It was the most unlikely place to learn a life lesson. Accounting 101, sophomore year.
Since most of the time my brain thinks in words, not numbers, I really wasn’t looking forward to the class as I knew it was going to be an effort. At the time of the incident, we had begun a new section where we were asked to give presentations.
One of the first presenters to step forward was a female student. We had all been asked to dress to impress, so she had outfitted herself in a stylish blouse and skirt. Keep in mind this was “80s stylish”: big hair, padded shoulders, oversized lapels and colors that don’t generally occur in nature. And at that time, for modesty, many women wore slips under their skirts.
So, looking sharp and full of confidence, she launched into her speech. There was nothing particularly striking about her presentation, although she was a bit more animated than most. However, all of us woke up and paid attention when her slip began to show.
Unbeknownst to the presenter, every time she emphasized some part of her presentation with enthusiasm, her slip ventured a bit farther into view. When it became obvious there was no stopping the descent, we found ourselves straddling that uncomfortable line between discretely raising her awareness to the crisis while, at the same time, trying to protect her dignity. Some cleared their throats, others coughed, a few tried to catch her eye while gesturing toward the offending cloth, and the rest toggled somewhere between enjoying the entertainment and sympathizing with her pain.
When the slip finally reached her knees, there was no denying something was amiss. The student paused her speech and looked down. At that moment, it was anyone’s guess what she would do next. What ensued was pure genius. Instead of fleeing the class in shame, the presenter simply grinned, took her slip off the rest of the way and tossed it over her shoulder as if the whole thing was part of her plan. After a stunned silence, the room erupted with applause. When the noise died down, she went on with her speech. I don’t remember the speech at all, but I left that day inspired.
I loved that this student was not defined by what happened to her; rather, she took what happened and used it to make her presentation even better. Instead of being sidelined by exposure and imperfection, she embraced the awkward and purposefully wove it into her story. She took potential failure and turned it into a raging triumph. And she let us in on it all, easing our discomfort and showing us what courage looks like.
The truth is, we are all misfits with messy lives. Some of us can hide our slips better than others, but chances are they will eventually show. If we learn to make peace with our imperfections, we are better able to accept, even celebrate, the imperfections of others. That’s called grace.
I remembered the accounting student last week when, while jogging, I fell and my own proverbial slip flew into view.
I wish it had been a graceful stumble, the kind from which you can recover quickly and others barely notice. But this was the real deal.
I was shuffling along at a respectable pace when I made what seemed like a perfectly reasonable decision at the time to move over to the unpaved shoulder. Not long into the transition, my shoe met with a clump of weeds and stuck there. Arms and legs flailing, I surged headlong onto the path. First my knee hit, then both hands, and finally my left shoulder. When I eventually slid to a stop, I was covered in dust and weeds. It wasn’t pretty, but I’m sure it must have been highly entertaining to watch.
Nothing was seriously injured, but a lot of it hurt. Initially, I was embarrassed and considered the idea of limping back to the car, defeated. After all, I’m a seriously grown woman and there was nothing dignified about my fall.
However, faced with the option of moving on or giving up, I chose to laugh and regroup. To laugh at how ridiculous I must have looked, and to realign my internal expectations of myself. After gathering my wits, and tending to the scrapes, I continued jogging.
When the dust finally settles on this life, I want to be remembered as one who pressed on. I want to laugh and allow the threads of imperfection to be woven into the tapestry of my life to keep it real. And when my slip shows again, and it will, I want to boldly own it as part of my story. By doing so, I hope I can also encourage others to laugh a little more during their journey and embrace our collective humanity.
By the way, that was the day I ran 8 miles. The farthest I have run in my life.
“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” Psalm 139:13-14
Tamara Carpenter is part of Newsong’s Board and a regular contributor to this blog.