Yes, I’m a nerd, and you other nerds likely caught the reference already. My oldest son, Uriah, and I have been listening to the Harry Potter books together, and the other weekend we were listening to The Order of the Phoenix on our way to a Rocky Mountain Nationals wrestling tournament in Pueblo. Little did I realize as we listened to Professor Snape teaching Harry about occlumency, that the weekend’s wrestling would provide both of us an incredible lesson in occlumency as well as one of my most cherished moments with Uriah to date. What is occlumency you might ask? It is the practice of controlling your mind and emotions. “Oclu” is a root word meaning “to shut down” and “mens” is a root word meaning “mind.” In Harry Potter, occlumency lessons serve to teach Harry to protect his mind from Lord Voldermort, the book’s villain (a skill Harry never masters). In order to master the skill, one must learn to control his or her emotions, stopping anger, fear, sadness, or any other emotion from taking over the mind. The occlumens must literally “shut down” his or her mind from all outside intrusions by shutting down emotions. The occlumens is a master over his or her mind and emotions, rather than being a slave to them.
Providing a little background for the weekend, this is Uriah’s second year wrestling, and this was his first national level tournament (18 states were represented at this tournament). Prior to this weekend, he’s only competed in maybe 5 or 6 tournaments since he started wrestling. During weigh-ins, Uriah was given the option to double bracket, meaning he could compete in both his age group (7 and under) and the age group above him (8 and under) to get in some extra matches. His friend double bracketed, so naturally, Uriah chose to as well. Additionally, I made the mistake of allowing him to eat prior to weigh-ins. He’s only 7, so I didn’t think much about his weight for the tournament, and he weighed in 0.2 lbs above the lower weight class. In other words, the weight of his breakfast put him up a weight class. The other kids in his weight obviously took the weight seriously, because when it came time to wrestle, there was a notable size difference between Uriah and every one of his opponents. At 7 years old, this size and strength discrepancy, coupled with what quickly became obvious as a large experience discrepancy, made a big difference. With this in mind, allow me to lay out how the tournament unfolded for both of us.
Uriah’s first match set the tone for the rest of the day. When the whistle blew and the two tied up, his opponent’s age, strength, and experience quickly overwhelmed him, and his wide eyes showed it as his opponent made short work of him. Uriah came off the mat upset, as expected, and the subsequent three matches were replays of the first. After each match, he and I talked about something he can improve for the next match, and he did his best to try whatever we talked about. After an initial few minutes of anger, frustration, and tears, he would pull it together and stay positive for his next match – only to have the same outcome repeated again. In his 5th and final match, it looked like he might actually have a chance as he held his own through the first period. Then, in the second period, his opponent had three or four solid mat returns (picking Uriah up off his feet and swiftly bringing him back down to the mat on his belly) that clearly knocked the wind out of him each time. This was the start of our real lesson in occlumency.
I had previously wondered how I would handle myself the first time I became truly angry with Uriah in wrestling. Previously, as every dad who has coached his son can attest, I have experienced frustration, disappointment, joy, and pride. But I had not yet experienced anger. Losing a match, falling short, or making a mistake never really upsets me. Throwing a tantrum, quitting, and losing self control on the other hand, are all unacceptable to me, especially from my children. After being forcefully returned to the mat for the third or fourth time, I could see Uriah start losing control. At first, he just started thrashing about like a bundle of anger not knowing how to release itself. Then he started screaming, crying, and kicking as he rolled over to his back, pressing his hands up into his opponent’s face and throat while screaming “I can’t breathe!” My wife says she could see my anger on the side of the mat from the stands as I jumped to my feet and yelled at Uriah to control himself. Feeling myself starting to lose control, I looked away, clenched my teeth, and took a deep breath as I reminded myself “he’s only 7.” When he came off the mat, I couldn’t trust the words that would come out of my mouth at that moment, and I was worried that I would ruin the sport of wrestling for him in an instant. So I told him to go talk to his grandfather as I walked a short distance away, focused on deep breathing, and said a prayer for my own self control and wisdom as to how to talk to Uriah. It was not the loss making me so angry, it was the display of his emotions overcoming him causing him to throw a tantrum and pin himself in the process that was getting to me. And, I was acutely aware of the irony as I was a single breath from losing my own self control. If I wanted him to learn to control emotions, this moment was crucial in controlling my own. Later, one of my close friends (another wrestling dad) took Uriah aside before letting Uriah come talk to me, as my friend could still see my anger near bursting. I’m so thankful for this, because by the time Uriah found me a few minutes later, I had cooled to the point I could say a couple words in the right tone. I kneeled down to one knee bringing myself to eye level with him. Putting both hands on his shoulders, I told him “Son, I love you no matter what. And I will always be proud of you. We will talk more about that match later.” I gave him a hug, then stood up and walked away to keep cooling down. We did not talk about it again until the next day.
We stayed in Pueblo that night at my in-laws house. My friend who had pulled Uriah aside after the match to give me time to cool down gave me a great idea. He recommended I take Uriah for some coffee at some point, just me and him, and visit about the tournament. The next morning, I woke Uriah before the others, and we got in the truck and went for some coffee and a bagel together. When we sat down with our coffee and bagel, I started the conversation by asking Uriah if he had fun yesterday, and what he thought of it overall. He said he did have fun and that he wanted to do it again. His answer took me by surprise, because I was worried the experience had ruined wrestling for him. It definitely did not look like he had fun during the tournament. I asked him what was fun about it, and he said he had fun wrestling, being there with his friends, learning lessons from his losses, and spending time with me. That last part put a lump in my throat as I thought about how close I was to blowing it in my anger after his last match. We then talked about how painful it can be to wrestle, and how that pain provides us opportunities to grow. We read the story of Jacob wrestling the angel of the Lord in the Bible, and we talked about how Jacob did not quit even after the angel broke Jacob’s hip. We imagined together just how painful that had to be, and we talked about the pain he felt yesterday as I asked him to try and remember what exactly he was feeling when he lost control. I was dumbfounded by the insight of a 7 year old as he explained that he became mad, then scared because he didn’t know what to do, then embarrassed for acting the way he did. He still seemed embarrassed while reliving it now, as if he thought I had never done something similar before. So I told him about a time when I was 11 years old and threw a similar outburst during a cross country practice when someone beat me who I didn’t think should. My mom was my coach at the time, and she promptly corrected me on the spot. Sharing this story with him became a bonding moment for us as I believe it was one of the first times he saw me as human too, and not as the superman figure boys tend to see in their dads. By the end of our coffee and bagel discussion, I was misty eyed by the incredible morning with my son. When it was time for me to leave Pueblo and head back to Meeker (Uriah, his mom, the girls, and his baby brother were staying in Pueblo a few more days with the grandparents), Uriah held on to me for a long time before letting me get in the truck to leave. When I finally got in the truck, he asked me to get back out for one more hug before leaving, which I gladly did with another lump in my throat.
This weekend, the lessons, and precious moments with Uriah could have been ruined by allowing my emotions to overcome me. And they almost did. I believe this is why God has so much to say in the Bible about anger, self control, and controlling our tongues. “But don’t let the passion of your emotions lead you to sin! Don’t let anger control you…” – Ephesians 4:26. God knows I have messed up in this way many times, and being human, I likely will many more times. However, self-control is a skill I am daily aiming to master, and I am thankful for the many and regularly provided opportunities to grow in this area through athletics, competition, and exercise – as an athlete, a coach, and a father. I’m becoming an occlumens, and teaching my children to be as well. In the short couple weeks since this happened, I have already seen tremendous growth in Uriah on his path in becoming an occlumens.
- Dr. Grant