Who Wants to Go First?

"Who wants to go first?"

It can be a panic-inducing question for a student at his or her desk, as a teacher scans the room for a volunteer to share something with the rest of the class. One has to do everything one can to try to hide in such a scenario: slide down in the seat a bit, do not make eye contact, and pray something along the lines of "Don't pick me. Don't pick me. Don't pick me."

I'm familiar with the scene. I've experienced it first-hand as a student and more recently as the teacher who asks the question. Something about being the first one to put themselves out there makes some kids squirm in their seats.

It's not a classroom-specific problem.

I remember teenage me, sitting in a car with the girl who would become my first girlfriend. Until that point, we had just been friends--the kind who talked about everything and spent all of their free time with each other. It was probably one or two in the morning, and I had pulled the car over to the side of the street to drop her off at her apartment. She unbuckled her seat belt, and I expected her to hop out and leave. Instead, she turned to face me, and leaned in close. Her eyes locked onto mine.

"How do you feel about me?" she asked.

I froze. It's a trap, I thought. No good can come from this. She was the teacher asking, "Who's going to go first? Paul?" and I was the student, praying for some way out of this mess--I would have been relieved if a guy with a gun came up to the car window and told me to give him all my money. I wasn't about to go first and embarrass myself by telling her my real feelings--that she was beautiful, that I loved being around her, that I wanted something more. No, that couldn't possibly be what she wanted to hear.

I shook myself out of my paralysis and gave her my answer. "Well. Uh. I think you're pretty cool. And a great friend."

Well played, Paul. Well played. Fortunately for me, she didn't buy my answer. She leaned in even closer. An inch or so from my face. "Are you sure that's it?" she whispered.

And I still didn't want to tell her. That's how scared I was to go first. If you look up fear in the dictionary, you'll find this anecdote there. 

You'll be glad to know that now, years later, I've learned I'm no longer in the Friend Zone when a girl is a couple of inches away from my face. I've also learned this: going first is something life asks us do a whole lot, and it's still just as scary as it was that night in my car.

If we want better, healthier relationships, if we want a life steered more by our hopes than our fears, going first is something we have to face. We can't escape it.

At some point, you'll have to be vulnerable with the person sitting across from you. You're going to need to let down your guard and remove your armor. When you've hurt each other, you'll have to apologize. You'll have to reach out to that person even if you're in pain. There will be times when you're going to have to take a risk and tell someone how you feel. It might be something you're afraid might not be reciprocated: "I have feelings for you," or "I love you," or "I'd like a promotion," or "Can we talk about having kids?" It might be something you know might cause disruption like "This isn't working for me" or "I'm looking for another job" or "I've messed up." And that often means being the first one to go.

Going first--being the one to initiate the conversation or the process--isn't easy. It's scary. It's uncomfortable.

We'd much rather do what a thirteen-year-old sitting in English class does: wait it out. Hope and pray the issue goes away. Dream of a scenario in which someone else goes first and brings it up and/or reads your mind.

Here's what I've learned about waiting for someone else to go first: most of the time, you'll be left waiting. And waiting on someone else to do what you want them to do for you, especially in relationships, is a breeding ground for resentment, pain, and misunderstanding. Lest we all sit around waiting on each other, someone has to go first. And here's the key to it all you may not want to hear: 

That someone needs to be you.

It needs to be you.

You can't count on it being someone else. We can't sit around and wait for someone else to do what has to be done. We can't hope that life will magically deliver what we want without us speaking up for ourselves.

If you're waiting for someone to apologize, you need to go first and initiate that conversation. You may need to apologize yourself before you hear an apology. If you want deeper relationships that go beyond surface-level pleasantries, the ones where you get real with each other about life, you need to go first and open up. If your marriage is suffering from a lack of kindness, you need to go first and inject some kindness into it. If you're waiting and hoping that this guy will ask you out, go first and ask him. If it turns out he doesn't want to do that, then you can go first and key his car.

It's difficult to go first--I know. And do you know what's even harder? To keep going first when you feel like you're the only one doing it. And that will happen, too. But if you know something is better for you, for your life, for your relationships--like honesty, vulnerability, humility, connection--it's up to you to pursue them. If you wait for someone else to do it, it may never happen.

Going first is about living in your hopes instead of your fears. It's about taking the wheel and driving toward what you know to be good and life-giving. Waiting for someone else to go is about giving up the controls to your fear of rejection, the walls you've built to guard yourself, your pride, your past hurt.

That night in the car, I finally did go first and told that girl how I felt (albeit with a ton of help). It paid off. I've gone first plenty of times since in hundreds of ways that have paid off immediately. But there were just as many times I went first and didn't get the response I wanted. Even then, I was steering myself, my life, and my relationships toward something better. Even in failure. Even in rejection.

Life is about direction, not immediate results. When we go first, when we initiate a process or conversation in the pursuit of health and wholeness, we point ourselves and begin to move in a better direction. We put hope at the wheel, not fear.

What has you reluctant to go first? What fear or pain or pride has made you decide to stay put, to avoid eye contact, to leave it to someone else to go?

It's time to raise your hand and say, "I'll go first."