At nearly six-feet tall, 6th grader Jim has always excelled at basketball. Half way through his final season at Meadows Elementary School , however, Jim accidentally steps on another player’s foot and breaks his ankle. The doctor informs Jim that he’ll need to wear a cast for the next 6 weeks, but not to worry. His ankle will be right as rain by the time the big final game rolls around, the one in which all the high school scouts will be in attendance. As the weeks progress, however, Jim ruefully mulls over his prospects. You see, adults have always told him that he has star potential, that the sky’s the limit for a big, coordinated kid like him. But Jim doesn’t see it that way. His internal voice – his “gremlin” — is telling him, “You’re not good enough, Jimbo . You’re slow. You can’t jump. Your shot is flawed. Oh, sure, you’re a big fish here in elementary school, where no one is taller than 5’9”, but in junior and senior high, you’ll be competing against players your own height, or taller. Real athletes, too! Playing against that competition, you’re bound to fail. And what about your family? The only time your parents stop fighting is when they’re in the stands, rooting for you at basketball games.”
The more Jim thinks about it, the less and less he wants to risk playing in the big game (and all that it entails). So when the time comes for him to get his cast off, Jim says, “No thanks, Doctor. I’m keeping it on!”
Years go by, and Jim is still wearing his cast. Inconvenient? Absolutely! But Jim has made accommodations. For example, a shoe maker in town has crafted a special shoe for him, one that disguises the cast, rendering it practically invisible. And Jim has his story down perfectly: he can’t run and jump at full speed, you see, because of a genetic bone weakness. The ankle could snap at any time. He has to where the cast for protection—or so his explanation goes!
By the time Jim reaches adulthood, he doesn’t even remember why he ever got the cast on in the first place. It’s just something that he’s always had, he always will have, and that’s that. Now and again, Jim plays a little basketball with some of the war vets around town — folks with real disabilities – and hobbling around, Jim thinks to himself, “This is fine; I can live with this. I was never cut out for the NBA anyway. This is my level.”
Jim is a fiction. He doesn’t exist. I made him up to demonstrate a point. We all get scared when we’re kids. Events happen that threaten to shake apart our fragile worlds. So – quite logically – we create defense mechanisms to protect ourselves, to keep us safe. And this makes perfect sense at the time. Jim keeps his cast on because, from his 12-year-old perspective, failure will not only feel really bad, but it might just jeopardize his parents’ marriage.
We are Jim and Jim is us. Our childhood defense mechanisms become habitual and, no matter how old we get, how seemingly powerful we become, we hold closely to our defenses – unaware of how our out-dated thinking might be holding us back.
Like Jim, how often have YOU decided to stay small in order to avoid the dreadful prospect of failure?
When have YOU made a choice to be a big fish in a small pond, rather than confronting the possibility that you might not be good enough to swim in life’s bigger ponds?
How does it feel, knowing that day after day, you’re settling; you’re not going for your highest potential?
If Jim was here right now – if he was a loved one, or a family member — what would we say to him? The answer, of course, is TAKE OFF THE CAST! But what if he’s still afraid? That cast has been there for a long, long time; it’s not just going to come off on its own. In order for Jim to remove the childhood limitations that continue to hold him back, he’ll need to adopt a new attitude, one that starts with self forgiveness. Jim must first come to realize that he is not “bad” person for running away from his potential. His story made a kind of sense at the time of conception. But Jim’s a grown-up now! He can take care of himself. He can create his own safety. He no longer needs the cast.
I imagine a happy ending for our friend Jim. At age 30, he adopts a meditation practice. He begins going to self-help workshops. He hires a life coach. One day, with the encouragement of his friends, he grabs a large pair of shears from the cupboard and cuts away his cast. Although weak from years of atrophy, his ankle slowly regains its strength. And when his first son arrives, Jim runs – yes runs – down the steps of the hospital in celebration, leaping into the air in effortless joy. It’s not too late for Jim to move freely, to run and jump and celebrate — to at last fulfill his potential.
So are you ready to take the cast off?