Maruo Eiichiro (Ei-chan) stands out among sports anime protagonists because of his analytical ability. Usually, analyzers are pushed into secondary roles that challenge or support the main character. In Baby Steps, however, the roles are reversed: the analyzer leads, and, in the second season, the charismatic hero-type is just another opponent. I’ve often said that I find this character change refreshing. Yet I’ve never written a post inspired by Ei-chan’s self-examination.
I think it’s because my posts often include topics I struggle with, such as discipline. I already understand the value of reflection and self-examination. I carry a journal everywhere, I lean toward the analytical, and I’m a thorough note-taker—much like Ei-chan. So I didn’t think about writing on the topic until I caught up on Baby Steps 2 yesterday. Then I realized two things: First, self-examination is an important part of Christian growth and is worth writing about. Second, I’m not as on top of my own reflections as I once was. I carry my journal around, but I’ve gotten out of the habit of actually writing in it. So in this post, I’ll use Ei-chan’s example to consider why, when, and how we can incorporate reflection into our daily lives
Why take the time to reflect? How important is self-examination?
In a nutshell: Ei-chan can’t improve himself if he doesn’t know what to improve. He can’t learn new skills if he doesn’t observe, listen, process, and practice—this applies to skills his coaches tell him about and those he observes in others. And he can’t beat proficient opponents if he doesn’t learn their habits, strengths, and weaknesses.
Similarly, Christians won’t grow if we don’t pay attention to who we’re supposed to learn from and become like (that’s Jesus, folks) or the challenges that may impede our growth if we aren’t vigilant. And if we don’t examine ourselves in light of the Word, it’s easy to ignore the sins and hindrances that hold us back from being who we are meant to be.
What kind of information do we reflect on? Why?
You can’t reflect, let alone analyze, if you don’t have anything to reflect on. That’s where information-gathering comes in. You might not have the same eye for detail or the note-taking obsession that Ei-chan does, but you can learn and adapt such skills to your own routine if you need to.
Ei-chan gathers information about the sport, his opponents, and himself. Notes about general tennis practices and strategies give him a structure in which to work and discover. At first, this means learning rules and basic technique. Later, he learns training and game practices that previous generations of tennis players built and refined over the years. With his coaches’ guidance, he studies these practices and incorporates them into his own play in ways that fit his skill set. He also takes notes about his opponents before and during matches. This doesn’t only help him through individual battles: he also learns skills from them that he can adapt and use in his own play. Finally, and most importantly, Ei-chan gathers information about himself. He takes notes about his overall physical health, his skills (and the skills he lacks or needs a lot of improvement on), his mental and emotional status, and more. Without learning about himself, he can only guess what techniques and training practices are best suited to him.
As a Christian, I’ve found parallel sets of information to reflect on. Instead of tennis practices and traditions, I turn to God’s Word to structure and direct my growth. I’ve learned three main Bible study steps: observation, interpretation, and application. As much as possible, I want to avoid approaching the Bible with my own interpretation already in mind. I pray for understanding as I read and take note of details—repetition, key words, central people and events, etc. I interpret it based on gathered information and on surrounding passages (and when in doubt, I look to trusted Christians for guidance).
The application step of Bible study often requires examining my own life, and it includes prayer that the Holy Spirit would reveal sins I need to confess and weaknesses I need to confront—whether that’s my understanding of who God is, sin I’ve tried to justify or ignore, or a new challenge I’m called to tackle. By taking care to observe, interpret, and apply Scripture, we ensure that we actually learn and grow from the process, instead of passively reading it like a gen. ed. reading assignment.
We need to look at the situation and people around us, too. Challenges to our faith range from the temptation to skip devotional time and hit snooze instead to painful persecution. If we underestimate any of these challenges, or even fail to notice them, we’ll find ourselves unprepared and unconfident–and even sucked into the very sins Christ has freed us from. By analyzing the world around us with God’s Word in mind, we’re better able to discern the right response. This is just as much an offensive task as a defensive one: we can’t serve the people in this world if we don’t understand much about it, can’t witness to them if we can’t speak in terms they understand. When we learn to recognize the Enemy’s tools (most commonly forms of deception), we can better face them, with the Lord’s strength.
We should also study positive, useful details: elements of creation and society that point back to God, for example, or or the ways other believers act in love and faithfulness. Even secular sources have truth to offer if we come to them with a discerning eye. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to write this post.
And, again, we need to notice ourselves. Sometimes, it’s helpful for me to start by journalling about my day or week—it eases me into the process and jogs my memory. Self-reflection, especially on the spiritual plane, is often best done with the Bible on hand and with prayer for clarity. Here are some of the main areas, and examples of questions to ask in self-examination:
- Weaknesses: What sin—whether habitual or irregular—do I need to confess and repent of? Is this sin coming from a weakness in my belief about God’s character, or about who I am in him? What doubts do I have? What is holding me back from growing more like Jesus, and from serving him whole-heartedly? What psychological, physical, or social struggles are interfering with a healthy and productive life?
