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Why do we remember what we remember?
I attended the 50th Anniversary of Young Life in my hometown of Flint, Michigan, last week and was startled by a memory someone shared with me. I remember everything, but I don’t remember this.
When I was in high school, Young Life sponsored a basketball league for kids not good enough to make their varsity teams. I was one of those kids. I remember playing in this league and vaguely remember a few games. Last Tuesday I ran into my old coach, who greeted me warmly and then said, “I can never forget you because you were in the middle of my greatest moment as a coach.” He proceeded to tell this story:
Our star player was Chuck Fiebernitz (How could I ever forget anyone named Fiebernitz? He was a big, strong kid who played on the school football team). Despite Fiebernitz having his usual good game, the game was tied with only a few seconds left and we had the ball. The coach called time out to set up a play. “This was my greatest moment,” the old coach told me. “Everyone expected Fiebernitz to take the last shot. I set up a play where the guard faked the ball to Fiebernitz to draw the defense, and then dumped the ball down to Munroe for the last shot.” (This is the way he told the story. He called us by our last names, even though he was talking to me.)
I looked at him in wonder. “What happened?” I asked.
“You don’t remember?” he said. I shook my head no.
“Munroe made the basket and we won the game. You don’t remember that?”
My first thought was “this never happened.” I said, “You must change that story whenever you see one of us to make us feel good.”
He looked hurt. “No, I don’t. You made the basket.” I could tell it was bothering him because a vivid part of the memory for him was outsmarting the other team. I was taking that away. Besides, my old coach is a person of integrity and honor, not the sort who goes around telling tall tales. But I don’t have any memory of having made that shot. Wouldn’t I remember making a game-winning shot? Especially since I never made a game-winning-anything in my life?
But maybe that’s why I don’t remember it. I’ve been thinking about this all week and my theory of why I’ve forgotten is based on my negative perception of my athletic ability. The story is out of sync with how I perceive myself.
When I was five years old, I was so uncoordinated my mother enrolled me in tap dancing classes. Before long I was on a stage dressed in a clown costume, doing my shuffle-ball-change. It could have been worse. My older brother was forced to be a tap-dancing mint. Through the grace of God we moved far away soon after that performance. I assume now there were no tap dancing schools in Ohio. Or perhaps my dad finally got his way. However it happened, we were freed from tap dancing.
But I have never been freed from athletic incompetence. Any leadership ability I have developed started when I realized the way to avoid the humiliation of constantly being picked last was to be the captain doing the choosing. As an adult, I still enjoy watching sports, but I’m so bad I have given up participation. The last to go was golf. One day I had an internal heart-to-heart and asked, “Why repeatedly pay $30 to lose a bunch of golf balls and swear at myself? And why invest thousands into state-of-the-art oversized drivers and Ping putters and special shoes and all the other paraphernalia needed only to lower my score from 130 to 125?” I couldn’t find the compelling reason to keep doing it.
Even though athletic competence is not part of my identity, having a good memory is. I’m the guy who not only knows the name of Lincoln’s first vice president but where he was from (Hannibal Hamlin of Maine), who not only knows Judy Garland’s real name but where she was from (Frances Gumm, Grand Rapids, Minnesota), who not only knows who played shortstop for the Detroit Tigers in the 1968 World Series but where he went to high school (Mickey Stanley – the Tigers’ normal centerfielder – Ottawa Hills High in Grand Rapids, Michigan).
But I sure don’t remember making that game-winning shot in high school. What do you think it means?