Be Last

We have this idea as a society, reinforced by our current American president, that the world can be broken down into winners and losers. If you win, you are worthy, and if you lose, you are unworthy.  So many of us have this concept engrained in our psyches, that we are afraid to take risks.  If we are known for being good at something, whether a career or a hobby, we continue to do that field or task, because we are assured of a successful outcome.  So the surgeon who is a great cook knows how she will be in the operating room and the kitchen, and the yoga teacher who is great at photography, knows he can succeed on the mat and with his camera.  But what happens if the surgeon want to learn photography or the yoga teacher has always wanted to cook?  How many of us are willing every day and every year to be a beginner in some aspect of our lives?  In a world of winners and losers, it’s a very scary proposition.

As a mother, I’m aware that in this generation, kids are encouraged to “specialize” in a given sport at a very young age, by age 8 or 9, even though it’s not in the interest of their bodies or their long term sports “career.”  Injuries and burn-out are increasingly common as kids play the same sport year round and over use the same muscles.  One of our neighbors in fact had two surgeries before she was 16, due to playing year-round soccer on multiple teams.  When my son was younger, I was surprised to find that there was no such thing as a beginner baseball team for 3rd graders since kids need to start in first grade.  Since he was a beginner he was grouped with a bunch of 6 year-olds.  (The good news is that the little boys all looked up to him since he was taller, but still.) The same goes for tennis and soccer and lacrosse.  If you’re a beginner at 10, it’s too late.  And if you’re a beginner, you’re going to be worse than everyone else, and you might– gasp– lose, which in our society would make you a loser and no one wants that.  So we adults tend to steer our young kids toward what they will succeed in, as opposed to letting them try things they might not be good at, whether initially or whether ever.

My son, who is 6th grade, tried lacrosse last year for the first time and hated it.  As he said, “Who thought of the idea of all those boys running around with sticks?  They just hit each other when the coach isn’t looking!”  He and my 8th grade daughter tried musical theater this year and both loved it, which didn’t surprise me, since I’m from a music and theatre background.  He tried piano lessons but likes voice better. She tried piano lessons and likes cello better.  But as they make their way through exploring what they like and don’t like, what inspires me most is when they try things that they are not initially good at. My son this spring has been on track for the first time and since he is still small and is competing against older kids, he is not very fast yet.  In fact, at the recent meet, he came in last.  But what touched me was how he handled the defeat.  He finished the race and held his head up high, and when one of his friends, who won the race, lapped him, the friend reached out to pat my son on the back.  It was such a lovely gesture.  I reminded my son that it’s not winning that teaches us anything; it’s losing.  It’s knowing how to be graceful in defeat and to be proud of your efforts.  You also can’t appreciate winning unless you’ve lost, just as you can’t appreciate success without experiencing failure because they are two sides of a coin.  I reminded him that unless we are trying new things and putting ourselves in a position in which we might lose or fail, then we are not really living.  We don’t want to get stuck in the same familiar roles that everyone expects, because in the end it becomes a trap.

For me, as my kids know, even though I was strong in the performing arts, I was not a great athlete, and I still remember the only two goals I ever scored in soccer.  I also remember equally missing an important penalty kick and how supportive my team mates were.  For every lead I got in a play, I most remember playing the part of a tree in a community theatre production of “The Wizard of Oz.”  The year before I had actually played Dorothy in the same show, but with our small community theatre, and with just 6th-8th graders.  This time around was a more professional show with mostly adult actors, and the best part I could get was as a tree.  It was very humbling and a great experience, because I learned that there are no small parts, just small actors, which you never want to be.  I passed on that wisdom to my son this past winter, when he was cast in a small comedic singing part, in which he had play four separate characters with different accents.  He wasn’t the lead, but many people commented that he stole the show; he was funny and charming on stage.  I reminded him of that when he left the field after his recent track defeat. For every win, there is a loss and both are important.

