Some of this is true.
The other day, I was teaching my four-year-old son how to hit a baseball.
When it comes to hitting his sister he needs no help.
He excels at hitting his sister. He can do it from a stationary position, on the run, in the pool, under a table, amidst cover of darkness in a fort made of blankets, or in broad daylight leaping off of the roof of an outdoor toy schoolhouse.
His range is impressive.
He can strike with any liftable item that can be launched in her direction, or swat her with any stick-like object he’s transformed into a light-saber.
This is not to say we are raising a Barbarian.
He occasionally eats with a fork.
And to be fair, his older sister knows how to provoke him. In a blow against the Trial-and-Error movement, she always seems dumbfounded when her teasing unleashes his talent for connecting with her face.
Thankfully, he’s begun to learn that unless you’re a Professional Hockey Player or a member of Taiwan’s Parliament, it’s inappropriate to express yourself with your fists.
So I’ve been trying to re-channel the aquifer of rage that flows beneath this dormant angel by teaching him how to hit a baseball. The fact that I last played organized baseball when M*A*S*H was on CBS hardly mattered to him.
The fact that I’d taken a break from work mattered less than it should have. The fact that he failed to hit every single pitch ended up mattering most.
It mattered most because he, unprompted, had decided to sever ties with his batting tee and hit “real” pitching.
He wanted to give up the tee because he’d noticed while watching a Red Sox game that there wasn’t a pole attached to home plate with a ball resting on it. It was not I, in some overaggressive act of fatherhood, who’d goaded him into giving up his hitting binky.
To the contrary, I remained fully committed to the millwork-esque repetitive motion of placing ball after ball on the tee so that it could be pummeled by his bat.
But he wanted to take it to the next level and I, ever wary of paternal slights that might one day lead to a “Daddy Dearest” memoir, complied with his request.
I backed away from him, counted out seven paces, knelt in soggy grass and began to pitch.
My son swung like Dustin Pedroia crossed with Charles Bukowski. Aggressive yet off-balance. Spirited but undisciplined.
He sighed loudly with each failed swing. He sighed explosive weight-of-the-world kid sighs. Exhalations that, if combined with the breeze generated by his ineffective swings, would almost be enough to knock me over.
I kept lobbing. He kept swinging.
With each pitch, his Mighty Drunk Dusty swing yielded the same result: aggravation verging on emotional collapse.
Ah, the joys of parenting.
Aside from the mind-numbing effects of prolonged sleep deprivation, and the peculiar art of instructing another human being on how to defecate somewhere other than his pants, one of the most challenging aspects of parenting is watching your child meet with the frustration that springs from attempting something new.
With each failed attempt, you witness mounting exasperation and you will do anything to diminish it.
I told him he was doing great even though he and I both knew that he wasn’t. Some might call this teaching your son how to lie. Some might be right. I’m no child psychiatrist, but telling him the truth—that he was a failure who’d given up the tee prematurely—did not seem to be the timely thing to convey.
How could I explain to my son that even the best hitters fail to get a hit seven out of ten times and that even a decent .260 hitter can still make millions of dollars if he gets an occasional clutch hit and maintains a good clubhouse presence?
The smart father, seeing his bitter boy holding a bat, might choose to run the other way. I am not the smart father.
I looked at him and thought:
Is it too soon to teach him that some people don’t have the aptitude for certain things, no matter how much they are wished for? That quitters sometimes do win, in a way? And that realizing this at a young age can open up exciting other new things to get frustrated and crushed by?
Was it time to teach him that the pain is not always worth it?
It was not.
Life will later do what I, in this instance, chose not to do. When it comes to dashing expectations, life does a bang-up job of setting people straight all by itself. Whatever ineptitudes await him, life will eventually and enthusiastically make known.
My job as a father was to shut up and pitch.
And, if I may say so, he did have a pretty good stance, and a hefty swing.
He just needed to make contact.
I walked toward my son with the only advice I had.
“Imagine the ball is your sister.”
I did not say this aloud. Though I believe this would have unleashed his inner Ted Williams, I refrained from uttering it, and instead offered up the oldest advice available:
“Just keep your eye on the ball.”
He responded with an expression that seemed to mint a new profanity.
I shrugged as if to say, “Yes son, that’s all I got.”
I repeated: “Keep your eye on the ball.”
I paced back to my pitching spot, knelt without tottering over and lobbed another pitch.
The good thing about his being four is that he does not immediately dispute my advice. I know this because he has yet to play with a hair dryer in the bathtub.
And thankfully, this old baseball platitude, this time-honored tip shouted by every parent and coach since the ball and the bat were invented, worked.
As I lobbed the next pitch, he kept his hands back, he followed the pitch all the way in, and then, as if he were the star of a Disney movie about the life-affirming rewards of Whiffle ball, he put plastic on plastic and hit a mammoth shot.
