Even when we wish someone would change, too often our perception of that person can actually be part of what prevents them from changing. A couple days ago, I had a fantastic time playing ultimate Frisbee with some awesome new friends. As we played, I had a series of flashbacks to the first ultimate Frisbee game I ever played, including a flashback to the moment when I first recognized a certain obstacle in my life, an obstacle which I personally refer to as the “Frisbee Factor.”
In this flashback, my missionary companion and I were playing ultimate Frisbee with about twenty or thirty other missionaries (it was a zone activity on our Preparation Day). Believe it or not, I had never really played Frisbee growing up, and soon after the game started I suddenly realized that I had never been taught how to throw and catch a Frisbee properly. When the other missionaries threw the Frisbee to me, it always slipped through my fingers. And when I tried to throw the Frisbee, it went in the opposite direction than what I wanted. Pretty early in the game, the other missionaries on my team figured out they couldn’t trust me with the Frisbee, so they threw it to me less and less. (They were a rather athletic and competitive group.)
Half way through the game, there was a brief period when two or three young men became uncharacteristically generous in their efforts to throw it to me. Once, after I had yet another epic failure at catching the Frisbee, I overheard the young man who had thrown it to me mutter to my companion, “Well, I tried.” That’s when I figured out my companion had personally pulled a couple guys aside and asked them to remember to throw it to me more, so they were doing it as a personal favor to her. When I realized that I was being pitied and singled out, I felt embarrassed, which didn’t help my performance. To avoid further embarrassment, and to avoid being a hindrance to my team, I stopped trying to get open. Once, when the Frisbee was thrown to me, I even pretended not to notice it, because I knew I wouldn’t be able to catch it anyway.
As we drove home, I was furious with myself for not trying my best and for letting fear overtake me. Surely it was within my power to change and improve. I talked to my companion and asked if she could tutor me during our morning exercise sessions. So the next day she patiently walked me through how to hold, throw, and catch a Frisbee just right. Every morning for the next two weeks she and I ran up and down the street in front of our house throwing a Frisbee back and forth. I was filled with joy because I could feel that I was becoming so much better!
After two weeks, it was announced that we would play ultimate Frisbee for a zone activity again! You can imagine how excited I was to redeem myself and show off how much I had improved. When the game began, I ran with all my might, waving my arms and calling out people’s names, and I tried to be as open as possible. My confidence soared! But . . . no one threw it to me. I was perplexed until suddenly I realized that the reason no one was throwing to me was because they remembered how bad I had been two weeks before! They didn’t trust me. I had changed, but what good did that do me if no one knew I had changed?
The longer the game went on, the more deflated I became. During the whole game, there was only one time that someone threw it to me. This happened towards the end of the game, and by this time I was exhausted and had given up hope that anyone would ever throw to me, and so when it actually did happen I was caught off guard and wasn’t ready for it, and I dropped it. “Wow,” I thought, “I’m just as bad as I was before, if not worse. You can’t even tell I improved at all!” When we drove home, I felt even more dejected than I had two weeks before.
Now, I have to mention that I don’t have any grudge against those other missionaries, and I don’t blame them in the slightest. After all, the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results. So in order for those missionaries to throw the frisbee to me again and expect me to catch it, they would have had to be insane! Besides, since they didn’t know how hard I had been working to change, and since they had probably seen the embarrassment on my face the week before, those missionaries probably thought they were doing me a favor by not exposing my weakness further.
I might not have thought much about this Frisbee incident were it not for a parallel phenomenon happening between my companion and me at around this same time. When I had first been placed with this companion, she had naturally assumed that I would do an equal amount of talking during the lessons that she and I taught people together. But I was having confidence issues at that time, and I struggled to know what to say (see my post about Analysis Paralysis). So when it was my turn to talk, I hesitated, and my companion had to just keep going and take over in order to avoid an awkward pause. Well, one day I made up my mind that I was done with being timid and I was going to step up and contribute more to the lessons. I was determined not to let my companion down again.
However, by this time, my companion was so used to me not talking that she was no longer giving me cues for when it was my turn to talk. “No problem,” I thought, “I’ll just be more assertive and jump in without waiting for a cue.” But even when I succeeded in “jumping in,” I could only get out a few words before, to my surprise, my companion interrupted me and took control over the lesson again as quickly as possible, as if she feared I was about to ruin everything.
I finally complained to my companion one day, “I know in the past you’ve wanted me to contribute more to lessons, but now it seems like you’re not letting me in. I feel like you don’t trust me!”
“You’re right,” she said bluntly, “I don’t trust you. But it’s because I can tell you don’t trust yourself.”
