I am going to tell you a story about something cowardly I did as a child. And it will have a lot to do with something cowardly you might be doing right now.
Every year Northwest Elementary School sponsored a school-wide party at Southland Rollerskating Rink. My ten-year-old self felt deeply ambivalent about this for 4 reasons:
1. I was a very good roller-skater.
2. There would be a race.
3. I was not the only good roller-skater.
4. I did not like to lose.
In the third grade, I won the race by a mile-–not a literal mile, mind you, we were small children.
In the fourth grade, anticipating a blow-out, I took the first half easy and watched as my friend Hope (soon to be my nemesis), breezed by to take the title. I was convinced complacency caused my tragic downfall.
When the fifth grade party rolled around, I was a mess, completely unable to think about anything other than the impending race (I would not be distracted by inconsequentials like couple skating and the hokey-pokey).
I remember pushing for an inside spot on the crowded line. I remember leaning forward on my left foot stopper, trying to keep still amid the flailing arms and general incompetence of awkward fifth grade girls, and I remember hearing the referee say “Go.”
Then I remember falling on the line.
It was a simple trip. Three or four girls caught hold of one another at the start and now lay sprawled on the wood floor. I remember looking to see Hope skillfully navigate the pile-up. Only a second or two behind her, I still had a solid chance at winning.
Lying there on the floor, I also knew I had a solid chance at losing. Even if I managed to get up quickly, even if I got the inside track, even if I skated as fast as I ever had… I still might lose.
And so I made one of the most cowardly decisions of my life. I got up slowly and skated leisurely to the finish line. I lost and acted as if I’d had no other option. After the race I blamed the girls who’d fallen in my way. My friends said, “You should have won.” And that felt sorta good. Sorta kinda.
Fast forward twenty years and I’m telling this story to my kids before bed, detail for perfectly preserved detail, shocked by the still powerful reaction it stirs in me.
Here’s why I’m telling the story to you: I think maybe you’ve given up before you’ve even begun, because you’re afraid you’ll try and lose.
I have. A lot.
Lately, it’s writing. I think, “What if I write for ten years and never really ‘make it’? How many times will I have to tell people my latest project didn’t pan out? How many articles will I have to write for magazines I don’t even like before one of them accepts my work?”
Is it worth it to try if I’m never going to win?
For you, it might be your marriage. Living with him is so hard and you’ve given just about all you can give and you’ve listened to advice and you’ve prayed and you don’t see an end to this ridiculously hard road and you wonder, “Is this even worth it?” “What if this never gets better?”
It might be a weight loss journey or a battle out of addiction or a strained relationship with a child. It might just be the uphill battle to keep your house clean. Whatever it is, I feel you. You and I want to see the finish line, to outpace time and look back at the future. We’d ask the crystal ball, “Is this going to end well? Cause if it’s not, we’re out.”
Hate to break it to us, but that’s not the most noble of attitudes.
Let’s forget for a second that perhaps some things are worth doing even in the face of potential loss (Argh); Reason dictates that we can’t win unless we keep going.
Cowards quit. Afraid of a loss, they forfeit, and forfeit doesn’t sound too bad until you realize what you’re forfeiting—the win. Cowards never win.
Yes, the game might end with you in tears, but it also might end with you in the back seat of a convertible, confetti in your hair, as you’re driven down main street in your very own ticker tape parade.
All of this talk of tears and potential loss makes fifth grade Jennifer nervous, but I’m all grown up and so I’ve decided, against her advice, to race. If I lose, it will be in a spectacular, super-awkward, blaze of glory fashion.
If I win, I win.