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Wahls: Grace in the New Year

BY ZACH WAHLS | DECEMBER 17, 2013 5:00 AM

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I’ve been thinking about grace a lot lately. I think you’re supposed to think about grace during the holidays. I’m thinking about it because I’ve had a really rough last two and a half months, and grace seems like the hardest thing in the world to find right now.

By all accounts, it’s been a good year — a great year, even. My mom is healthy, I’m back in school and on track to graduate in May. But there’s this feeling crawling around underneath my skin that’s hard to talk about. That difficulty isn’t just in describing this feeling — which is difficult — but in talking about it at all because it feels personal, and so few things in my life are these days. Thinking about it feels I’m surrendering to the ever-encroaching searchlight.

Maybe if I’d just stop thinking about it, this existential melancholy would be over. Easier thought than done. And it’s embarrassing. I’m a man. I’m not supposed to feel vulnerable or weak or threatened.

It feels like a clichéd version of emotional self-awareness, but it’s just so penetrating. It stares right through you like the disappointment of your second-grade teacher who’s watching you struggle with cursive. I’m 6-5, and it makes me feel small.

But I also know that things are good. And if you’re reading this right now, odds are that things are probably pretty good for you as well, all things considered. You live in a highly prosperous and democratic nation, you can read, you have access to multimedia journalism. This year, by all accounts, was a decent one. For the first time in a long time, the economic news seems positive, and it’s clear that we’ve turned the corner.

Sometimes, things just feel right in a way that you can’t quite describe while you’re actually feeling it. Mostly because it wouldn’t even occur to you to stop and record the moment. You’re happy and smiling and things are good — life is good, great even. But often, we don’t actually remember it, just the idea of it, the shape of things. Because sometimes, a lot of the time even, things don’t feel that way.

Smiles are harder to come by and laughs are less boisterous, you roll out of bed with a little less enthusiasm about the day. It’s work and school and friends and “friends,” and there’s that pit in your stomach that comes and goes with more regularity than you would like. It’s that nagging question that maybe there’s something terribly, terribly wrong. And when you’re feeling like that, it’s hard to remember how it feels when it’s good.

When I sat down to try and write this column, I told a friend of mine that I was struggling to find coherent thoughts about grace. She texted me, “Someone once told me grace was being thankful for others’ words about you even when you wish to not be acknowledged.” I think whoever told her that was correct, but that’s only one part of it. Grace flows from gratitude, but the kind of gratitude that’s grounded in humility and the awareness of how small we are in the universe. But this is tricky. Grace requires recognizing action’s importance. It requires the belief and appreciation of the power within one’s grasp.

My recent failures reflect a lack of respect for that power. My high-school swimming coach used to remind my team that the expression “practice makes perfect” is wrong. Practice doesn’t make perfect, he said. Practice makes habit. There’s a world of difference, and it requires a choice.

Grace too, requires a choice and practice. Grace is a small grin on the inside, a confidence in oneself, despite one’s doubts. Grace is standing tall, all 77 inches. Grace is owning your weaknesses and mistakes, without losing sight of the end goal. It’s seeking help, but without a sense of shame, and with the freedom that comes from self-awareness and the courage to face what you have to face.
Grace is the cloth of strength and dignity and the laugh that resonates without fear of the future.

I hope you enjoy the holidays and may we all take on 2014 with the grace a new year deserves.


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