I stared back at her, speechless. As her words sank in, I thought, “This is just like the Frisbee. Taking turns in the lesson is like throwing a Frisbee back and forth. She doesn’t know I’ve changed. But since she doesn’t throw me the Frisbee, there is no way for me to show her I’ve changed.” No matter how much I wanted to change, it wasn’t going to do me any good as long as I still looked the same in my companion’s eyes. I wanted to scream, “Okay, so I didn’t trust myself before, but I trust myself now! Or, at least . . . I thought I did. But now that I feel your distrust, I’m no longer so sure . . .”
I realized we were in a downward spiral. The less she trusted me, the less I trusted myself. And the less I trusted myself, the less she trusted me. In order to break the cycle, either I needed to trust myself more than she trusted me, or else she needed to trust me more than I trusted myself. But being human, neither of us were able to do that at that time. It’s against human nature to trust someone before they’ve “earned” that trust.
(Again, I have to emphasis that I have always loved and respected my companion tremendously. I’m not trying to imply anything negative about her, I’m just using this story to teach a point. In her place, I’d have probably done the same thing.)
In several of my previous posts, I’ve talked about the process of change and what it takes to find the motivation to change, make the decision to change, and truly believe you can change. That inner battle with your own self is often the hardest part. But then, after all that work to take that first step and to convince yourself to change, there is still another challenge that might be even harder: overcoming the unconscious resistance of everyone around you. Notice I said unconscious resistance. That’s what’s unique about the “Frisbee Factor.” Intentional opposition, like peer pressure or persecution, is an entirely different issue. With the “Frisbee Factor,” the ironic thing is that we can experience invisible and suffocating opposition from the very same people who actually want us to change!
In the days following my confrontation with that companion, I looked back over my life and saw for the first time how the Frisbee Factor had been a reoccurring theme. Like the first time my mom had trusted me with the responsibility of making a batch of chocolate chip cookies all by myself. I made a simple mistake with one of the ingredients and ended up ruining the batch. My mom said, “Well, it looks like you’re not ready to make cookies after all, so I won’t let you make them again for a while.” I wanted to scream in protest, “But I AM ready to make them again! I could make them right now and do it perfectly because I woudn’t make the same mistake twice!” Never the less, my mom’s opinion became embedded in my mind, and I grew up with the subconscious belief that I was an incompetent cook.
Since my mission, I’ve become aware that I’m not the only one who struggles against the Frisbee Factor. In Elder Holland’s talk “Remember Lot’s Wife,” he shares the following story:
“I was told once of a young man who for many years was more or less the brunt of every joke in his school. He had some disadvantages, and it was easy for his peers to tease him. Later in his life he moved away from his community. He eventually joined the army and had some successful experiences there in getting an education and generally stepping away from his past. Above all, as many in the military do, he discovered the beauty and majesty of the Church and became very active and happy in it.
“Then, after several years, he came back to the town of his youth. Most of his generation had moved on, but not all. Apparently when he returned quite successful and quite reborn, the same old mind-set that had existed before was still there, waiting for his return. To the people in his hometown he was still just old “so and so”—you remember the guy who had the problem, that idiosyncrasy, this quirky nature, and did such and such and such and such. And wasn’t it all just hilarious?
“Well, you know what happened. Little by little this man’s Pauline effort to leave that which was behind and grasp the prize that God had laid before him was gradually diminished until he died about the way he had lived in his youth. He came full circle: again, inactive and unhappy and the brunt of a new generation of jokes. Yet he had had that one bright, beautiful midlife moment when he had been able to rise above his past and truly see who he was and what he could become. Too bad, too sad, that he was again to be surrounded by a whole batch of Lot’s wives, those who thought his past was more interesting than his future. Yes, they managed to rip out of his grasp that for which Christ had grasped him. And he died even more sadly than Miniver Cheevy, though as far as I know the story, through absolutely no fault of his own.”- Jeffrey R. Holland “Remember Lot’s Wife,” BYU Speeches, January 2009
As you may have noticed, the title of this post is “The Frisbee Factor part one.” The purpose of “part one” is to introduce the problem and get you thinking about it. In part two, which I will hopefully write next week, I will share several solutions I’ve found to combat the dilemma created by the Frisbee Factor. I’m sure there are more solutions out there than the ones I’ve come up with, so I’d love to receive comments and feedback before my next post so that we can unite our efforts to get to the bottom of this mystery together.
There are two main questions which must be equally addressed:
- When you yourself are the one trying to change, how do you keep the Frisbee Factor (the unconscious and habitual resistance of close associates) from getting to you?
- When your friends and loved ones are the ones who are trying to change, how can you be more aware of it and make sure YOU aren’t the one unconsciously resisting them?
This second question may be even more difficult to answer than the first question. I’m probably guilty of the problem in the second question every single day of my life without knowing it. It takes a very special person to believe in others more than they believe in themselves and to trust in others before they’ve fully proved themselves. I’m working towards developing that kind of character, and I have a long way to go. The first step is to have an increased awareness. So, if you’re someone who feels that I don’t throw you the Frisbee, please let me know.