what's your fault line?

This weekend I was chatting with a friend who is an athletics coach. He said something that struck me. He commented that every athlete has an area of weakness, an achilles heel if you will. But he called it a ‘fault line’ - that place where all the training and hard work is most likely to break down. 

For some athletes, their fault line is that their glute muscles don’t fire which leads to all kinds of misalignment as hamstrings and hip flexors over compensate for the lack of push-pull from the butt. For others, a shortening of the achilles tendon prevents the necessary bounce and roll through the foot, causing further rigidity in the calf. 

In Christian formation I have heard a similar idea, with some calling our repeated areas of weakness our ‘signature sin,’ which isn’t a term I like. And yet, it does remind me of the way we become known for our habitual hang-ups or ingrained behaviour patterns. The ancients talked about logismoi, a Greek word used to mean destructive thought patterns or particular deceptions we are prone to believing, which then in turn affect our choices and behaviour.

In 375 AD Evagrius Ponticus developed a list of eight main thoughts patterns (I guess we could call them deceptions or temptations) from which he believed all our unhelpful or destructive behaviour arises. He taught that these are gluttony, lust, material greed, sorrow, discouragement, anger, vanity and pride. I have heard others teach that because of our childhood experiences we all believe certain things that are not true. That repeated line that plays in your head - the one that tells you who you are and how others are in relation to you? It often points to the particular lie that you or I have held onto and allowed to define how we are in the world.

I could tell you right now what that line is for me. When I am under pressure, when I am out of tune with myself, I easily fall into the trap of telling myself this: you are alone. This is quickly followed by, you’d better take care of yourself because no one will do it for you. And needless to say, believing this untruth is a sure way towards independence, misapplied strength and withdrawal. While I’m not sure if Evagrius would say that this deception of mine is rooted in discouragement or sorrow, I am certain that it is a stumbling block that keeps me from living in the truth of my redeemed reality: that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are relational to their core and that I am invited, along with all the people of God, into a place of inclusion, belonging, and interdependence. And yes, that means that there is help available to me even when I feel most alone.

What is your most often repeated untruth? What is the thing that comes to mind when you feel stressed, or out of harmony with yourself and others? Into which behaviour patterns does that lead you, when you allow yourself to entertain it as truth?

Yikes, destruction!

Your ‘fault line’ is that place where all the training and hard work of discipleship is most likely to break down, causing destruction and robbing you of the fullness of life Jesus promised (John 10, 10). It is the thing that causes you to wonder whether all those Sunday sermons and mid-week small group sessions have had any impact at all. In short, it is that thought-behaviour pattern that reminds you of your need for salvation to be worked out more deeply in your very real, everyday life.

invitation to begin, again

Back to athletics for a moment. My coach friend went on to say that in order to make progress - to find a way out of the limiting cycle imposed by her fault line - the athlete must be willing to become a beginner again in an area of training they would usually avoid. He told the story, perhaps apocryphal, of the martial artist who repeatedly engaged in the sport as a white belt, even after attaining black belt many times over. There is great benefit in allowing oneself the space to be a learner, a beginner, with all the curiosity and openness that implies.

Invariably, and especially as we get older, we choose to focus on our strengths and these become our habitual ways of getting things done. We develop habit patterns that are just our most efficient way of achieving our end goal. That is to say, in the sports arena a strongly muscled athlete will tend to power through on strength alone, often preferring to avoid flexibility training. And it will be his inflexibility that breaks him. A runner will repeat her running drills but avoid resistance or weight training, ending up weak bones that take them out of the running altogether.

So for me, the lie that tells me I am alone leads me to behave independently. Believing that no one is going to help me causes me to determine to be strong, so that I don’t need help. I have buried my fault-line under a whole pile of fixatives so that it truly is easier, quicker and more effective to do things on my own. And yet, what looks like strength in reality takes me deeper into my weakness: I feel more alone, less out of touch with the truth of my relational reality and less capable of exhibiting anything resembling the likeness of Jesus and his gospel of inclusion and belonging.

Am I willing, then, to step away from my strong patterns of independence and towards a posture that makes me feel like a beginner? It could be that I choose to cultivate community by engaging in some regular practices of participation with others. Or perhaps I submit to a commitment to team work, that forces me to wait for others, to share decision-making, and to allow my team mates to help me when I need them.

Thomas Merton said that in the spiritual life, “We do not want to be beginners, but let us be convinced of the fact that we will never be anything but beginners, all our life!” What does it look like for you to turn from those things that make you feel capable and strong, to embrace something that makes you feel like a beginner again? To what extent is this disorientating? And how might it save you from the inevitable earthquake that will eventually but predictably rupture along your personal fault line?

[This is just the sort of topic you might want to discuss with a spiritual director. 

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