“What else is on your phone?” asks my nephew Solger. I’d been showing him pictures of the fish we caught earlier in the day, but after about 30 seconds, he’s ready to move on.
He swipes through the screens and lasers in on my handful of games. The first game he clicks doesn’t open. It’s out of date. I start to utter “Sorry, buddy” but he’s on to the next app. This one is called Cut The Rope and he clicks on it saying “I love this game!” One coolness point for this auntie.
It’s a physics-based game with a swinging rope. At the end of rope is a piece of candy. Who wants the candy? Om Nom – the cute, green gobbler hanging out below the rope. The goal of the game is to cut the swinging rope such that the candy falls into Om Nom’s open mouth. As an added bonus, if you get the rope swinging just right, you can knock out stars before dropping the treat.
Solger starts at the beginning: level 1, scenario 1. It’s obvious he has played this game before and I’m impressed with his skills for an 8-year-old, although he’s quick to remind everyone, “I’m technically 9.” His birthday is only days away.
He makes quick progress and is at level 1, scenario 5 in no time at all. But something about his approach to the game begins to agitate me. This is supposed to be happy time spent with my nephew, yet my spirit is annoyed.
Solger doesn’t knock out all the stars in each scenario. Sometimes he gets one star, sometimes two stars, and occasionally all three stars. Yet he never clicks the “Replay” button. He simply cuts the rope, feeds the monster, and moves onward.
“What about those stars?” I ask pointing to the stars that remain while Om Nom swallows the candy.
“Sometimes,” he tells me in his sweet little boy voice, “you gotta skip the stars.”
Move on without getting all the stars?
Who does that?! “Replay” is the button I click most frequently.
I technically have three and half decades of more life experience than Solger and I want to explain to him that you do not skip some of the stars.
At least not if you want to graduate magna cum laude.
You study every physics equation,
every aerodynamics question,
every accounting principle.
If you want the promotion from the junior to senior position,
you double-check every ledger,
review every budgetary line item,
account for every penny.
And when you go to design training courses for your own business,
you agonize over every animation,
stress about every sentence of the script,
sweat through every line of code.
In this moment, I do not remember Brennan Manning’s counsel in Abba’s Child:
“apart from Christ, alleged virtues are but brilliant vices.”
I don’t have time to ponder when doing things virtuously morphed into a vice grip of orchestrating every single thing perfectly.
My jaw tightens as the candy monster licks his lips and Solger cuts each rope. I struggle to keep my mouth shut when what I want to do is to hold his face in my hands, look into his eyes and say, “Listen to your wise (and cool) auntie. In life, you gotta worry about collecting all the stars.”
But can I really testify that doing so has yielded one ounce of long-lasting love, joy, or peace in my life?
He’s about to prove I am not the wise one. At least not tonight.
Within just a couple of minutes he is unlocking level 2 of the game. The game, quite unbelievably to me, is letting him advance.
“Solger,” I say. “I’ve never made it to this level before.” I can’t keep the shock out of my voice.
“You’re welcome,” he replies, as if he’s doing me a favor. As if he intuitively knows the two of us play this game differently.
I play to hit the stars, which only leads me into a discouraging cycle of trying over and over for perfection. He plays to cut the rope—it is after all the only requirement for moving forward in the game—and he ends up discovering something new: level 2.
And level 2 is really fun! The rope is replaced with an air blower and Solger is now blowing out some of the stars before delivering sweets to the same green gobbler.
Before long though, his brother draws him away for the evening’s wrestling match. They both dress up, one as Spiderman, and the other as a mishmash of the hats, cloaks, and masks available in the costume trunk. And then begins the struggle for family room dominance.
The struggle for soul dominance began a long time ago for me. My fears love to dress up as a mishmash of so-called “wisdom,” “a lifetime of experience,” and the belief that “hard work is a virtue.” But these fears only do one thing well: wrestle joy right down to the ground in a chokehold.
In these rooms of my soul, I give an upper hand to the lie that the path to joy and new discoveries goes through perfect execution.
I resonate with Shauna Niequist’s self reflection:
“…the skills that take you through the first half of your life are entirely unhelpful for the second half….they made me responsible and capable and really, really tired. They made me productive and practical, and inch by inch, year by year, they moved me further and further from the warm, whimsical person I used to be.”
O my soul,
let go of being responsible and capable for every single big and little thing;
let go of being productive and practical for every moment.
Skip some of the stars.
Swing not at every shiny possible to-do.
Pursue joy along a different path.
Walk forward into new, whimsical horizons.
The wrestling match is over now and as Solger recuperates with a root beer float, he invites me to put into practice this evening’s life lesson.
“Will you paint a shark on my face, Aunt Nicole?”
“Me?” I respond with uncertainty. So much for my pledge to confidently walk toward new horizons.
“Yeah, here’s the face paint and a book with pictures,” he reassures me. “It’s just three colors.”
“Ummmm…ok” I say, and then proceed to stall a little bit.
While washing out the paint brush and studying the picture in the face painting book, the monster in my head suggests “Maybe you should practice first…like on a piece of paper. You don’t want to screw up, do you? This isn’t a good idea: face painting without adequate preparation. Put the brush down!”
But Solger’s eyes melts my heart and I finally pick up the brush. Dipping it into the blue paint, I make my first mark. It isn’t a perfect shark tail, but it isn’t too terrible either. I fill in the rest of the body as shown in the picture book.
White paint for the shark’s big teeth comes next. Again, my attempt is neither perfect nor terrible, but the hard part is still to come.
The picture shows thin black lines for the shark’s gills, button nose, and beady eyes. My brush, however, isn’t thin at all. It is thick. I try to remember to breath. Walking forward is the path to new, whimsical horizons.
Using just the edge of brush I apply the black paint as thinly as possible, and then step back. Will he like it? I wondered. I cannot bear the thought of failing to execute his precious request.
“Look Papa!” he exclaims. “There’s a shark on my face!”
Why did I even doubt?
Why did I listen to the lie in my head and delay even one second?
There is only One capable of perfection…and it is not me.
As for God, His way is perfect:
The LORD’s word is flawless;
He shields all who take refuge in Him.
2 Samuel 22:31
But an abundant capacity for perfect joy? It is all around me.
There is so much joy in this evening, so much joy in my Solger, so much joy to be discovered.
Skip the stars.
Paint the shark.
Find joy in new, whimsical horizons.
Your love has given me great joy and encouragement,
because you, brother (or 8-year-old nephew),
have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.