As Weak

By

In the afterglow of Hutchmoot 2018’s dizzying cascade of several dozens of wonderful and meaningful conversations, I can no longer remember who requested copies of the poem I read during Rebecca Reynolds’ and my tag team session on “the holy, hidden potential of human weakness.”

Hence the posting of it here. Beyond that fulfillment of forgotten verbal obligations, though—because we as a community tend to skew heavily on the introvert scale and also because I suspect that even the beloved extroverts among us struggle with the same foundational insecurities—I would like to offer the piece to the wider Rabbit Room community.

It’s a poem I wrote some sixty hours before my Hutchmoot session. At the time I was harried and discouraged in my attempts to pare a 12,000 word outline down to a manageable 4,000 words. (Spoiler Alert: I failed.) Scanning my eighteen pages of ten-point font notes, I felt a vague and growing unease. Trying to divine my own disquiet I realized, “Okay, these notes do contain some interesting and valuable observations, but I’m mostly only offering abstract ideas about weakness. Is there some way to move this presentation beyond the abstract such that it might actually give someone something to hang onto?”

Yes, I could have just rested in the knowledge that when Rebecca Reynolds began her portion of the session everyone in the room would immediately feel connected and welcomed into that warm, encouraging aura she magically projects in a roughly forty-foot radius around her person. But it seemed irresponsible on my part to ask attendees to suffer through the first half of the session without any rungs yet affixed to the ladder we were asking them to climb.

I couldn’t see that I was offering—in my notes as they then were—any point of connection that might “incarnate” these important ideas and make them more immediate than abstract. As I was stewing on the matter I did what any of us do when faced with frustration. I checked Facebook.

And there I happened to read Helena Sorensen’s post asking the Rabbit Room community whether they were more discouraged or inspired by personal tales of struggles and failures. I skimmed the response thread and I was like: Oh. Yeah. That. Hmm.

So I just sat for a few minutes, long enough for all the fears and insecurities swirling chaotically just outside the edges of my vision to catch up to me and begin to announce themselves. And then I started typing, trying to document that sideshow parade of insecurities as they marched up the main street of my imagination.

Because the truth is, being asked to speak in front of a group of well-read, thoughtful, sensitive people—who have gathered because they think I might have something to say that’s worth their time to hear—pushes the buttons for almost every one of the fifty-eight floors accessed by my elevator of paralyzing insecurities.

Writing this mostly stream-of-consciousness poem was beneficial though, as the process of driving those insecurities into the open and naming them had a settling effect that allowed me afterward to move forward with more focus in the preparation process. (I didn’t shave the notes down to 4,000 words, but I did cut them to about 6,500. The rest of the editing had to happen at the podium. Apologies to those present, for any rather abrupt transitions.) Based on feedback from several of the gracious attendees, I think the poem did also do some valuable work to bridge that gap between the abstract idea and the personal experience.

If there’s a practical takeaway here for content creators, it might be that the sense of pressure and stress we feel in such moments of preparation and editing might actually be a friendly voice, warning us that we’re trying to position ourselves as an expert on a particular topic, when what might best serve community is not so much a “voice of authority” speaking from above, but the voice of a fellow pilgrim speaking to us just from the bottom of the next gulley, or from the far bank of the ravine we’re only just now descending into.

—Doug

 

Shadows circle like crows over my shoulder,
and as I get older
I feel those wingbeats
colder
and I can give them names; names
that escaped me
in my younger days:

Fear of failure.
Fear of loss.
Fear for my children.
Fear that the cost
of ever finishing another book, or story or poem
is more than I can pay.

Fear that life from here will fray,
growing harder and more confusing.
Fear that what’s to come
is mostly losing
what I’ve had and
learning what it means to hurt and how
to come to terms
with everything I cannot save.

Fear that the sometimes tremor in my hand
which began
about a year ago
as I wrote
the close-
ing pieces for a book of liturgies
means that something really might be
wrong with me.

Fear of finding out
that something might be wrong with me.
Fear of letting people see
what might be wrong with me.
Fear that somehow
God is done with me;
fear that in the years to come
my lot will be
that of a sailor
lost in aimless seas.

