Sunday, March 5, 2017

A Quality Worth Considering: Are You Unflappable?

As Dustin Johnson hit the golf ball from 145 yards out—his ball landing but four feet from the pin for a sure-fire birdie—David Feherty described the number one golfer in the world as "unflappable."

I couldn't believe what I had just heard. Unflappable. This singular word, one that I don't think I have heard more than twice in the last five years was used to appropriately describe a man who is also one of my favorite golfers on the tour. I suppose the reason I delighted in this coincidence is because of the reason, or rather, the person who brought it to mind: St. John of the Cross. I can assure you, this Spanish mystic has little to nothing in common with DJ, minus, perhaps this singular virtue. However, I believe it's one worth thinking more about and understanding through their example. Here's how...and here's why.
For the past two years, I have been commissioned to write for a Catholic website promoting the canonization of a lay woman—a servant of God—named Cora Evans. As a team of writers, we are assigned a variety of topics that pertain to Catholic teachings, tradition and culture.

In December, I was tasked with writing about St. John of the Cross. As fellow bloggers know, we can't afford to pass on a writing assignment. Why? Today a whole lot of authors write for free. I did not want to pass, but given that I knew little to nothing about this Doctor of the Church, that was what I had to do. Just last week however, my editor asked me if I would reconsider writing that post. The timing and the deadline was right; I consented and in doing so, feel as though I met a new friend in faith.

I read articles and blog postings, and watched videos of theologians singing his praises but the one that stayed with me was a near homily, describing Saint John of the Cross as the "Doctor of Detachment." Here is what I wrote about this unflappable fellow.

St. John of the Cross is regarded as a premier teacher on how to detach and let go of the things of this world to live for God alone. Detachment is important to the spiritual life. In the article “Experiencing Life’s Flow,” Patrick Kelly SJ writes, "we get off track in a spiritual sense when we become too attached to money and status. Jesus repeatedly reminds his listeners of this point, insisting that “no one can serve both God and mammon.” St. Ignatius Loyola points to the same dynamic in the “Two Standards” meditation of the Spiritual Exercises, writing that the tactic of the enemy of our humanity is to ensnare people in the desire for riches, honor and pride.”

With the gift of detachment, one focuses on what leads to and builds a steadfast spirituality. In detachment one’s spirit finds quiet and repose for coveting nothing. For St. John of the Cross, detachment enabled him to live and focus on God alone, which proved necessary in his life’s story. According to Franciscan Media,
John engaged in the work of reform, and came to experience the price of reform: increasing opposition, misunderstanding, persecution, imprisonment. He came to know the cross acutely—to experience the dying of Jesus—as he sat month after month in his dark, damp, narrow cell with only his God.
St. John of the Cross wasn’t perfect, and yet regardless of such trials and tribulations it is inspiring that so little worried him. Truly, he was able to trust God. In St. John of the Cross, we have a wonderful spiritual role model with a unique name: the Doctor of Detachment.

Why Detachment?
Detachment enables us to be unflappable.

Unflappable. When I heard this word ascribed to St. John of the Cross, I paused. “What a great word,” I thought and, more importantly, what a wonderful quality. It’s not a character trait I hear about often. I wondered, “Is ‘unflappable’ an old-fashioned word? Are too few of us unflappable?”

As a high school teacher, I am often asked to write college letters of recommendation. The common application requires me to identify the first few words that come to mind when I think of a given student. “Competent, bright, trustworthy and insightful” often come to mind. I asked myself how many students possess this quality? I think humanity, young and old, might benefit from knowing and surrounding ourselves with a person who is unflappable. It’s worth teaching my students more about.
DJ with a rules official at the 2016 US Open. Talk about a time to be unflappable.
As a coach, I see this quality in athletes quite often. Golfers must be unflappable. The ball lands in a bunker or deep in the rough. At other times, it is as though the golf gods are punishing a player. Putts don’t sink and timing is off. The golfer who is unflappable stays the course—metaphorically. Literally is not a given. He or she takes the game one stroke at a time. While a bogey or worse may faze him or her, they can shake it off. Though I don't think Dustin Johnson is the exemplar of unflappability on the tour, in 2017 he is. I will look for this trait among him and other golfers as we approach the first of the four majors.

Though unflappability is a quality to describe a singular person, it can benefit a community as well. The one who is detached promotes God, or the good of others and not of him or herself. 

Again, an example from sports comes to mind. Though the school where I teach has a long-standing rival, there is one basketball game against another team in our league that trumps all other contests: SI vs Serra High School in "The Jungle Game." Both teams and their fans extend spirit and passion so strong that it’s downright hair-raising. Always a sell out, this game which takes place in a gym that is standing room only is well named.
time and place to be unflappable. Serra HS gym
With the game tied late in the third quarter, I glanced at our point guard tasked with inbounding the ball. While looking for an open teammate, nearly 500 boys crowded as close to him as they could on the sideline, yelling in his ear, aiming to distract his focus and deter the task at hand. If they had succeeded, I would understand why. But they didn’t. Why? This athlete, in that moment and in his role was unflappable. His teammates needed him to be...and he was (inside the paint, too). His unwavering focus boosted their collective confidence and vision. It's not hard to see.

There is so much in the world that is seeking to distract us from what is important—serving others, reaching out to those in need, paying attention to our loved ones. There are too many voices that are aiming to shift our attention from where we are to the place God may be leading us. Detachment from the demands of this world and the noise around us can keep our eyes on the goal—to be one with God, to be more like Christ. We need the examples of others who are unflappable to point the way. St. John of the Cross, the Doctor of Detachment is a worthy one and whatever he has done in his personal and professional life, I am happy to say that Dustin Johnson is as well. I am a fan of DJ because his swing is just so athletic. To watch him play is a near paradox, for no one moves forward with so little effort...and yet no one has his flexibility, stance, power and strength. No one.

This past summer, a friend asked me what is the difference between "flip" and "glib." I couldn't believe what I just heard—I have considered that very same question in my writing more often than he knew. Words, or more specifically adjectives like flip, glib or unflappable help me to understand the uniqueness of each person. Our humanity is a quirky, yet lovable thing. We need to name, articulate, and share the qualities that make each us of who we are. God has created us with a palette of color larger than the human eye can perceive. Words bring us closer to seeing the ineffable...the remarkable...the lovable...even, the unflappable. Praise Be.

Photo Credits
John of the Cross
US Open Rules

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