This is the story of accepting a challenge and then failing, even though it wasn't really a failure, and of then using the pseudo-failure to create a new story of refocused redemptive moments.
Okay, so it’s been awhile since I’ve spoken publicly about much of anything. And by “spoken publicly,” I mean communication that is voiced rather than written: talks, speeches, interviews, anything that involves opening my mouth and pushing out words of a given subject before a listening audience.
It’s been awhile. About two and a half years.
And then three weeks ago, I was invited to do my first interview since leaving the life of faith and pastorate. It was to be aired live this past Thursday evening on the Ra-Men Podcast, hosted by Mark Nebo and his guest Teresa MacBain. Ecstatic beyond words, I immediately said yes and began leaning forward in an expectantly giddy formation. I couldn’t wait.
But I was also a bit nervous. Not only had it been a few rust-inducing years — that was reason enough to be on alert. But the interview was to be centered on the telling of my de-conversion story, on my journey from pastor to atheist. And this would embody my first attempt at boiling down my twisting and winding two-year pilgrimage into something much less winding and twist-filled. Something more concise and presentable and worthy of sound-bites.
But never fear. I had three weeks between there and then. And I would get right to work on bringing that pot to boil.
As something of a beginning exercise, I wrote a couple of articles. One for my blog and one for Teresa MacBain’s. Both of which presented fragments of My Story. Just to help get me thinking in terms of the short and sweet. And the exercises proved helpful. But I still had much to do, since interviews on my whole story may tend to play out a bit differently than blog posts on parts of it.
One friend told me not to worry. I’ll be fine. I have enough experience. Just walk in and wing it, she said.
But I did have enough experience to know that the one thing I could not do was wing it. Maybe some people were fashionably skilled in just that right way. But I was not one of those people. Everything I did required intense concentrated preparation. Rehearsing. Over and over again. In my former life, I had come to a point where I would wing certain things, but that was only after years of practicing answers and responses. Over time, my phrases and angles had ingrained themselves within my oratorial reflexes. But with so many changes over the last few years, I felt like I had only just begun the reconstruction process. Nope, one thing was clear as crystal: I most definitely needed some good prep time.
Now, I had spent the first week and a half just focusing on trying to whittle down that story. I wrote the two articles and was making good progress, but I still had a long way to go. The crisp and clean storyline that just flowed off my lips was still nowhere in sight. So I began a practice I’ve done probably hundreds of times in previous years. I composed a list of some 25 possible questions that might be asked of me by Mark and Teresa. Questions targeting anything from my personal storyline to my membership in the Clergy Project, from Bible verses that had previously held my faith together to those that ultimately rent it apart, from the challenges of transitioning unbelieving clergy persons out of ministry to the fears that keep them there. The task set before me for the next 10 days was to not only come up with the content of all 25 answers but to then construct and memorize clear and succinct verbiage for each.
And that’s when the answers starting coming together. The right angle. The perfect spin. Condensing timelines and fusing phraseology. Experimenting with what not to say and determining what worked. There was that priceless breakthrough moment where it all started coming together.
Yet there was still a lot to be done. And it had to be perfect…
But thankfully, I had a large window of time that would be open the day before that Thursday. Though much of my six-day workweeks keep me out of the house for twelve hours or more at a time, on that upcoming Wednesday I wouldn’t have to go into the steakhouse until 4:30pm. Wednesday would give me several hours to really get down to business and hit questions over and over and over again until my answers were in 30-second to two-minute brackets of time. I would try and squeeze in a few minutes here and there throughout the remaining week, but I was able to rest knowing that it would all come together on Wednesday.
Now if all else failed, I would still have Thursday as well. I had the whole day off work, but also had a lot going on prior to interview time: a suburban excursion to do some stuff with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, followed by a little lunch date that I had planned. Given the distance of driving and whatnot, this would probably take the bulk of the day, but that’s not to say I couldn’t squeeze in any last minute preparations before interview time.
And that was the plan as I entered those final days. It was all charted out. I literally transformed the marker board on my refrigerator into a calendar of tasks and outcomes. Questions to tackle, research to conduct, answers to memorize.
And Sunday went according to plan. Lots to do, but Wednesday’s coming.
And then Monday went according to plan. Still so much, but just wait till payday Wednesday.
And then Tuesday went according to plan. A lot remained, but tomorrow I have like seven hours reserved.
And then Tuesday night I was asked if I could come in early on Wednesday. And by “early,” I mean an entire shift early. Another large and grotesque double-shift that would consume yet another entire day, just as they had consumed each day prior. And I‘m not sure if “asked” is the right word…
And suddenly: The day of prep that I had eternally looked forward to was over. Vanished. Poof!
But I try to be an optimist. Don’t freak out. Just use your other time wisely.
No problem, I told myself. I’ve got this.