As you think about what your world stage is, remember to try new things and allow yourself to fail, to come in last, to burn the new dish, to create bad art, to just not be very good, because then you realize how freeing it is not to have to perform to others’ expectations of how you should be.  This week, let yourself be last in some way.  You may find, after a lifetime of striving to be first, that it’s very freeing indeed.

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The Game of Life

Last Sunday’s Super Bowl was one of the most exciting endings to a game that I’ve ever seen.  We had friends over, and after it was clear that the Patriots were getting creamed, we turned off the tv and just hung out. Thankfully, we checked the score on our phones from time to time.  When we realized that the score was 20-28 with three minutes left to go, we turned the tv back on.  Since we knew the Patriots would have to score a touchdown and complete a two point conversion, we were a little doubtful.  And even Tom Brady, who is normally very even keel, looked nervous.  But in the end, he and his team focused on the goal and didn’t think about the crowd or the ticking clock, and they made history. What struck me, however, was not that they managed to pull it off in three minutes plus overtime, but that they were able to remain hopeful after such a disappointing game. A lot of people were writing on social media afterwards about what kind of quality allows a person to focus and keep trying when all seems lost. The fact that the Patriots ended up winning, in my mind, is nice, but it’s not the main story.  What was amazing to see was a team begin to rally after defeat, remain focused, keep trying, and still believe that it was possible.

This is, of course, a great metaphor for life.  How many of us, if we had been on that field, would have believed that it was possible to turn the game around as the Pats did, when no one in Super Bowl history has ever come up from 25 points in the final quarter, with eight points in the last three minutes? How many of us would have just gone through the motions since there was no point anyway? The fact is that so many of us use the ‘story’ of our past failures or mis-steps as proof that we should just stop trying and give up.  And we have a culture that supports the idea of giving up, that looks for opportunities to bring others down, and to remind people that dreams don’t come true, that it can’t be done, and that we don’t have what it takes.  (Just notice how often people put each other down online and focus on negativity in real life.)

I noticed a lot of the commentary focusing on Tom Brady and how impressive he was, but it was the entire team that had to shift into action and change their mindset to bring that win.  We want to believe that there is a certain magic surrounding famous, good-looking, athletic and rich people like Tom, who is also, of course, married to a beautiful, famous, rich super model. But I think, more than anything, it was a belief that they might have a chance and they would give it their all no matter what.  Think how amazing our lives would be and the world would be if we all lived by that same belief, that anything was possible, even when it seemed like we had run out of time and the odds were stacked against us?

There’s another part of the story that was equally compelling.  My daughter attends the British International School of Boston, which is where Tom and Gisele’s children attend.  My daughter and her friends, who are seven years older than Benny Brady, are friendly with him because there are a few Brazilian girls in my daughter’s class, and they love to speak with other Portugese speakers, including the Brady kids.  A few days after the Super Bowl, Benny excitedly told everyone in Portuguese about how awesome it was to see his dad’s team win and to get to ride on the float. (My daughter’s friend translated what Benny said.) I love that this little boy, who has a famous American father, was describing one of the most American traditions through the filter of his Portugese native language.  He was so excited, as any 7 year-old boy would be, about this amazing experience and couldn’t wait to tell his friends.  How wonderful that at a time when our president is trying to close our borders, we can remember that even the most “American” hero has a son whose first language is not English. And there’s one more layer to the story too. At the same time that Benny was getting ready for the Super Bowl last Sunday, one of this classmates, a little Turkish immigrant named Ali, who had battled cancer for two years, died. Two boys, same school, but very different backgrounds and outcomes all on one day.

As you find your world stage, remember that the moral of the story is not to give up when you think it’s too late and you don’t have a chance.  Let yourself be excited about your life and share with your friends.  And remember that life, in the end, is game, just like sports.  As much as we can control our attitude, we can’t always control our fate.  When you’re feeling that all hope is lost, remember the little boy from Turkey who battled cancer in a strange land for two years and gave his all.  In the end, he is the biggest hero of all.

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