Fear that all my old regrets
might finally catch up to me.

Fear that I stand here
in front of you presumptively
with nothing to say;
that my meagre offerings will not be met
by anything greater than the voices
in my own head
and I will be left
to dangle
disconnected
from anything but the cringe-inducing echoes
of things I’ll wish I’d never said…

So add
to my growing, crowing, list of dread:
fear of exposure, fear of shame.
Fear of being named
and criticized.
Fear of how I look
in anybody’s eyes,
including yours,

including mine.

Fear of endlessly learning the same
lessons I already learned
as a kid
when I was burned so many times
by wanting so much to fit in
that it hurt. It hurt,
and then
overextending my hopes again
and feeling those rope burns
on the skin of my palms
as the thing I so yearned for
was yanked out of my grasping hands.

Fear of what I do not understand:
I do not understand
what to say, or how to stand,
or what in creation
I’m ever supposed to do
in public
with my hands,
or how to not come off
as too absurd, so add
fear of being seen as awkward,
which is to say
fear of being seen as I am because
I am awkward.

(I am as awkward
in my attempts to fit in or be loved
as the wobble of a
wooden-legged duck
pursued through a mile of mud
by a redneck kid
in a pickup truck.)

Fear of inadequacy.
Fear of trying to just relate
because the basic mechanics of human interaction was
a language I came to too late
and somehow failed to learn to imitate
believably. And I never wanted to be the fool.
I never wanted to be uncool,

but I was always uncool. On my death certificate
the coroner will doubtless rule: Cause of death:
He was so, so very
terminally uncool. And when
my daughters come
to identify my body, they will shake their heads
and say, “We thought he
would eventually outgrow
this awkward stage. How
could we know he would only wax
more uncool with age? His sucking need
for affirmations he could not let himself receive
was so pathetic. Let us hope,
oh, let us hope,
it’s not genetic.”

So diagnose my clumsy self protection
as a symptom of
this constant fear of rejection,
paralyzed by possibilities
and presuppositions
of pending hostilities that
might at any time be unmasked
and directed at me.

And in that crown
of utter instability
set these stones of other fears
and ring them round:
Fear that anytime I speak
or do not speak
or cross the street
or wait too long to cross the street
or sit across from someone
else and lift my fork to eat,

I’m being judged, and
run the risk of being seen as I am
which is to say—

of being seen as weak.

 

 

—©2018 Douglas Kaine McKelvey

Doug participated in the early work of Charlie Peacock’s Art House Foundation, an organization dedicated to a shared exploration of faith and the arts. In the decades since, he has worked as an author, song lyricist, scriptwriter, and video director. He has penned more than 350 lyrics recorded by a variety of artists including Switchfoot, Kenny Rogers, Sanctus Real, and Jason Gray. His newest book is Every Moment Holy (Rabbit Room Press). His other works include The Angel Knew Papa and the Dog (illustrated by Zach Franzen), The Wishes of the Fish King (illustrated by Jamin Still), Subjects with Objects (with Jonathan Richter), and Stories We Shared: A Family Book Journal (with Jamin Still).


10 Comments

  1. James D. Witmer

    Doug, this is so amazingly cool you could keep a side of meat in it for a month. Thank you for sharing it with all of us.

  2. Ella Horn

    I want to meet that sailor lost in aimless sea. I want to search his memory.
    I will ask one question first: if he remembers the once and only time his daughter saw him cry. After church, in the car,
    he wept for the oppression of the Nuba, the persecution of a people, hunted and torn apart, for years enduring the bombardment
    of bombs and janjaweed.
    I want to ask this sailor, as he searches for some light at sea, does he know how those tears watered his daughter’s soul?
    I will ask another question, too: did he ever see the roots of his character take hold in his daughter’s perception of the world? When I learned men can be cruel and thoughtless, did I ever tell him my assurance came in watching him? He was caring, a protector, an honest and empowering father.
    A faithful steward, a steady husband to my mother.
    On and on, I could prod his recollection. Most desperately I will ask this sailor, searching for direction in the wind: Does he know his daughter would be dead without him?
    Does he know that the breath I take in every day I would not take had he not prayed the prayers he prayed for me?
    When I fell on the edge between the living and the dead, this voice, this stature, this being
    was my advocate, championing my life against my death.
    My sweet, wise, humble, noble, faithful father.
    Lost in aimless sea, my silly dad. As if the good that’s come through you could be undone!
    As if the richening and the deepening and the foundational changing of not only a few lives could be forgotten.

