Know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em

“Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.”
- Wendell Berry, Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Sometimes we have to walk down the wrong path in order to get to the right one.

I’ve been thinking about this thought a lot lately. Sometimes things come into our life for only a short time, in order to shape us into the people we need to be, introduce us to the people we need to know, or bring us to that right-place-at-the-right-time moment. It wasn’t a path we were suppose to walk down forever and always, it was just a stepping stone, the catalyst that gets us on the next right path.

When we lived in Prague I felt called to join the staff of a church plant we were involved in. I felt certain. I had more clarity than I had ever felt before. I applied to be part of the mission organization planting the church, raised funds, and started working. Then, almost right away, the couple starting the church moved back to the states. Things dissolved in front of me. And I doubted my ability to be guided by the Spirit. Was I not really called to this? Had I heard wrong? It wasn’t until years later that I learned success is not a measure the Spirit is overly concerned with. Something not working out does not mean we weren’t suppose to do it for a time, or a season, or in order to get us to something else.

During that short season of working for that mission organization, I wrote my first grant proposal. I learned something. And a non-profit we worked with, that help provide gypsy children with safety, shelter, and resources, got a grant they might not have gotten otherwise. I was suppose to be there, just not for as long as I expected initially.

I recently heard someone say, “God guides by what he provides.” And I think that’s interesting. A closed door and lack of provision can be a guide, just as much as an open one and an abundance. But, when a door closes that was open before, it doesn’t mean we weren’t still meant to walk through it when it was open. It also doesn’t mean that because it was open before we need to push against it endlessly now that it’s closed.

Recently, Bryan and I started designing and building an app for authors and beta readers. I was frustrated with the options available for getting feedback on the YA novel I’m writing. So, we started to design an easy way for authors to share their work and for beta readers to read and give feedback on their phones. It’s been slow going, with everything else going on in our lives, but we’ve made steady progress. Then a little over two months ago I thought maybe it would be interesting to start an Instagram account specifically for the app as a way to start slowly building a small audience for once the app is completed.

About a week ago I found out that another app recently launched that does essentially the same thing. It’s a lot like what I was wanting and seems like a pretty decent interface. I know that the market has room for more than one app that does the same thing, but I also found that most authors seem to be happy getting feedback from beta readers in word doc form. Maybe there isn’t a need for this idea.

I don’t know whether we’ll keep building the app out or not. Maybe we will. Maybe it’s still something I want enough to make it happen. Maybe not. But, recently I found myself thinking about how much I have enjoyed the new Instagram account. It has become a place to share about my writing and what I’m learning about the writing process and a place to connect with other writers. I like that. It’s something I didn’t realize I needed or wanted. I don’t know if the app itself is a path I should keep walking down, but I know that I need to keep taking steps with this Instagram account, even if it morphs or shifts into providing something different than I originally intended.

Here’s the thing, for most of my adult life I have pursued projects, ideas, and dreams that ended up not panning out. Some have failed outright, others have just faded into non-existence. Some have ended due to other people’s choices, others I, myself, have given up on before they even had a chance to grow. Often, I beat myself up about this pattern. I feel ashamed about it. I’ve even been told I lack persistence and that I quit too easily. Thankfully, I have good friends in my life who remind me that persistence comes in different shades and colors. It is an act of persistence to just bare up under a heavy weight, it is an act of persistence to continually call doctors and play the role of caregiver.

But, I’ve been thinking… when we overvalue persistence, maybe we start to undervalue discernment. The ability to discern whether something is for us or not, to discern the end of something and let go of it when necessary.

The kind of persistence that sticks with things, doesn’t let go or release, that knocks on the same brick wall over and over again, has value. It is important. If I’ve learned anything from dealing with insurance companies it’s that there are times when you have to just “take another number”, as Bryan and I regularly say. The puritan work ethic that doesn’t quit is important, but there are other valid paths as well. There are times when you have to commit to something and stick with it, but not everything is like that.

Sometimes sticking with something that has reached an expiration date can actually be unhealthy and detrimental to us and those around us. When we aren’t able to let go and release things, when we aren’t able to recognize that some things aren’t meant to be permanent, we dig ourselves into a stagnant pit. We cling to the idea, the person, the dream, when it was only meant to be the thing that pushes us along the path, that gets us where we need to be.

This is where discernment is needed, the ability to know “when to hold ‘em, and when to fold ‘em,” so to speak. And I think this is a skill that we are uncomfortable with in these fast paced, instant-gratification-driven times. Discernment requires quiet. It requires stillness. It requires wrestling. Most of all it always requires time.

I don’t regret pursuing any of the ideas, projects, jobs, or dreams I have pursued. They brought me somewhere I needed to be, they gifted me with needed insight into myself, the world, and others. They led to conversations and introductions for which I’m grateful.

Sometimes you have to pursue a lot of “wrong” paths before you are ready for the right one. Maybe for some of us there aren’t “right” or “wrong” paths — just one spiraling labyrinth that leads one direction and then another, but always back to the center of grace.

We do ourselves a disservices to only glorify the type of fortitude that continues to pound on a brick wall, the type of work ethic that refuses to give up — there is much to say for that kind of endless pursuit — but maybe we would do well to at least recognize the type of fortitude that knows how to bend, that knows when enough is enough, when it’s time to move on, the kind of fortitude that gets up again when knocked down and keeps going, but is wise enough to change directions. There’s something to this kind of persistence, not the persistence of a particular idea, goal, or vision, but the persistence of a character, a person.

Maybe I’m thinking about this especially as I prepare to start sending query letters to agents and pursue publishing. The only thing I know about the process is to be prepared to be rejected, to fail, to hit brick wall after brick wall. It helps me to know that this is the process for every writer, no matter how good. I know it will be the process for me as well.

So, I am thinking about the discernment it takes to know when to knock over and over on the same wall, and when to release and take another path. For most of my adult life what has been asked of me has been release, to take another path, but there is a pressure building in me, a certainty I have not felt before, that makes me wonder if this process of pursuing publishing might be a time to hold firm.

Either way I want to trust the process, to trust that even if this letter leads to a rejection, it might also lead to a connection that I need later on. Even if this path dead ends, that dead end might lead me to another path I need to walk down. Nothing is wasted. All of it is part of the process.

So, here’s to celebrating each path even when it feels like it leads nowhere. Here’s to the wrong paths that get us to the right ones. Here’s to discernment and flexibility, being persistent while still bending and changing and letting go when needed.

“Men are born soft and supple;
dead, they are stiff and hard.
Plants are born tender and pliant;
dead, they are brittle and dry.
Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible
is a disciple of death.
Whoever is soft and yielding
is a disciple of life.
The hard and stiff will be broken.
The soft and supple will prevail.”
- Lao Tzu

Grace and peace,

Bethany Stedman