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I spent a day with the legendary basketball coach John Wooden once. He was 93-years-old at the time.
Yes, I know that I am shamelessly namedropping in the first-ever Perspectives blog post, but give me the benefit of the doubt and keep reading. It’s a good story.
I spent a day with John Wooden once and I asked him if he ever thought about that fateful night when he accepted UCLA’s offer to become their men’s basketball coach. Way back in the late 1940’s, Wooden had two schools interested in him – Minnesota and UCLA. He wanted to go to Minnesota, but they had to clear up a couple of technical issues before he could accept the job. Representatives of the two schools were to call him one agreed upon evening — Minnesota at six p.m. and UCLA at seven p.m. If Minnesota couldn’t get everything cleared up, he would accept the UCLA job. Six p.m. came and went and Wooden’s phone didn’t ring, so when UCLA called at seven, he accepted that job. A short time later the University of Minnesota Athletic Director called and said he was in a terrible snowstorm and could only now get to a phone to let Wooden know everything was all clear for him to take their job. Wooden said sorry, but he had already given his word to UCLA. The rest, as they say, is history. John Wooden would go on to coach at UCLA for the next 27 years and lead his teams to an unparalleled 10 NCAA men’s basketball championships. It’s hard to imagine so much riding on that missed phone call – almost as hard to imagine as a time when people had to travel through a snowstorm to find a telephone or a time when giving your word meant everything.
“Do you ever think about that night?” I asked him. “Do you ever think about how your life and history might have been different if that snowstorm hadn’t happened?”
He looked at me, shook his head “no,” and abruptly said, “It’s useless to think about such things.”
Are you kidding me?
All I do is think about such things. I obsess over “what ifs” and “what might have beens.” Even though I have had more than one psychologist tell me I’d be a lot happier if I didn’t think this way, I can’t stop myself. I want to know what that snowstorm was. Was it a fluke, random chance, luck, fate, karma, or something deeper? (Are Calvinists even allowed to believe in luck?) Was it the hand of God moving in a powerful way or just a random occurrence?
I want it to be God … but if God was in the middle of that snowstorm, what do I do with another memory of another phone call coming in another snowstorm? It wasn’t even much of a storm, really, and I had just looked out the window at the lightly falling snow when the phone rang. The news on the end of the line was that a wonderful young woman involved in the ministry I was leading had just been killed in a car accident caused by the snow.
Was that the hand of God? Am I bound, if I give God the credit for Wooden’s snowstorm, to give him the blame for the other?
One of the challenges with being middle-aged is the “cloud of unknowing” that has descended upon me. I used to have a lot more certainty about what God was up to in the world. I don’t know if I used to have more faith, but I’m sure I used to have more certainty. Now I have more questions, more reservations, more doubts. I wonder if this is a good or bad thing. I hope it’s good. The Franciscan Father Richard Rohr wrote recently that “to hold the full mystery of life is always to endure its other half, which is the equal mystery of death and doubt.”
I hope I am on my way to someplace deeper still, someplace “further up and further in,” to use C.S. Lewis’ phrase, where the certainty of youth and the questioning of middle-age are replaced by the combination of wisdom and trust found in profoundly mature people like John Wooden. I hope I can get to the sort of serenity that is secure in all that life has brought my way and lose the need to waste my emotional energy questioning reality. I know I’m not there yet.
How about you?