t a starter, but he came off the bench as the game progressed. It was obvious that he was extremely self-conscious. As I watched, it seemed that he was preoccupied with the fear of making a mistake and being embarrassed.
My memory of Mike came back to me as I – quite slowly – came to realize how much I need to get out of my own way. Like Mike, all too often I am afraid of making a mistake and preoccupied by how others view me. That inner anxiety and fear give rise to behavior that is clearly ego-centric – leading me to be too cautious and self-protective. As a result, I waste precious energy on impression management and pleasing others.
In contrast to the self-consciousness that inhibited Mike and often holds me back, I was struck by the freedom of a priest friend of mine – Bill Fitzgerald. He was 15 years my senior but had the vitality and energy of a man years younger. Somewhat in awe of this contrast, one day I asked him about his abundant energy. Fr. Fitz’s response surprised me:
As a priest, I’m a very public person; everyone has an idea of how I should behave. A long time ago, I realized there was no way to please everyone. When I came to that realization, I decided to quit looking over my shoulder to see what other people thought. Once I let go of that, it freed up a lot of energy that I can devote to serving others.
Fr. Fitz had learned to get out of his own way, and the gift of that was the freedom and vital energy he devoted to service.
My experiences with Mike and Fr. Fitz have helped me develop a self-diagnosis: to the extent that I am anxious and fearful, I am also ego-centric. That ego-centric focus on my own behavior causes me to be self-protective, to sidestep difficult situations, to avoid what is awkward and uncomfortable. Over time, it causes me to isolate myself within my comfort zone – resisting the courage and stretch required to challenge myself and reach out to others. As a result, the “world” of my comfort zone gradually becomes smaller and smaller. As it does, my freedom is restricted, the vital energy within me atrophies, and my spirit begins to stagnate. Slowly, without even noticing it, I become less engaged and vital, more self-protective and fearful, and the cycle reinforces itself. As my friend Daryl used to say: “A rut is a grave with the ends kicked out.”
It doesn’t have to be that way. I am also aware of times when I’ve been able to get out of my own way. It’s happened when I’ve experienced the spontaneity of not looking over my shoulder, when I’ve risked extending myself to others, and when doing so has led to a powerful new way of connecting and relating.
I once surprised myself at the opening of a retreat I was conducting for a group of ministers that I didn’t know. Without thinking about it in advance, I asked them – when they introduced themselves – to articulate a question that brought them to this moment in their lives. The response was amazing. The ministers revealed something significant about their life journeys, and the group bonded in a powerful way. My spontaneous instinct to ask an unplanned question transformed a perfunctory five-minute exercise into a forty-minute faith-sharing dialogue.
Perhaps each of us has experienced a moment like that – a time when we are in the zone, free and spontaneous, allowing spirit and energy to flow through us. It may not yet be a constant practice or a way of life like it became for Fr. Fitz, but we’ve tasted it. Perhaps we’ve experienced enough of it to appreciate what a gift it is, to want more of it, and to be willing to try to get out of our own way.
Perhaps the heart – quite literally – of discipleship and the secret of self-emptying love is simply learning to get out of our own way, to leave our ego-centric anxiety and fear behind, to connect with the love of God, and to allow that love to flow through us. The psychiatrist and theologian Gerald May once put it simply: “Quit trying to fix yourself and start living.”
As we begin to grasp Fr. Fitz’s secret, we become less preoccupied with looking over our shoulder. When we take Gerald May’s advice, we start getting out of our own way. As we do so, our self-consciousness gives way to self-emptying, and the love of God flows through us unabated. The more we open ourselves to that flow, the more fully we are empowered to risk – to reach out without fear, to love without hesitation, and to serve without holding back. That is the Spirit’s energy of love and service, the river of love within us that we need to let flow . . .
Questions to Ponder
As you reflect on the contrast between Fr. Fitz’s freedom and my self-consciousness:
- What experiences have you had of needing to get out of your own way – of looking over your shoulder, being self-conscious or having fear hold you back?
- In what ways have you experienced being “in the flow” – allowing spirit and energy to pulse through you?
- What opportunity do you have – today! – to “quit trying to fix yourself and start living?”