    I love this poem. I’ll read it again and again,
    but only if you permit me to interject, once in every while, and ask that lost and silly sailor a question.

  3. Helena Sorensen

    @helena

    “If there’s a practical takeaway here for content creators, it might be that the sense of pressure and stress we feel in such moments of preparation and editing might actually be a friendly voice, warning us that we’re trying to position ourselves as an expert on a particular topic, when what might best serve community is not so much a “voice of authority” speaking from above, but the voice of a fellow pilgrim speaking to us just from the bottom of the next gulley, or from the far bank of the ravine we’re only just now descending into.”

    Yes. So beautiful. Also, it’s a single sentence paragraph. You win.

  4. Micah

    Doug, you have managed to elicit an astounding quantity of laughter, tears, and admiration from me in an alarmingly short window of time. I half wonder if I should call my medical provider to see if some internal organ has burst.

    Thanks for sharing this at Hutchmoot, and again now. <3

  5. Matthew Cyr

    @matthewcyr

    This reminds me of a previous year’s Hutchmoot session, in which a singer/songwriter (Andy Osenga maybe?) talked about an interaction in which Stephen Curtis Chapman or Michael W. Smith (I know, I’m failing on the details) was expressing insecurity because he had sold out the same venue the year before, but not this time. And what maybe-Osenga took away from this was the realization that no matter what peaks you reach in your arena, that feeling is still there – that there is no amount of success or accolades that quenches those nagging doubts for good.

    It’s a little reassuring and a little daunting. Reassuring because even Doug McKelvey, as cool and talented a human as I’m aware of, is having to wrestle with this too. And daunting, because even Doug McKelvey is having to wrestle with this. If the guy who brought us “The Places Beyond the Maps” and Every Moment Holy is still having to push on against a battering wind of doubts that he has anything to say worth hearing, and fears of being seen as awkward and weak, then I know that this really is a lifelong struggle.

  6. Jeanine

    Wishing I could have cloned myself and been in your session! This poem resonated with me deeply. I teared up, laughed, then sniffled again as I nodded my head with a resounding yes. Thank you for sharing this with us. It is incredible to read something that so perfectly describes my own inner battles.

  7. Jamie Howard

    Thank you for sharing this. I cried because it hurt to see my fears named, but I’m very grateful to see I’m not alone and to learn from what you said in this post.

  8. gllen

    Thanks Douglas,
    Like other readers, I too identify with so much in your poem.
    Here’s a response I wrote in my journal, thinking this dynamic through a bit.
    “I’ve been reading, watching, listening to, the stories of other people’s lives for a long, long time now – for years and years. Because I’ve wanted to learn, somehow, how to do life in the right, the proper, way. Free from mistakes and obvious blunders, free from misunderstandings, irregularities, gaffs. Free from leeching puddles of weakness.
    I don’t want to be a misfit. But sometimes, that does indeed seem to be my lot.
    Who will save me from my inadequacy?
    Who will settle me fast inside my own skin?
    Who can heal what is lost and lacking within me?
    (Lord Jesus, I call to you…)”

    Here’s a prayer I read last week that touched those tender parts of me…
    “My prayers, my God, flow from what I am not;
    I think thy answers make me what I am.
    Like weary waves thought follows upon thought,
    But the still depth beneath is all thine own,
    And there thou mov’st in paths to us unknown.
    Out of strange strife thy peace is strangely wrought;
    If the lion in us pray – thou answerest the lamb.”
    (George MacDonald)

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