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Saint of the Day: St. John I
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The cross of inadequacy: A tale of 2 saxophone solos


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Tom Hoopes - published on 01/06/20

What to do with the feeling that we are not really all we are cracked up to be.

Many of us have a cross we could call “inadequacy” that we carry inside — a voice inside that whispers that we’re not all we’re cracked up to be.

Ultimately, if we ignore the voice and keep going forward, that cross will make us strong.. 

I use the “tale of two sax solos” to illustrate this point — my solo, and a priest’s.

“How are you able to speak so easily in public? What’s your secret?” a priest friend asked after I spoke at a conference. “Even when I give a homily, I have to grip the podium and my knees literally shake,” he said. I was surprised. He was a great homilist and a very popular priest.

“It all started with a saxophone solo,” I said. 

In my high school jazz band, I had gotten assigned a solo to play at a concert. I would have to stand up in the front row of the band and, while the other instruments got quiet, belt it out for several measures.

I practiced it over and over again, an hour at a time, until I knew it cold. I was terrified, and did not want to embarrass myself in my big moment.

When the moment did come, I was so nervous I stood up and launched into the solo two measures too early. I immediately recognized my mistake, but something miraculous happened. My fingers took over, and improvised a two-measure introduction to my solo that actually improved it. 

I sat down in a soft warm glow and though I remained terrified to speak in public for years, somewhere deep inside me I knew that, when I absolutely needed to, I could stand and deliver.

When I told this to the priest, his face went white. “That’s incredible,” he said. “I had a sax solo, too.”

He told me that he, too, was in his high school jazz band and he, too, was given a solo at a concert. He, too, was petrified, and he, too, practiced the solo obsessively.

But for him, there was a totally different result when the big moment came. He stood up, blew into the saxophone and it made no noise at all. He looked at it and tried again. No noise.

He sat down in a hot red glow, paralyzed by self-conscious embarrassment.

“Ever since then,” he said, “I have doubted myself whenever I have to be the center of attention.”

That’s the tale of two sax solos. But realize what it says about him, and me … and you.

Here was a man whose very vocation was to speak in public but who, deep in his psyche, had a crack in his confidence that made speaking in public a heavy cross. 

Yet he carried that cross; he gave memorable homilies and was renowned as a one-on-one spiritual counselor. And here was I with an unexpected grace that relieved me of that cross.

He was like Moses, afraid to confront the world, yet confronting it anyway; or like Peter, painfully aware of his past failures, but committed to fulfilling God’s high expectations anyway. God gives great graces to that kind of person.

In fact, research suggests that this cross makes many people do better.

“Impostor syndrome” is the pervasive feeling that you are only pretending to be competent. NBC reported in 2017 that as many as 70% of us feel like we are not really all we are cracked up to be and only fool people into thinking we know what we’re doing.

The problem is even more pronounced in women, and high-level sufferers include Maya Angelou, Tom Hanks, and Emma Watson. But a New York Times medical report suggested there is a silver lining. This kind of self-doubt “reflects a respect for the limits of one’s own abilities,” it said. 

In other words, feeling inadequate breeds humility. And humility leads us to rely on others.

In fact, in the spiritual life, inadequacy is a must.

No one can coast in the spiritual life, and if you ever feel you can, you are headed for a fall.

Are you embarrassed about something in your past? Remember St. Teresa of Kolkata’s words, “We learn humility through accepting humiliations cheerfully.”

Do you feel like you can’t live up to the expectations of the Christian life? Learn what St. Hugh of Grenoble learned: Of course you can’t. Rely on God.

And if you feel like you’re faking your life of virtue, fake it faithfully. Before you know it, you will make it real.

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