The Invisible Whip
Listen to “The Invisible Whip” by Fred Smith
The week started over coffee with a young man having just completed the ultimate business deal of his career. If managed right the assets would be a fortune providing for him and his family for the rest of their lives. Expecting exhilaration, I asked him how he felt and to my surprise he said, “I’m afraid. I know I don’t deserve this and I might lose it as quickly as I made it. God could always take it away.”
That reminded me of the calling of Peter by Jesus in the boat on the lake. Immediately following the biggest catch of their lives suddenly Peter says, “Depart from me Lord for I am a sinner.” It’s odd, really, because it is his greatest success. It’s a windfall catch so big the boats are sinking with the enormous haul. Why are my friend and Peter not thrilled for more than a moment? Why does sudden success so often create crippling inadequacy and fear?
In an interview about the longevity of the band Phish, the lead singer, Trey Anastasio talked about what happened as their acceptance grew and it was obvious that they were a phenomenon. “Success probably triggered feelings of being a fraud. All through the 90’s we used to walk offstage with a sense of pride that we had kicked ass. We put on a show. Then somewhere for a while I lost that feeling. We had a name for it: the invisible whip. The invisible whip is when I walk off stage saying: “Why did that suck? I need to analyze this and make it better.” And when the response, in my mind, outweighed what we deserved, that contributed to a lot of turbulence.”
The Imposter Syndrome
Recently, a friend was sorting through an issue that affects all of us at one time or another. She has a fine career and was sideswiped by a loss of confidence. It was not depression as much as a deflation. She had lost her sense of hope and belief in her own skills. All she could see was being stuck and immobilized – or worse. Known as the “imposter syndrome” it is the fear of being found out not being so competent as everyone thought. “Someone sooner or later is going to reveal me for who I really am.”
I know my friend is not alone in this. We lose our confidence. We second guess ourselves or, worse, begin to think whatever talent is ours will suddenly disappear leaving us exposed. Why do I know? It happens to me.
It must be a general condition as it is found so often in Scripture. So many of the men and women we consider spiritual giants have suffered from it. Abraham loses faith in God’s promise of a son. Moses loses confidence and tries to get out of what God has called him to do. Gideon discounts his abilities to fight the Midianites. Elijah hides in a cave. Mary feels unworthy. The Samaritan woman slights herself. Peter denies Christ and despairs. David is discouraged almost as much as he is sure. Solomon despairs of everything, and Job is a whole book about dealing with trust in God and inexplicable loss.
Yet, when it happens to them, we find a way to overlook and skip through it or even spiritualize it as humility instead of what it is – debilitating fear. Instead of humility with us, it is a painful flaw in our character.
Interrupting The Ordinary
Looked at another way, Peter may have been saying something else entirely. Success upsets the routine of life by interrupting the ordinary that we count on for stability. It’s better as a goal than an accomplishment – especially when it comes out of nowhere and is inexplicable. Success is not supposed to happen this way. Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania is quoted by Arthur Brooks in a Wall Street Journal article. “We found that even when good things occurred that weren’t earned…it did not increase people’s well-being. It produced helplessness.” Peter may have been saying “I’m more comfortable with what I know than I am with this. I don’t need this because it will at some point sooner or later expose what I know to be true about myself. There, I’ve said it. Now leave and let life go back to what it was.”
Of course, that’s not how it ends. Fortunately, the end is an extraordinary invitation only a few people receive from Jesus. Even better for Peter, he heard it twice. Here, after his greatest success, and then later after his worst failure.
I suppose that’s what I want my young friend to hear. “Follow me.” That is always the point of the story. No easy explanations or assurances. No promises of future miracles or an easy life. Just follow me.
This is an excerpt from “Where The Light Divides”