Muscle Memory and the Frenetic Student
Reggie Miller's buzzer-beaters were thrilling and memorable. Less exciting: the slow, repetitive training he and we go through to thrive at the right times: at the free-throw line or in class.
To my mind, there are few plays in basketball history more fascinating than Reggie Miller's performance in game one of the 1995 NBA playoffs series between his Indiana Pacers and the New York Knicks. In the dying seconds of the game, with the Pacers down six points, Miller catches an inbounds pass in the Knicks' end, turns around, and sinks a three-point shot without hesitation. The Pacers move up into a full court press to try to force a turnover on the inbounds pass from Anthony Mason. Miller stands to Mason's right, just one step away from where he shot his last three-pointer, and one step behind Greg Anthony, the Knicks guard. Mason sees Anthony open for a split second, looks away and then throws the ball to the spot he was standing only half a second before. Miller, the league's best shooter, is standing there now, over a fallen Anthony. He catches it, and, with the presence of mind that only years of practice can give, turns around, takes one dribble back out to behind the three-point line, and launches another perfect three. The game is now tied.
The game of basketball is deeply rhythmic, so much so that close games between evenly matched teams have scores that see-saw back and forth in a kind of syncopation. Shooting can be analyzed in terms of proper muscle mechanics, but I believe the difference between good and bad shooters is their rhythm.
Our bodies have both short- and long-term muscle memory. Short-term muscle memory allows us to repeat the same motion exactly. Miller's second shot is almost a carbon copy of his first shot. I am not an accomplished three-point shooter, but I know that when I make one shot, I am more likely to hit the next one I take from the same spot. The difference between Miller and me is his long-term muscle memory, developed by years of practice and his tremendous talent for the game. His body is so used to taking three-point shots that his first attempt, an extremely difficult catch-and-shoot with his defender on him, goes in. Once his body is in the right rhythm, all he needs to do is get the ball, get back to the same spot, and shoot.
For the first few weeks of a new semester of school, I live in the quick and impulsive rhythm of short-term memory. The best musical comparison for this rhythm is Weezer. The new semester is energetic, full of new opportunities, new friends, and new classes. Weezer songs are upbeat, full of catchy lyrics, great guitar riffs, and stories about love and heartbreak. All kinds of people vie for our attention and effort for the next thirteen weeks. Our professors explain the rigorous curriculum. Our peers try to entice us into organized and spontaneous extracurricular activities. The feeling of getting new pencil crayons for the first day of grade school is magnified as we get all kinds of new things, and a new rhythm, for our lives in the first weeks of university life. This rhythm is like the short-term repetition that allows Reggie Miller to score back-to-back threes. Less exciting: the slow, repetitive training we go through to thrive at the right times. Eugene Peterson, quoting and repurposing Nietzsche, calls this "a long obedience in the same direction." Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers would call it "two practices daily for fifteen years." In musical terms, discipleship's repetitive quality compares best with Wilco's "Spiders (Kidsmoke)". Wilco uses a loop of bass and drums to repeat one note and one beat for almost four minutes at the beginning of "Spiders" (almost twice the length of most Weezer songs), and eventually does us the kindness of adding a second chord, only to switch back into the loop for the rest of the song. The end result is a song that is truly and deeply annoying for the first ten listens. On a record full of gorgeous and melodic songs, "Spiders" usually lasts about four bars before I skip to the much more accessible and pretty "Muzzle of Bees." But as I grow more familiar with the album (A Ghost is Born), I am beginning to realize just how important for Wilco is the long, slow, repetitive journey of the song. The changes in the song are slow, and are woven around the repeated section so carefully that you need to pay full attention to notice them.
It is this development of disciplined memory that allows Reggie Miller to be a great shooter, Wilco to be a great band, and young students to thrive.
In university life, I am challenged by the incessantly changing rhythm. One of my professors often laments the fact that the academic calendar seems to undermine the rhythms of the Christian year. At my school, the interruption in spiritual rhythm is so rude that my last undergraduate exams will be written during the weeks before and after Easter. I can imagine no greater distraction from the greatest Christian feast day than exams on its bookends. The decision-making process by which a university of Christian conviction and practice is so easily able to ignore the traditions of our faith in an effort to match the secularized academic calendar, which places exams at the high points of religious life, is a great mystery to me.
