I have rarely thought of myself as being what doctors refer to as “strong.” While I was in Cadets, a friend of mine was working on his Weightlifting Badge. His dad was one of the counselors, so he had just about every badge there was–So many badges that he was running out of shirt–THAT sort of kid (we all suspected some impropriety was involved with his heroic badge acquisition). I went over to his house and his dad was spotting him as he and his little brother (I think we were in fifth grade and his little brother was in third) were bench pressing on their bench in their basement. His little brother had just benched some amount, and they all insisted that I give it a try. I had never lifted weights before, but I laid back, pushed the bar off the uprights, brought it down to my chest, and pushed up with all my might…. Despite my unmanly grunting, the bar stayed right on my chest (Though, in my defense, if I remember correctly, roughly 70% of my brain was focused on not crapping my pants). The dad laughed and made a comment about how the younger brother was two years younger than me, but could lift more. Granted, the laugh was probably out of pride for his son, but I remember thinking “I don’t have a dad around to lift weights with me, you asshole.” I didn’t try to bench press again for a few years after that.
When I did try again, it sure wasn’t going to be in front of people–a few years later, I asked for a bench for Christmas and got it. That same Christmas, my sister got me a smorgasbord of my favorite things. It contained: Movie-theater-sized boxes of Jujyfruits, Jujubees, Dots, Redhot Dollars, and some sort of black licorice candy. In addition, there was a giant jar of Clausen Dill Pickles, and tub of beef Jerky, and a box of Chicken In A Biskit crackers for good measure. Being a teen-ager at the time, I had very little self-restraint. I started shoving things into my mouth like some sort of ravenous duck–attempting to chew, but not letting unchewed food slow me down. When I started to put together the bench, I think all that was left were still a couple pickles left…. A COUPLE.
I was sitting on the ground about ten feet from the box that the bench came in when my stomach said, “No…. This is not okay.” I remember thinking, “Hmm….” at the sound inside me, and a moment later it was as if someone turned on a rainbow firehose. I had just enough time to point my face at the box across the room, and luckily, the force of my Christmas gluttony carried my retch the full ten feet–not a drop (or a Dot) got on the carpeting. As I carried my Box of Vomit (an awesome name for a band, by the way) out to the side of the road to freeze and be picked up by the trash guys the next day, I marveled at the size of the bites of pickle, the whole Chicken In A Biskit crackers, and the seemingly untouched Redhot Dollars–whose date I could still read. Needless to say, between the trauma of my grade school shame and the trauma of that Christmas night, I never did get those really cool bench press muscles that I always wanted.
When our muscles grow, they are actually responding to stress. When we work out (and, just to be clear, when I say “we” I mean “human beings other than myself”), we are actually injuring the muscles we are working. There are all these little micro-tears in the muscle that need to be repaired. As the muscles heal, the repairs leave the muscle stronger than it was before the injuries. Our hearts are muscles….
A friend of mine recently just got his heart ripped out–Not literally, though I know from experience that when love rips your heart out, it can feel very literal. I have had my heart broken more than once–From elementary school, through middle and high school, all the way to college and beyond–and every single time, that injury to my heart has made The Muscle of My Love (the first single from the band Box of Vomit) that much stronger. I think that, in a lot of ways, you’re not really a whole person until you’ve gotten your heart truly broken. Though, it’s hard to hear this truth when you’re sitting in the middle of the misery that is heartbreak.
As I was talking to my friend about his broken heart, I tried to think of something I could say that would help him in some small way. I just had another birthday, and here I am–teetering on the edge of mid-thirties and LATE-thirties…. What can I say to this guy, who I’ve got more than 10 years on, to make him realize that this pain he’s feeling is growth? As I think back on the times in my life that I’ve thought “This is as bad as it gets,” I look at those places right now (with the gift of hindsight) and think, “That is absolutely the best thing that could have happened to me at that point in my life.” The memories of the true struggles of our past are the Ebenezers (Look it up) of our lives. They are the hard workouts that build the muscles of our character and our ability to love.
I can’t imagine what a mess my life would be if I had gotten everything I thought I wanted, but I’m certain I would be miserable. Those times when things don’t go the way that we thought they should…. It’s THOSE times that point us, sometimes against our will, into our destiny. And it may not look like it to everyone–my car is a piece of crap, I have two jobs, our house is small and usually dirty, and I often worry about money–but really–I have everything (not to brag, but whatever….). My kids are crazy sometimes, but they are beyond awesome. And all those broken hearts that I thought were the end of love, they were all just small tears in my heart that prepared me to be strong enough to love the coolest girl I’ve even known: My wife. She challenges me to be a better man, she listens to me even when she already knows what I’m going to say, and she puts up with me figuring it out as I go along…. She is strong and she is tender, she is sarcastic and she is kind, she is stubborn and she is giving. She is one of the most creative people I have ever met, and to top it all off, she is probably funnier than me (probably). I love her, and I love every struggle and every joy that she brings me. And I am SO thankful that at those times growing up when I didn’t know what I needed, I didn’t get what I wanted.