Falling and Recovering
By JIM NICHOLS
The two-lane highway through the Indiana countryside is bounded by trees just beginning to show leaves of autumn color. A few even blow across the road with the modest breeze. As the camera moves down the road, it focuses on single boys behind farmhouses—each boy is shooting a basketball. With the metal hoops and wooden backboards, no soundtrack of bouncing balls is necessary; one knows the sound.
It is the opening scene of the movie “Hoosiers.”
If you love the Midwest and love basketball, chances are you love “Hoosiers.” As I type this, I am playing the academy award-winning music score through my head; I will bet you are too.
Set in 1951 in the fictional town of Hickory, Indiana, the movie is a classic “underdog wins out” story. It is the type of story in which the viewer knows how it will end, but we watch with anticipation anyway as the characters weave their way around the basketball court and through one another’s lives.
This nearly perfect opening scene sets the baseline for the growth and development of a ragtag team (and small town) to the ultimate state championship defeat of the large, big city team.
Watching the movie again recently, I noticed the bookends of the movie. The country highway is the front bookend; the climax on the basketball court in Indianapolis at the end of the game is the back bookend.
The opening scene is obvious, but the closing scene is mixed. Because we are rooting for Hickory, when Jimmy Chitwood hits the buzzer-beating last shot, we cheer with the Hickory fans. The camera does not show only the victorious cheering, however; it pauses several times showing the defeated players from the other team sitting and lying on the court. Their coaches are smiling bravely as they come to encourage their players even in loss. The players cannot hide their anguish because, they too, have practiced all season for this night. Defeat hurts.
You and I have both lost games. We have not passed tests. We have failed at jobs and lost opportunities. When I was a teenager, I was playing from memory at a private house piano recital and I completely forgot my piece; fortunately, the attendees were in one room and the piano and I were in another room out of sight. They did not see me put my head down on the piano and think about how to get past that moment. I can still feel the wood from the music stand pressing on my forehead.
Despite our losses, however, we are each functioning adults today. One might suggest that our failures contributed to our growth and development. As difficult as it was, we have learned that failure is not the final word. That is a difficult, but unavoidable, lesson.
On a larger scale, the just concluded Winter Olympics reminded me that highly skilled and polished athletes fall sometimes. Looking into their individual pasts, one cannot help but sense how many times each has fallen during practice. I have wondered what other skaters or skiers feel when they see someone else fall. “Wow, I have fallen like that many times and it hurts your body and your spirit.” We fail to sense how much falling has occurred in the past for each of them and how they have worked to recover.
Although it seems amplified with athletic competition, the fact is that each of us fails routinely; we make errors even after much practice. We hope that others do not see our errors as clearly as we do.
Falling does not necessarily indicate a lack of skill or practice. Falling does, however, remind us of our vulnerability. In our better spiritual moments, we recognize our dependence on God. A good part of the rest of our lives, however, we are embedded in an individualism that sets us up for disappointment.
There is some spiritual discipline involved in failing and falling. Since they occur so routinely, we can learn to forgive ourselves and practice forgiving others. As followers of God, we live lives that we know have expectations of us that we will never be able to fulfill; we live in a constant state of forgiveness and love. We need consistent admission of our vulnerability; losses in life sharpen us in this spiritual discipline.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current hospice chaplain