- Strengths: Who am I in Christ? What skills has God given to me? How am I using them to serve him? What weaknesses has he helped me overcome? (If you have old journals, it’s helpful to look through old entries. If you don’t, you might ask someone who knows you well what growth they’ve seen in you.)
- Spiritual Status: Relates to first two bullet points, but if it’s hard to think in polarities, here are other questions: Have I grown in my faith? Am I passionate about God and the things he’s passionate about? If yes to either of those questions, what contributed to those? If no, what’s holding me back?
- Emotional and Psychological Status: This has been a big one for me. If I weren’t depressed in 10th grade, I’m not sure I’d ever have started journalling regularly. Facing weaknesses in this area is critical, because they can twist your thinking in ways that greatly affect other areas of your life. You may need outside help to identify where your thinking is twisted—for me, that meant listening to my parents, a psychiatrist, youth group leaders, and the Bible. Holding onto spiritual truths, such as my identity in Christ, helped me through some tough years, and reflection helped me separate those truths from my feelings. I slowly learned to identify situations and thought processes that can drag me back down. I also identified tools that help me. (At the beginning of freshman year of college, I promised God that, when anxious, I’d go to my journal first, instead of trying to escape into anime, because I knew confronting and praying about my feelings was much more effective.) Once I came to the other side of the darkness, I paid careful attention to feelings of deep melancholy or stress, to make sure they didn’t lead to something more chronic.
- Physical Health and Habits: Yes, this is important for the Christian. We’re just as physical as spiritual, and God meant for us to be this way. Sleep habits, for example, affect how patient you are toward others, as well as other ways you serve people (and whether you have time for devotions in the morning). And I’ve found that exercise not only helps with stress, but also gives me insight into Paul’s analogies. I don’t keep careful track of these things, but I’ve paid enough attention to notice what contributes to my overall well-being.
Ei-chan’s reflections came in handy on a psychological level in recent episodes. He confronted pressure as he played Ide-kun, the shounen hero-type opponent everyone in the audience rooted for. Once he’d written down everything that contributed to his stress, he could set aside unnecessary pressure, so only enough remained to propel him forward.
I’ve found it helpful to deal with stress in a similar manner. It’s tempting not to thinking about stressful things, but then they just build up in the back of my mind, and that can lead to a more chronic anxiety. So I list potentional stressors. Sometimes, they’re things I can confront with God’s Word or with logic. For example, if I’m unsatisfied with academic accomplishments, I remember that’s not where my identity should be. Other stressors, such as homework and job searches, become less potent once I have a plan to deal with them. Yet another group of stressors involves overcommitment or too much time with people (introvert problems). I address these similarly: analyze the situation, decide what to cut from my schedule, and set boundaries to avoid worsening the situation.
Ei-chan uses his analytical skills to address anger, too. This time, it’s because his opponent, Takagi, violates etiquitte, twists the rules to his advantage, and generally employs unsavory tactics. At first, Ei-chan tries to harness his anger and direct it into his play, but he loses control of his timing and power. So he takes a moment to re-examine the situation. He looks at Takagi’s tactics in a different light and humbly notices that he’s pushing the rules, too, by taking as much time as possible before he serves. “I’m in no position to judge him,” he thinks. Besides, he’s just another athlete himself. The rules decide what’s good and evil on the court, not him, so his anger can only hinder him.
It’s difficult to examine anger and other strong feelings as we experience them. If Ei-chan didn’t already have a habit of self-examination, I doubt he’d have the self-control to pull back, humble himself, and refocus on the game. But it’s worth the effort—he wins the game and even has a beneficial talk with Takagi afterward, something that probably wouldn’t have been possible if he hadn’t calmed down.
When do we examine and reflect on ourselves and what’s going on around us?
Ei-chan makes it a priority, a natural part of his learning process. This enhances, rather than detracts from, the action. Before, during, and after games, he takes both physical and mental notes and makes necessary adjustments. Same applies during and after practices, and often at the end of the day. Most of us aren’t going to be as thorough as Ei-chan—even the athletes among us probably don’t take such careful records. But I think he has the right idea. Whether it’s a part of our regular routine—in the past, that meant mornings for me—something we do throughout the day, or both, it’s worth the time. I’m a writer, so I have extra motivation to take notes throughout the day. But there are other reasons to stop in the middle of the day and examine your status. When you feel stressed or emotional, or when something around you doesn’t seem quite right, take a moment to sort out the cause. Take deep breaths and put things in perspective, rather than letting it go.
Some Final Notes
So you know I’m not just pulling all this out of anime and my own experience, I recommend referencing the Psalms. The psalmists conduct reflection about God and his great works, but they also examine themselves. The first example to come to mind is from Psalm 42:5, where the author confronts his mental/emotional state and directs his own attention to God:
Why, my soul, are you downcast?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God.
Remember, as you reflect on yourselves, that you can’t just rely on your own judgment. Ei-chan consults coaches and peers, and so should we. Advice can’t always be on your own terms, either. We must be humble enough to take suggestions even when we don’t ask for them. This is part is hard for me, since I put a lot of value into how competent I am or appear.