The grin on his face almost saved the world.
I tried to bottle it so I could give it away, but it only lasted until the next pitch when he swung and missed again. But that first time, the first time he connected like the big guys? It brought forth a joy that made it all worth it.
Not the knee surgery I now need from kneeling for that long, but everything else—yes, well worth it. It was worth it to watch him learning that focus and persistence can lead to achievement.
And it was worth it because it provided for me a useful aphorism to repeat to myself.
“Keep your eye on the ball.”
So, what’s the buried lesson about how to live life because of what I learned through sports? What was the insight I took from this batting tutorial that I’m trying to now share with you?
Well, it may seem trite, but it took me saying it over and over to realize how often I disregard this advice when it comes to living my life.
I do not spend enough of my time keeping my own eyes on the ball.
Consider this: “The ball” is synonymous with what you want from life.
Too often, I do not keep my eyes focused on what I want out of life and instead allow myself to be distracted.
Not only do I not keep my eye on the ball, I’m often not clear about what I want the ball to look like. Sure, I got the same boilerplate wishes everyone else has: I love my friends and family, I’d love to reach the heights of my chosen field, and stay in shape and help others and all the usual fill-in-the-blanks.
But when was the last time I specifically thought it through?
When have I tailor-made a list of things I now know from good experiences and bad ones, useful knowledge culled from personal triumphs and private mistakes, from relationships that have thrived and ones that went sour? How often have I used my own past as a treasure trove of instructions on how to live?
Not often enough.
I rarely take the time to sit down and really think about how I want to spend the one life I have to live so that I can make sure I don’t get derailed.
How can you keep you eye on the ball if you’re not even in the ballpark?
My office is filled with shelves full of books—books written by great men and women, who have sat in quiet rooms and THOUGHT about life, CONCLUDED brand-new things about life, COMMITTED TO THE PAGE insightful beautiful truths that illuminate life.
Some of them have been read, many more still have not.
Yet often when I enter my office, rather than crack open one of these books, I instead fill my time in a multitude of time-sucking ways including:
A.) Reading an “update” from a person—“friend” —who I wouldn’t recognize if he were three feet in front of me.
B.) Reading a comment by someone posted underneath an article I half-read.
C.) Searching for, sifting through, and then buying online something that I do not need.
Any of this in moderation would be fine, but the fact is:
I know more than I should about things that I shouldn’t and not enough about things that I should.
And when I take my eyes off the ball, the great books go unread, great plays go unseen, great art unwitnessed, great music left unheard, great films left in the queue.
I think of Tolstoy, Chekov, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, toiling, sweating, pouring out their spleens, tapping unmapped veins to fill their inkwells with blood from their hearts and brains, so that they might improve humanity with their hard-fought reflection and yet, tick, tick, tick… Time goes by, and with it the one life I have to live is spent reading an item about someone half my age who cheated on somebody or got drunk somewhere or had a piece of clothing uncover what it was intended to cover.
When I do this, the joke is on me.
So, in closing, how can I be a better monitor for myself?
On my desk I have St. Francis’s Prayer for Peace and next to it is a card from my grandmother that has Rudyard Kipling’s “If.” Have I memorized them both? No. Should I? Yes. Why? Because.
Because they would help me keep my eye on the ball.
So, to help raise my batting average when it comes to living the life I desire, I’m going to get started on my memorizing.
I’m also going to write down some things I need to remember. It’s a long list, filled with stuff I learned long past kindergarten.
Things picked up along the way that I’ll carry in my wallet. And for the next month, I’m going to read it at least once for every twenty-five times I look at my cell phone.
I’m calling this list: Things you already know.
Here’s an abbreviated version:
Attempt to be gallant.
Cultivate a deep, deep, capacity for understanding others.
If you’re past the age of adolescence and find one day that your pants no longer fit, this is not a sign to buy new pants. This is a sign to do what you need to do to get the pants to fit again.
Practice unwavering kindness.
Include people. No one likes to be left out.
Swing for the fence.
Stop at six beers. Very few intelligent things are said or done after six beers.
People who disregard the previous rule usually spend the next day apologizing to someone.
Listen to your conscience. It’s not a made-up thing to stop you from having fun. It’s as real as it gets.
Every so often, try to go 48 hours without talking about what you don’t like. This includes anything about yourself, other people, movies, music, books, art, politics. Exemptions: Foreign dictators and any life-altering disease.
Do whatever you must to prevent yourself from putting your enjoyment of friends and family in jeopardy.
Cut people slack.
Do not hurt others.
Do not contribute to their hurt. Even if you think they deserve it.
Don’t live your life as if everything can be forgiven.
Not everyone has the bottomless understanding of God.
Keep your eye on the ball.
Mike O’Malley’s Commencement speech at the University of New Hampshire (2006)