As one who came of age in the 1960s, I did my share of celebrating the idea of liberation. But as a soccer dad in the 1990s, I found myself confronting the Frankensteinian consequences that can issue from releasing - too carelessly - an idea into the world. "If it feels good, do it." "Do your own thing." An important piece of truth in each, but when ideas are put forth at the level of mere slogan, they can - destructively - take on a life of their own.
The soccer coach was telling me his philosophy of coaching. I'd approached him to convey the desire of my eight-year-old son to be taught and challenged more while he played in the county league, so that he might better master the game. When there's something he could do better, he'd like to be told.
The coach was reassuring, which is to say, resistant. "Hey, the important thing at this age," he told me, "is that the kids should enjoy the game."
A freeing notion, especially in the context of a culture that produced Little Leagues with parents screaming from the bleachers, compelling many young kids to carry on their shoulders their parents' frustrated dreams for glory; a culture that quotes approvingly Leo Durocher's idea that "Nice guys finish last," and the VinceLombardian dictum that "Winning isn't the most important thing - it's the only thing."
"Enjoyment's important," I agreed, "but there are also other important things to be learned out there on the playing field."
"Here, let me explain what I mean," the coach replied. And then he began to tell a story I found remarkable - not so much for what he related, but for the point he thought it substantiated.
"A couple of years ago I was coaching a team of 8-year-olds, and one of the players was a girl who'd been playing in the league a few years. She knew the game some, but wasn't always into it.
"Well, on this particular occasion, she was over near the sideline with no one very close to her, and the ball came heading her way. Her family was right near her, shouting encouragement, 'Here it comes, Lucy,' 'You can do it, Lucy!' That sort of thing. She was right there to make the play, but just as the ball was coming within range, she bent over and picked a dandelion off the field and declared, with real pleasure, 'A dandelion!' while the ball rolled on by and out of bounds."
The coach paused.
"Yes?" I inquired. "And so?"
"Well, here's my point. This girl was not yet really into soccer. She was into dandelions. And that's OK. If you just let them find their own way, and don't turn them off on the game, it'll be OK. The time will come when she'll get into the game."
"So as a coach, what did you say to her about the dandelion move?"
"I wasn't going to come down on her about that ... to try to make the kid feel bad about herself. I just let her be."
Perhaps it was foolish of me to enter into further conversation with the coach at this point, because I should have realized that what I was confronting was a doctrine of simple counterculture faith. And this faith had no use for the complicating points that I proceeded to make: that there were doubtless alternatives between saying nothing and "making the kid feel bad about herself"; that the soccer coach's withholding of instruction at that juncture might convey messages beyond "enjoy soccer" - messages that might serve well neither the child nor the society in which she'll live.
In the many months since then, however, that conversation has continued to rebound in my mind and to form a prism through which part of our cultural struggles seem a bit clearer. So maybe it was not so foolish after all to engage with this simple faith in the efficacy of the permissive, feel-good approach to helping our children through the game of life.
What do I think the coach should have said to young Lucy about her attending to the dandelion instead of the soccer ball?
For starters, I think it is important to know - and help the child to know - just what it was that happened within her at that moment.
Was she, as the coach seemed to assume, just going with her desire of the moment? If that was the case, I would think it important to convey to the child that sometimes one's momentary whims need to be set aside in favor of other, more important considerations.
In this case, Lucy was a member of a soccer team, engaged with her teammates in their weekly contest. The week is full of moments in which she can appreciate the beauty of dandelions, but this was not one of them. Her teammates were counting on her, and she should understand that fulfilling her responsibility to her teammates is a worthwhile priority.
"Responsibility." There's a word that gave off a bad aroma in the 1960s. Ours was a generation that, in contrast with our parents, was called upon to fight and die in a war that many of us thought unjust and unwise. In that context, we learned to take a jaundiced view of the idea of sacrificing oneself for the goals of the larger group.
But it is folly to reject that idea altogether: A world in which all are concerned only with pursuing their own happiness is one in which no one is likely to find much of it.
Or was Lucy's decision on the soccer field, rather, an expression of fear? Was she, with all eyes on her and her family cheering loudly, afraid she'd blow it? An understandable anxiety, but would she be helped by the coach implicitly approving her way of dealing with it? Turning away from the challenge is one way of dealing with tough situations, but it would not be a good habit to get into. It presumably was the easy way, for the moment, but in life what's easy is not always what's best.
If it were a child of mine, I'd much prefer a coach who'd encourage his player to confront the fear and summon the courage to move through it than one who'd indulge an evasion of the challenge.
"Challenge." Another old-fashioned notion, and one that runs counter to the culture of indulgence, to the idea that comfort and pleasure are the purposes of life, and that we are necessarily all right exactly the way we are and have no need to strive to become something better.
Running through all these concepts is the idea that there are standards, ideals, images of how we ought to be that can and do differ from what we already are. There is an image of the good and the right, something independent and in some ways above ourselves by which we measure what we are and what we do.
Coming out of an era where we encountered many narrow-minded views about what was right and acceptable and what was not, many of us rejected the whole notion of such standards. Just feeling good too often displaced any concept of what it might mean to be good.
I still believe in liberation. But from the striving to narrow that gap between the way we are and the way we might and should be, we "liberate" ourselves at our peril.
* Andrew Bard Schmookler is a writer living in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. His ideas can be found at www.worldwide-interads.com/schmookler/