(This week is the 24thinstallment of the book, “The Band Director’s Lessons About Life”, which TCRN is publishing as a series during 2020. This week, band director and spiritual author Donald Lee relates a parable about perseverance. For a complete listing of previous episodes in this series, click here.)
If you’re going through hell, keep going. – (attribution unknown, often misattributed to Winston Churchill)
“Mr. Lee, I want to quit band.”
Those simple words struck terror in my heart. Carl had lost interest in recent weeks and his playing had fallen behind the rest of the grade-seven band class.
“What makes you say that, Carl? What’s happening in your life?” I wanted to understand Carl’s motivation and also buy time while I thought about how to respond.
“I don’t know. It’s not as fun as it used to be. I’m just not getting much out of it.”
“I’ve noticed you’re having trouble remembering the trombone slide positions. We’ve got seven notes to remember now. Are you finding it difficult?”
“Sort of . . .” Carl’s voice trailed off, and he looked at the floor. “I’d rather be in robotics,” he said.
“Robotics does sound like fun, especially for a twelve-year-old boy,” I agreed. “But even if you change into a different course, I’ll think you’ll find both knowledge to remember and skills to practice. Every subject is like that. It’s what learning is all about. You won’t avoid difficulties just by changing to a different course.” I tried to slide into my point gently. Carl fidgeted.
“You started off really well on the trombone,” I said enthusiastically. “You’ve got a good sound, you caught on to using lots of air, and you have a good embouchure. I think there’s a great trombone player inside you.” I gently poked Carl in the chest. “You just have to work a bit to let it out.”
“Tell you what. The school doesn’t let students change courses every time they change their minds. How about I give you a little extra help with those new notes? I think if you get more confident and capable in your playing, you’ll find the music is more fun. That’s how learning works. When we can do something, it’s fun, so we do more of it. Then we get better, and it’s more fun. When we can’t do something, it’s not fun, so we do less of it, and we get worse. Then it’s even less fun. We need to get you back on the ‘more fun’ path. But that’ll take some work from you. How about you come to the band room today at lunchtime? I’ll get out my trombone and we’ll go over those new notes together.”
Sometimes students drop out of band when the going gets tough. At first it’s pretty easy to get a sound on their instruments and play a few notes. But as they learn more notes, things get complicated. It takes perseverance to keep going.
Our natural inclination is to give up when things get tough, to take a step back, both metaphorically and literally. When we give up, we revert to a past level of development instead of forging through the struggle to achieve a higher level of development. This is true whether we’re talking about musical skill, physical strength, interpersonal relations, or moral courage.
If Carl gives up, he’ll go back to the way he was. He couldn’t play the trombone before, and he’ll go back to not being able to play the trombone. But if he stays with the struggle, and works at learning the new skills, he will emerge on the other side of this struggle—or of this “hell,” as we might say—as a new and better person. He will become a musician. And life is all about becoming. You too can become the person you want to be, but it takes perseverance.
Struggle strengthens both skill and character. It’s like a butterfly struggling to escape its cocoon. If we help the butterfly, it doesn’t develop the strength it needs in its wings. It can’t fly and soon dies. Our “help” has killed it. The butterfly’s struggle is an essential part of its development.
So is ours. It’s much harder to see this in ourselves—to see that our struggles, in relationships, in work, everywhere, are really God stepping back and allowing us to learn the character and the skills for ourselves. If we avoid the struggle, we regress instead of progress. We cannot avoid the lessons of life. We can only postpone them and repeat the lessons we haven’t mastered.
Sometimes we need a little prayer to help us through the tough times. Here’s one I’ve always liked. It came originally from early twentieth-century author Edward Everett Hale, but this version adds a bit.
I am only one, but I am one.
I can’t do everything, but I can do something.
That something I can do, I will do.
So when I can run, I will run.
When I can only walk, I will walk.
And when I can but crawl, I will crawl.
But with God’s Grace, I will always go forward.
God’s Grace is with you, so don’t stop. Don’t go back. Go forward through your hell.
Donald Lee is a spiritual author and speaker. This article is part of a weekly series for 2020 in which TCRN is publishing his inspirational book, The Band Director’s Lessons About Life: Volume 1 – 50 Parables on Life’s Performance Cycle, in serial form – one parable per week. You can learn more about the author at his website: www.ComingHomeSpirit.com, or order a copy of his complete book on Amazon, or get his free mini eBook and sign up for his weekly blog. Follow Donald on Facebook.