“No,” they said. “We’re not here for redemption. We’re not here for revenge of last year. We are a different team.”
And yet, the reporters kept asking the Tar Heels if their efforts were founded on a desire to reclaim last year’s loss. To redeem a tragedy. Because that’s the story their audience wanted to hear. That’s the story that resonates with every human; a tale as old as time.
I rolled my eyes at the questions. Focus on this year! I wanted to shout. The players have nothing to say. I even doubted this year’s basketball team was focused on last year until I that heard one player kept a photo of the loss as his phone screen saver, and a group text message between the players was titled “Redemption.” And even then, I thought those were just like motivational quotes to keep them going. The way they talked, they were focused on just this year. But that’s the thing about redemption. You can’t can’t really talk about it until it happens. And for the Tar Heels this year, it did. And then, I saw the video (above) of the team’s celebration after winning the championship in Phoenix. I saw Isaiah Hicks and Theo Pinson, and Justin Jackson, and on their faces, written in Arial Bold was: disbelief, and raw, joyous relief, their minds focused internally, their eyes unable to take in the crowd or the stadium, or the confetti, and it struck me: This team wanted this year’s win because they knew last year’s loss. They wanted redemption. And this, trying again and doing things differently, is what it means to be human.
Redemption is a deeply felt experience, because it is a victory that carries, alongside the shine of triumph, the not-yet-completely-healed scars of failure. The redeemed know what it means to come so very close to victory and yet miss the mark, and they carry this with them in their journey.
The journey of the Carolina basketball team through the NCAA tournament this season was a raw emotional experience for me in many ways. I became so invested in the games, I felt my heart palpitating at times. At the risk of idealizing this team of young players (for certainly that is the risk of loving college basketball), I want to hypothesize that 2017 is the year of the sweetest Carolina victory. Every time I watch the video above I tear up. The hurt of last year is written across their joy. It is more real because they know what it feels like to lose. Unlike the child who gets everything she wants, this grand gift is not taken for granted. It is a product of hard work that could have failed once more.
Redemption is hardly a new narrative for anything, but it is the greatest story there is.
I’ve felt my own share of redemption moments in my life. My first year of undergrad, I couldn’t run a 5k without stopping. I ended my college career by running a half-marathon. And, perhaps what I struggle with the most now, is my self esteem, not valuing myself the way God sees me. I believe my friends see me in the way I see myself (read: not good enough), and I’m working to change that. I may not be putting in days in the weight room, but prayer, The Bible, books, and encouraging words from strong friends are strengthening me for sanctification. I know I’ve already been redeemed.
The Tar Heels’ failure last year was broadcast across the country – they hardly had the choice to keep it a secret. But that publicity could only call attention to the passion and drive behind this entire season. And now it feels worthwhile. Hiding mistakes behind perfection means the world misses out on the sweetest victory. Pain, hurts, scratches, injuries make victory that much more powerful and well-earned. We are beautiful when we overcome. Perfection is boring, unrelatable, and syrupy sweet like raw sugar. Redemptive victory is the complex, multilayered sweetness of honey, composed of its surrounds. It lasts longer, it tastes of its history.
It is what dredges up deeply relatable emotion in me.
It is what makes me want to throw up a Joel Berry-bicep reading, “Believe.” We should all believe that we are strong enough, good enough, and capable of experiencing redemption. We are never too far, too beaten, too hopeless. Christ debased himself in human form to redeem what he saw worthy: us. And we are stronger and our love for Him and for each other should be that much sweeter because we know what we had been and what we could now be, but are most assuredly not. He lives in us and we are no longer our failures.
Redemption. It is so sweet.
PS: And, if I may posit, there is something to be said about sharing these emotions collectively; though our redemption stories are individual, catharsis comes when we’re heard and loved.