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Persistence by Andy Shenk

Over a week ago my workplace held an in-service day for the staff. During one of the teaching sessions, our director presented us with two simple graphs: one representing the rate of learning for average adults, the other representing the rate of learning for our clients, those with developmental disabilities.

The average adult is able to process information quickly and respond accordingly; their rate of learning is depicted by a steady, increasing diagonal line. Adults with developmental disabilities, on the other hand, process much more slowly, often needing weeks or months to learn a concept and respond appropriately. Their graph resembles a staircase; each newly mastered concept followed by a long period of what outwardly looks to be stagnation. Other staff, much more experienced in the field than me, told stories of this principle in practice: one client learned how to open doors only after months of twisting objects in the same manner as a doorknob, another took the step of washing his hands only after staff patiently demonstrated and encouraged him to do so for week after week without seeing any results.

For the last week I’ve been turning these contrasting graphs over and over again in my mind. I’ve become much more patient as a job coach, more determined now to help my clients work independently and take on new responsibilities. In the short term, our work takes longer, but I am beginning to trust the crew more often and love to see them succeed without my assistance. I do not lose hope so easily when progress appears non-existent.

My favorite blog, Pounding The Rock, takes its name from the organizational philosophy of the San Antonio Spurs. Head coach Gregg Popovich brought this concept of “pounding the rock” to the Spurs after reading  the work of early-twentieth century immigration activist Jacob Riis. Riis, explaining his theory of how social change takes place, used the image of a rock cutter pounding a rock again and again until, on the 101st strike, the rock split at the exact right spot. So also, Riis contended, do we bring about social change: persistent, seemingly fruitless labor, ultimately rewarded when others would have given up long ago.

Popovich credits his team’s four championships in eight years to this same willingness on the part of each member of the organization to patiently work together in pursuit of one goal: playing the best team basketball possible at the end of each season. When the season ended in triumph, as it did four times for the Spurs, one could not credit any one moment for the team’s success. Rather, the Spurs’ single-minded devotion to their goal over long months of labor held the key to their success.

Calvin and Hobbes’ creator, Bill Watterson, wrote in the foreword to The Complete Calvin and Hobbes that after college he worked at minimum wage for five long years designing layout for grocery store advertisements. All the while he pursued his dream of creating newspaper comics, sending idea after idea to comic strip syndicates, receiving rejection after rejection in reply. Finally, after five years his Calvin and Hobbes strip received syndication. Over the next ten years he achieved massive notoriety, influencing the lives of millions of readers with his sincere, beautifully drawn stories.

Since the 5th grade I struggled with an addiction that consumed my thoughts every day, produced enormous shame, damaged relationships, and crippled my self-esteem. Despite pursuing various cures, reading books on the topic, praying with many about the addiction, and pleading with God to fix me, I saw no progress for twelve years. Then, a few months ago, my addiction left me. I was healed, set free from the burden that had crippled me for so long.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendary fantasy, Lord of the Rings, centers on the plight of two friends seeking to save their world. They journey in obscurity, with little hope of success, while the kingdoms about them rage with war. At the end, saved by lucky chance, they overthrow the evil despot, and are saved themselves in the nick of time.

Take heart when the long night of doubt blots all else out. When we faithfully pound the rock that darkness is shown to be nothing more than a passing mist, dissolving in the light of new triumph.

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