I Already Knew
Trusting Where We Start From.
When I first saw the movie Tap, I was 9 years old. I was just a kid. To this day I remember the feeling that gripped me when I saw the Challenge Scene. If there were a biopic on me, that moment would be filmed in slow motion. Everything would have a light glow as the camera zoomed in on my face, wide-eyed and mouth open. I would be lifted up and carried towards the screen in some kind of trance. It was the feeling of love, being wrapped up with trust and goodness. I still say, “I fell in love,” when I try to describe what happened to me that day.
But I was 9 years old. What could I have known about love?
I have been asked about that moment many times since then. “When did you know you wanted to be a tap dancer?” “What made you fall in love with it?” And other variations. As best as I can perceive it, I fell in love with the image of community that the Challenge Scene portrayed. It wasn’t just the dancing, although the dancing was integral. There was freedom in expression, joy, things happening beyond the scope of my imagination, and these were the “old guys”! Can you imagine what a group of young cats would be like?
But I was 9 years old. What could I have known about community?
I come from a deeply loving family. It’s just my folks and me, then aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends. When I was younger, geography allowed for us to be more wrapped up in each other’s lives than we are now. Being connected, wrapped up, caring and hoping for one another, was the norm. I didn’t really experience that kind of life outside of my family. I don’t know where I would have, and maybe the Challenge Scene triggered something of that familial experience in me. But I think it’s deeper than that. I think there was something about the Challenge Scene that resonated with something deep within me.
But I was 9 years old. What could I have known about the depths of my heart?
The fact is, as best as I can recollect, that I didn’t know anything about love, community, or depths of my heart at the time. I would not have been able to express it with words. I came out of the movie theatre thinking that I wanted to become a tap dancer. That was it. I wanted to be a part of whatever it was I saw in that film, and tap dancing seemed to be the way to do it. It was only years later, through the work of my tap dance company, Cats Paying Dues, and the writing of Rising to the Tap, that I really began to see what I had actually been pursuing all those years.
Call it intuition, or something different – attentiveness to the will of God perhaps – but my thinking is this: as unique as it was for me to “know” that I wanted to be a tap dancer at such a young age, I don’t think I’m alone in having that kind of inner compass. Having an inner compass, and holding fast to it are indeed two different things, but this week I’m just thinking about what it might mean for us to acknowledge that we have an inner compass.
If we had an inner compass – something deep within us that was set to help us know goodness and evil before we were explicitly taught goodness or evil – what would that mean? What would our responsibility be to that? How would that reshape our lives, if at all?
I’m thinking specifically about a friend of mine, who, for lack of much early guidance, has become a man of intense integrity – continuing to seek goodness in his life. My friend experiences the pain of feeling like they have been forced to be on this journey alone. They see others who had it better or easier. The journey is hard – at times exceptionally difficult. In the midst of that reality, I can’t help but honor the kind of person my friend is and has become. That is, the kind of person for whom the lack of guidance and support did not deter him from a life of integrity. More than that even, the kind of person for whom the pain he has experienced has not become the primary mark he has left behind in his interactions with others – at least not with me. It is more than admirable to me, for someone like this to exist. It is cause for celebration!
I know my friend isn’t the only one. They can’t be the only person who is like this. The world would be in much worse shape if there were only a handful of people like that. But it seems that the stories of people who make their character even just a bit better than their context might have predicted, are maligned. Maybe they are brushed off because of their “specialness.” We might say, “Sure, they could do it, but they are unique. No one else could, let alone me.” Maybe the stories are rejected because they pressure us to look at ourselves (a hard enough task) and see what may be possible (equally daunting). Sometimes these special kinds of people are showered with resistance, judged by a standard of perfection, and not the formative steps they’ve walked through. One might say, “You’re getting better, but what about all of this that’s still wrong?” They are rejected by their peers and families, isolated by the chasm of change they’ve experienced. This is evident if we just look around. But I wonder if it actually has to be that way.
What if that thing within us – the part that can easily identify evil, and is attracted to goodness, without explicit teaching – was encouraged? What if our relationships helped us fuel, sharpen, and apply that part of us for our own context, within our own lives? Wouldn’t we become even more of a benefit to those around us? Wouldn’t the kind of art we make, work we do, and even interactions we find ourselves in become better? I think so.
If we land here – that we have an inner sense of good and evil, and that it should be cultivated and sharpened rather than doubted, dismissed, or watered down – other very important questions come up. The one that’s most prominent for me is “How?” How do we cultivate and sharpen this sense? There seem to be a series of answers within reach. Easy answers like study the wisdom of others (especially older wisdom that has lasted through the years), interact and experiment with the ideas (act upon what we think), seek greater understanding (continue to search for deeper truths), are within reach albeit may seem difficult to enact at times. These answers may also sound trite. Just study more, play with ideas, and continue to learn. Easy, right? In trying to just pursue one of them I’ve experienced great amounts of resistance – from within and without. Is that a deterrent? Of course, but never more than the vision on the other side of the work.
Can we imagine, really imagine, the kind of life that can be born out of a heart that has cultivated and sharpened a real sense of good and evil – even a life rooted in love? The kind of life for which even the means by which good results are achieved are attended to and deemed important to be good. The kind of life that deeply affects the lives around it for good. A life so born out of a heart steeped in a desire for good – just because goodness is actually good. Without such a vision I suspect all other effort can easily be cast aside, impacted by doubt, or otherwise undermined. However, with a vision for such a life…maybe, just maybe, we can trust that whatever we have been given is a solid enough starting place – nothing more or less – towards something much better.