I’ll just polish and fine-tune on the fly. While driving back and forth over the next couple days. I’ve got all the pieces. I’m probably at the point now, where if I really had to, I really probably could just wing-it. [Insert memories of successful winging-it moments from the past…]
And so on the day of the interview, on that Thursday morning, I got up and kind of went over stuff while I got ready for my morning event. Then picked up my friend and made the hour-plus journey from Chicago’s north shore to the western suburbs. Attempting to mentally Q&A in the back of my mind while conversing with my friend in the car. We did the project. It went splendidly. Great time. Much success.
Bright spot of the day.
And then an even brighter bright spot: My two-hour lunch date:) Should we skip this part? I asked myself. Take the extra time to make up for yesterday? I wondered. Oh, but everyone’s gotta cut loose and live a little once in a while, right? Take the edge off. The interview will be better if I’m relaxed….
And so the lunch date. It really was pretty great. A second bright spot of the day. The Italian was absolutely wonderful. Oh, that delicious calamari! And my date was even better. Oh, those gorgeous eyes! I had promised her that this would be the best lunch date ever. She told me afterward that it truly was.
But this wasn’t a romantic comedy. I still had more work to do. And we all know that in the sports movies, girls are forbidden while training. I think we know why…
After lunch there was the hour drive back home to the lakeshore. And by then, I had just a couple hours left to make final preparations. From that list of 25 answers, I still had one that needed more research, just in case. I then used the few remaining minutes to add some more polish and fine-tune.
And then the interview was about to begin. 30 minutes to showtime.
As they say, I was nervous as hell.
Another friend texted me out of the blue: Take a shot:)
I already had, but I’m not sure it helped.
Five minutes to showtime. I could use some more polish. Answers still a bit ramblish. Panic. Deep breaths. Go time in… 3… 2… 1…
[You can watch the interview below. But finish the article first.]
And, just like that, as quickly as it started, it was over.
I began receiving feedback. “Good Job!” “Welcome back! I thought it went well.” “You did good.” “That was good for the first time.” Yeah, I suppose it was good. It was okay. For a first-time interview. For a rookie.
I suppose I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. It had been a few years. But I definitely wasn’t polished. At least not enough. Could have used about 20 or 30 more coats. To my horror and shame, much of what I had attempted to prep had quickly unraveled. My answer to the first question (“Tell us your story.”) had churned out a long rambling 20-minute tragedy. I gave into temptation and said two things that I had repeatedly told myself not to say. I went down an unforeseen rabbit trail telling a story that I had not even thought to prep beforehand. And when it was all said and done, I had spent most of the time talking about what kind of pastor I had previously been rather than talking about my transition to atheism. Before I knew it, time was up and there was none available for talking about matters much more pertinent to the discussion at hand.
I felt defeated afterward. No drinks of celebration. I winced as I thought about the interview and found the video painful to watch. I still do.
“That was a good job for the first time.”
Yeah, I guess.
You know you messed up when you seek out advice the next day from a trusted professional… “So honestly what could have been better? What should I do different next time?” and they respond back with a list of preparations that you already knew you should have done. Targets you were already aiming for. And you’re reminded that the reason you felt so crummy the night before is because it was so immediately clear how far off you were.
And so the point of this post?
I guess it’s just to remind myself that preparations matter. Practice makes perfect. For those of you fellow-perfectionists out there, you already know this. Maybe we all do. I’m not sure my interview counts as winging-it. Kind of. Kind of not. Maybe somewhere in between…
But this also reminds me that sometimes life gets in the way, and you make the best with what you’ve got. It reminds me that sometimes we place expectations on ourselves that are honestly a bit too excessive. And that three years away from the microphone really does make a difference. So does creating an entirely new set of answers to all of life’s questions.
But this does make me thankful for those second chances. I didn’t say anything totally stupid. It wasn’t a bad interview. Just not a great one. And I suppose this experience teaches me to be more thankful for the great ones. To not take them for granted. Mistakes remind us of our humanity. Life is complicated, and that’s okay. It has to be.
So I can focus on the positives. At least I had the interview. I’ve now gained the benefit of completing this little exercise. I could view it as practice for the next interview. And at least I’ve made some new connections as a result of it. Networking, etc. And my Thursday daytime event went well. That part of the day was rather amazing actually. Tons of fun. And the lunch date, the calamari, the pasta. Those eyes that I can’t stop thinking about. Yeah, if I were to do it all over again, I would still keep that lunch date right where it was.
So I guess the lesson is to focus on the positive and keep moving forward. Not always the easiest of endeavors for perfectionists like me. But focus on the positive. Analyze mistakes, learn from the past, but focus on the positive and move forward. Breath deep, enjoy the little moments, And Move Forward.
I think I can do that. I think we all can. For the sake of sanity, we have to. Even the perfectionists among us.