All of this leaves Christian students needing to recover a genuine, deeply felt, and deeply practiced rhythm of rest and work that matches the Sabbath rest we were created for, while somehow keeping our academic commitments. This salvaging work needs to be done in the tension between the poles of rest and labour, since the balanced and productive Christian life requires both. It is possible to take rest as a right, and give in to sloth. I was once a lazy student who rarely worked. As a result, even my rest was fitful, with apprehension of coming deadlines. After I began to take academics more seriously, I overcompensated and ended up obsessing about my work at the wrong times. The only way to keep a balance between work and rest is a rhythmic and liturgical pattern for life.
SÃ¸ren Kierkegaard, in his essay "Repetition," writes about a young man who has fallen deeply in love with a girl. This young man comes to the study of the pseudonymous author of the book, Constantine Constantinius, and waxes eloquent about his love in poetry. However, Constantine explains that this young man has tragically fallen in love with his own poetic response to the girl's love rather than with the girl herself: the anonymous young man has become so obsessed with her that he can no longer love her. I see myself in this young man; I have definitely fallen in love with learning, writing, and talking about God's world in my years of education. But my response to the world waxes and wanes and has proven itself to be an unreliable foundation for living a good life.
Constantine explains that what his young man needs to learn is repetition.
[Repetition] has the blessed certainty of the instant. Hope is a new garment, starched and stiff and glittering, yet one has never had it on, and hence one does not know how it will become one and how it fits. Recollection is a discarded garment, which beautiful as it may be, does not fit, for one has outgrown it. Repetition is an imperishable garment, which fits snugly and comfortably, neither too tight nor too loose. Hope is a charming maiden but slips through the fingers, recollection is a beautiful old woman but of no use at the instant, repetition is a beloved wife of whom one never tires. For it is only of the new one grows tired. Of the old one never tires . . . He who does not comprehend that life is a repetition, and that this is the beauty of life, has condemned himself and deserves nothing better than what is sure to befall him, namely, to perish.
Kierkegaard helps us express our problem in different terms. The tension between work and rest can be explained as a tension between hope and recollection. If we live our university lives with pure hope for the future, we will be so enthused with our own expressions of this hope that we will never really become familiar with the world as it is, and will be disappointed when the anticipated future actually arrives. If we live with only the recollection of a better past, our nostalgia distracts us from what the things of the past have become, and we feel no urge to work to make a difference. Somehow, Kierkegaard thinks that repetition can save us from the despair of falling too deeply in love with the world or becoming disillusioned.
To salvage repetitive scholarship, we must learn the significance of the present in its complex relationship with the past and the future. We need to learn the story of our own lives well, but we also must see how our scholarship is part of this story, and fit all of this into the true story of the whole world. The true story of the world has been retold, remembered, and celebrated for thousands of years in rituals, and we should feel burdened with the weight of this memory. We need to learn to hope for the kingdom to come without rigidly expecting it to come in a certain way. Hope without this kind of expectation will allow us to continually be surprised at how the kingdom is coming and has already come into the present.
Once we see that the kingdom has come and is among us, we will learn the attentiveness that keeps each beat in the rhythm of the world fresh and interesting. We will slow down. We will work when we have opportunity to do so, and gratefully receive the rest that is given to us. Establishing a rhythm within a community of scholarship will help us survive the frenetic changes in tempo that we experience in university. But repeating faithful discipleship and showing up for practice every day can help us do even more than survive. It can give us the presence of mind to take the right opportunities and to thrive in our full human potential.
David Foster Wallace gave an arresting commencement address to the Kenyon College class of 2005, in which he said that education can help us freely choose how we see meaning in the world. We can allow life's repetition to dull our minds and make us unthinking machines, or we can use education to criticize others. But there is a third way. If we are really taught how to think by education, we should be able to see the world not as banally repetitive, but wonderfully rhythmic. "The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day."
If you're like me, you know how easy it is to care about other people in the public, shiny, exciting, and sexy ways at university: on the new prayer team, in front of a worship service, on a basketball team or while showing first-year students around to make sure they're aware that you are a role model. My biggest challenge in the new things of university is to find a slow and rhythmic pattern of obedience to sustain my work.
So far, the best practices I can find come from my most productive friends, who love both learning and relaxing, who get up and go to sleep at the same time every day, and who work at university for the people they love. The pattern for our lives is rich in the fabric of the world, and good scholarship both lives in it and finds it. May you find a long song in the world this year at school.