Small children and fictionalized bulls alike can teach us that goofing off can be a noble goal indeed.
I smiled when I saw my daughter Cara pull the spring sports sign-up sheet out of her book bag. My thoughts immediately drifted back to last year, her first full year of competitive soccer.
My wife and I had only one rule for her: "Try your best. That's all we ask." Truth be told, we (at least I) wanted her to be a star. In the sports-obsessed culture that we live in, I wanted to glory in her scoring goals. I wanted her to "bend it like Beckham." I wanted to be able to play it cool when other parents asked, "Is that your daughter?" I wanted the team to frown when Cara wasn't there because they knew that without her there was no way they could win. Eventually, the better part of myself got hold of me and said, "Wake up. She's only 6!"
Looking back, one scene really stood out from the previous season. It was a close match, with the other team up by a goal. Cara wasn't in the game at this point, but, since everyone had to play an equal amount of time, I expected her to go in at any minute. Glancing at the sidelines, I saw that far from paying attention, she was goofing off with some of her teammates in the field behind her bench.
Embarrassed I got down from the stands. Making my way over to her side of the field, I stopped myself. Cara was making flower bouquets with her friends. I was taken aback by her playfulness at the edge of the woods. Thankfully the words that I wanted to say to her never came out of my mouth.
Reflecting on this scene later that evening, a classic story from my youth came to mind, The Story of Ferdinand. Written by Munro Leaf in 1936, I had recently rediscovered it at the high altar of children's furnishings, Pottery Barn Kids.
The book's initial reception is telling. In the late 1930s civil war-ridden Spain banned it. It was burned by fascists in Nazi Germany. Gandhi listed it as one of his favorites. America, depending on whose side you were on, saw it as either prompting communism or fascism. Over the subsequent years it has been heralded as a poster book for pacifism. The Story of Ferdinand is and is not all of these things.
The story takes place in Spain. There in a field, unlike the other little bulls that butted heads, Ferdinand liked to just sit quietly and smell the flowers. His mother, though concerned, saw that he was healthy and let him be.
Finally the day all the young bulls were waiting for arrived. Officials from Madrid were coming to pick the fiercest bull for the upcoming bullfights. While the other bulls were showing who was best, Ferdinand did as he had always done and sat in the shade of the cork tree. Except this time rather than smell the flowers, he sat on a bee. This set off a most amazing display of kicking, grunting, snorting, and puffing. The officials from Madrid were convinced: Ferdinand was their bull.
The day came and Ferdinand was led into the ring. His reputation preceded him. Everyone, from the matador on down, was afraid and ready for the fight of their lives-except Ferdinand. Entering the ring, Ferdinand began to see and smell the lovely flowers in the ladies' hats. It reminded him of home so, as he'd always done, he sat down in the middle of the ring and smelled them.
No one could rouse him. Ferdinand, oblivious to the charged environment around him, just sat down and smelled the flowers. He had "ruined" the event by upsetting people's expectations for sport and competition. In the end Ferdinand was sent back home to sit under the cork tree and smell the flowers.
Though I'd never thought of my daughter as a bull (only bull-headed) before, that day the parallel was quite obvious. While her place of sanity was set in a field rather than under a cork tree, Cara's unwitting protest about competition was quite successful. Her recognition and appreciation of beauty in a bouquet of flowers-the manifestation of God in our world-far outweighed who won or lost at soccer that day.
There was a slight grin on my face at the end of the game. Win or lose, parents from both teams all line up in the middle of the field. Extending their arms out in the air, they make an arch under which both teams race through to shouts of "Good job!" "Way to go!" "Good game!"
Something that I'd thought was a little hokey before, done to preserve fragile self-esteems, hit home that afternoon. Participation really was the key, not winning and losing. It is sad that one place where one can quickly lose the image of God is the athletic field, perhaps not so much on the part of the players as their parents.
I'm glad I was able to understand the lesson my daughter shared, that being with friends (even if she was picking flowers when she should have been paying attention to what was happening on the field) was far more important than competing against another team.
There are multiple ways of winning. Most of them don't show up in box scores, on a muddied uniform, or in shouts of "We're the best." Sometimes they're found in a bouquet of flowers that your daughter gives you after the game. Once again, it's the children who teach the adults.