Leo Tolstoy once wrote,
“If I know the way home and am walking along it drunkenly, is it any less the right way because I am staggering from side to side?”
Setting aside my personal views on Tolstoy or the full context of this quote, the idea behind it always fascinated me. I think about it when people approach me to say that they fear that in attempting to defend the value of all human life they will mess up in some permanently disqualifying and embarrassing fashion. They don’t see themselves as eloquent enough or well schooled enough to engage without the real possibility of failure. These fears are understandable but they miss the point.
The first time I talked about abortion in front of an audience I did an awful job. My presentation burdened the audience with too much information, which I delivered at a near manic pace because there was nowhere near enough time to cover my insanely comprehensive notes. It didn’t really matter. The audience consisted of five people, two who were related to me, two women who clearly did not enjoy the experience, and one older man who looked like he had stumbled in the wrong room but was too polite to leave while I was talking.
The whole event embarrassed me. The memory jars me even today. My relatives assured me it wasn’t as bad as I thought, but my own obsessive memories paint a different picture. Whatever the reality is, there are two things that will always be true about that night. (1) It was the worst presentation I have ever given on the subject of abortion. (2) It was the most important presentation I have ever given on abortion precisely because it was the worst.
When we try new things, failure is inevitable. It can’t be helped. Study and preparation can get us just so far before we have to step out and say something in front of an audience. Whether that audience is our sibling, our neighbor, or a small number of people in a classroom at church, the first time any of us speaks, we struggle. How we respond to that struggle, to that failure, depends upon our commitment to the issue and our willingness to work hard to improve.
My son dabbled at Upward sports when he was younger, but never cared for any particular sport enough to really work. As a big tough kid with natural strength he could compete and play well, but he routinely told me that if I wasn’t coaching he had no interest in playing. Then one day when he was in fourth grade we received an email that a new lacrosse team was starting up. A local coach who had been successful at the high school level volunteered to start a team and wanted it comprised of mostly first time players. I asked my son if he wanted to play knowing (a) I wasn’t coaching and (b) he had no friends on the team. To our surprise, he said he wanted to try.
We bought him a stick, rented some gear, threw him out on the field, and he was TERRIBLE. He couldn’t take two steps without the ball falling out of the head of his stick. He couldn’t catch. He could throw ok, but every other drill was painful to watch. As he walked toward me after practice I prepared myself to hear his resignation speech and hoped I could get my money back on the equipment rental. To my utter astonishment he told me, “Dad, I found my sport.”
I tried to hide my shock but asked, “What? Are you sure?”
He responded, “Absolutely. I love it.”
By any measure, his performance that first practice was abysmal, but he had the courage to step out and try a new thing. After that night, he worked in lacrosse like he never worked at anything. Other players mocked him, but he kept working. Coaches benched him, but he kept working. He trained and worked and made a couple of club teams. Last year, at 15 years old, he was selected to participate on an All-Star team that traveled to a tournament to play in front of college recruiters. At 16, he still loves the game and still works hard.
I fared no better in my first talk than my son did in his first lacrosse practice. I tried something new and failed. But I knew I couldn’t stop talking. The issue is too important. I bought books, contacted speakers for guidance, and looked for opportunities to talk again and again.
I learned to focus my talks by simplifying the issue and addressing the single question that makes or breaks the moral case for abortion, “What is the unborn?” I stopped burdening my audience with a long and rambling presentation about everything that is wrong with abortion and focused like a laser on answering the question, “Why is abortion wrong?” Abortion is wrong because it unjustly takes the life of an innocent human being. I learned to make that case, and then I dedicated myself to making it better.
My first failure remains the most important talk I have ever given because I had the guts to stand up and make an effort. That failure happened because I made a conscious decision that silence was not an option. In short, I showed up. There have been many failures since then, most of them small but a few big blunders as well. I learned through dialogue that I misunderstood some arguments, but that never stopped me from engaging the arguments. It encouraged me to learn more so that I wouldn’t make that same mistake next time.
We must remember that none of this is about our reputation. In fact, it isn’t about us at all. It is about defending the imago Dei, the image bearers of God from a dangerous and deadly marginalization. When the world and our culture look to redefine the nature of human life so that our fellow human beings may be destroyed or used as a resource, our job is to say, “No.” Your first time saying that might be awkward and seem to you a total failure. Keep saying it anyway. Like Tolstoy’s drunken walk home, a staggering and sloppy “No” is more profitable than a silence born out of a fear of looking the fool. It is still movement in the right direction. If your message is that all human life ought to be treated with dignity and respect then a little stumbling and staggering is forgivable.
Learn to make your case. Focus on the question, “What is the unborn?” Equip yourself to answer that question. Use the science of embryology to argue the unborn are whole and distinct human life from fertilization. Use philosophy to argue that our equal human dignity is grounded in the only trait we equally share across the whole human family, our mere humanity. Once you learn to make that case, learn to make it better.
We all fail. We all stumble. We all invite ridicule. Some efforts are simply so important we must endure failure in order to get better at them. This is one of those things. Our most important job is to show up and press on in the face of discouragement.
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