November 22, 2013

Dateline Moscow

It didn’t bother me the first few times that Marilyn Murray mentioned Mike Tyson over dinner at a Moscow pizzeria. But when she evoked his name a fourth time I blurted out: “What’s wrong with him? It’s not normal to bite off people’s ears.”

If anyone knew the answer, it would be Marilyn, the only woman in the world whom the former boxing champion refers to as “Mom.”

Marilyn Murray, 77, isn’t Tyson’s biological mother, who died when he was 16. She’s his adopted mother and a longtime friend. She is also head of a nongovernmental organization in Russia.

Marilyn didn’t blink at my pointed question about Tyson. Instead she shared a story.

Mike Tyson didn’t know his father, and his alcoholic mother beat him viciously. As a boy growing up in New York, he was small for his age and a constant target of bullies. He loved one thing: pigeons, which he kept on the roof of his apartment block.

One day when he was 11, a group of older children followed him onto the roof and began to mock his hobby. A boy snatched Tyson’s favorite bird and brutally killed it. The young Mike was furious. He leaped onto the older boy and pounded him with his fists. He would have killed him if the others hadn’t intervened.

After that incident, boys began to show respect toward Tyson, and his fighting career was born.

Marilyn said Tyson’s childhood, a period packed with violence and instability, opened the door to a troubled adulthood. Subconsciously Tyson felt something was wrong when his life became quiet and smooth. It didn’t feel normal. He was out of his comfort zone. Therefore he sought to return to the violence and instability with which he was familiar, even though it was not healthy for him, and he knew it.

Tyson is not alone in embracing a comfort zone. We all relish the known. Being in familiar settings and engaging in familiar tasks is not stressful and provides a sense of stability. If a boss wants to see employees revolt, all he has to do is announce a change to their daily routines.

But the only way to grow professionally and personally is to push outside our comfort zones. For me, that has meant getting out of the office to accept public speaking engagements and to join Western diplomats in discussions about Russian affairs. It has meant shunning my online friends (Facebook and the BBC) to spend more time reading character-building books. It has meant taking a second look at sin.

Yes, sin is also an old friend. An undisciplined youth left me with regrettable desires and weaknesses. As I have pursued Jesus and His will, the hideousness of sin and the gravity of my former ways have loomed over me. Intellectually I recognize wrongdoing when it rears its head, and I am gaining a greater understanding of how to cut off avenues to temptation.

But when I’m tired, bored, or struggling, my automatic desire is to return to the comfortable, familiar territory of sin.

What’s the solution? When tired: sleep. When bored: spend time with Jesus. When struggling: spend even more time with Jesus. And through it all, keep busy doing good. Maybe that’s why Paul wrote: “And as for you, brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good” (2 Thess. 3:13).

The act of doing good continually lies far outside the comfort zone where we are born. We want to think in terms of “me, me, me.” But the good news is that the more often we leave our comfort zone, the more we will grow accustomed to the unfamiliar. Then the unfamiliar becomes the familiar, and we develop a new comfort zone.

Marilyn told me that Mike Tyson is finding a new comfort zone in sobriety and being a healthy father.

Paul promises a similar miracle: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—His good, pleasing and perfect will” (Rom. 12:2).

This is the ultimate comfort zone: where Jesus is King.