Updated: Jan 30, 2020
Have you ever been so startled by someone’s reaction that it left you questioning all the choices you made leading up to that moment?
My oldest child is a swimmer--a strong swimmer, bubbling with promise. Without batting an eye, he talks of the Paris 2024 Olympics and how he’ll medal there. I never discourage him of such dreams because I have always been an eternal optimist and daydream believer. It’s basically my backbone and it pleases me that my offspring have inherited such wishful thinking.
Only, it turns out that my son, my Golden Boy with the bright smile and future, isn’t blinded by the stars upon which he wishes. In fact, I don’t think the kid wishes on stars at all.
At last week’s swim meet, he swam a 50 meter Butterfly stroke, winning his heat and age division. He’s done this before, always improving upon his stroke time. But that day, he didn’t improve. He didn’t do any worse or better. He stayed exactly the same.
When I congratulated him, he shook his head.
“Thanks, Mom,” he said as I hugged his wet shoulders.
He pulled off his cap, saying, “But I can do better. That wasn’t my best.”
“But it was, Honey,” I said. “You swam your best time again.”
“My best time is what I haven’t done yet.” He wasn’t defeated. Rather, he was quite determined.
He walked over to his swim bag, put on his warm-up suit, placed his headphones on his head, and listened to AC/DC, mentally preparing for the 200 medley he’d be swimming soon. He had just won with a great time, but he was already onto the next race.
“He’s not satisfied,” my husband said.
“I know,” I pouted.
“He’s hungry,” my husband smiled.
I lowered my shoulders and watched my boy settle into his zone. I had an entirely different kind of optimist on my hands. If I was him, I’d have high-fived everyone and chanted, “Victory is mine!” I mean, I’d have won, so why the hell not? My win would’ve saved face and impressed my competition, coaches, and cheering squad--my kind of vibes. What startled me that day was my son understood that all his race did was satisfy others.
My husband was right.
Golden Boy was hungry. First place meant he beat the rest, but he hadn’t won the race with himself. His meet wasn’t nearly over, and it may never be.
The next morning, I was pouring myself a third cup of coffee while simultaneously brainstorming blog ideas when I couldn’t get my hungry boy out of my mind. Why had his attitude gotten to me? And as I chewed on various writing topics, I shuddered. I was suddenly awake without the aid of the coffee--wide awake and stuck on one alarming thought: maybe I’m satisfied.
My mind raced through my written words, spoken words, and my actions to date, leading to a startling conclusion. My life appears to have a habitual theme. I’m more than a perpetual optimist, I’m a perpetual affirmation--completely vulnerable to insecurities while on this endless path to understand and love myself in spite of them. Relatable? Lovable? Reassuring? Sure. But hungry? How can I be when every five minutes I’m filling my love bucket with self-hugs?
Next week, I’ll be 41--a baby to my friends in their fifties, but an old woman to the kid I used to be who dreamed big. She was me at my most vulnerable, before I caught on that the opinions of others don’t matter as much as mine. That girl knew so little in comparison to what I know now, yet, like my boy, there was one thing she didn’t shy away from--winning. And I wondered, as I fired up my laptop, if along the way to learning to love myself and all the idiosyncrasies that make me me, have I let go of the win and settled for a participation trophy?
We may live in a society at odds politically, but beyond Washington, we are smack dab in a big, cheesy love fest of ooey, gooey compassion for ourselves where we get passes for everything--disorganization, lateness, procrastination, and basically for being walking shit shows. Everywhere we turn, someone or something is telling us that our flaws are okay.
“I see you,” they say, meaning, “We know you are more than your flaws.”
Then we slap on some fine 21st century wellness, reminding us to love ourselves in spite of consistently screwing up. I say this boldly because by all accounts, one could generalize me for encouraging others to embrace their relentless fuck ups and simply learn from them through self-care.
But is that satisfactory?
Are we a culture so willing to love the loser that we beg the bigger question: has winning become the biggest loser of all?
On Sundays here in New Orleans, we cheer for the Saints until our throats are raw. Across the country, fans cheer for their teams. Every two years, we come together as a nation and root for the red, white, and blue. We’re energized over broken records and championships clinched. But take us out of our jerseys and back to our plain clothes when it’s no longer game day and our personal obstacles are still there. The extra hours that could get you that promotion remain untouched. Piles of laundry have doubled. The snooze button is as tempting as ever. That junk room is junkier. Waistlines are thicker, and the endgame seems miles off. Do we still feel like winning? Or, is it all so overwhelming that we settle for a free hug from somewhere--encouragement from a meme, an affirmation, entertainment, or a blog--to make us feel better? They satisfy that need to hear that we are just human--not superhuman. We’ve got the excuses to back up our laxness--stress, kids, time, bad sleep, and so on. So we don’t go to bed hungry because we’re satisfied that we’re doing the best we can. But when we wake up, our obstacles more obvious in the light of day, how happy are we?
Winners don’t shy away from obstacles; they accept the challenge. Winners don’t ask for excuses because they don’t excuse themselves. Winners don’t wait for someone’s encouragement; they go for it. Winners show up early. They work until the work is done, and don’t focus on how hard it may be because winners aren’t afraid of hard work. Winners aren’t afraid of work without rest. Winners are afraid of one thing and one thing only: losing to themselves.
I still haven’t attacked the junk room I wrote about months ago. I am still perpetually late. I always have piles of laundry, crammed closets, and generations of dust bunnies. Plus, my dishwasher is still broken. I wrote about that months ago too. That’s just my home life. Professionally, my manuscript is where it was months ago and I have queries to write for another project--tons of them. What the hell am I waiting for? Do I want to win or not? Or am I still wishing upon stars that it’ll happen for me without me?
So often, we call out wishes like prophecies. “I wish I was a morning person.” “I wish I was more organized.” “I wish I had the drive.” Lots of wishes. Minimal work. And as much as this daydream believer hates to say it, until I deserve them, my wishes won’t ever come true.
What if the Saints had assumed the Colts would win the Super Bowl because they were favored to win by every yahoo outside of New Orleans? What if Billie Jean King had given into sexism on the tennis court? What if Hattie McDaniel hadn’t given her all to a craft dominated by white people? They were all underdogs turned winners because they first acted like winners. They didn’t just wish. They worked. They showed up regardless of what was insurmountable. Most importantly, they believed in themselves before anyone else did.
That’s the other thing about winners. They don’t wish upon stars. They wish upon themselves.
They don’t focus on the size of the obstacle or the number of obstacles. If they did, they’d be so hungry they’d starve. So they stay just hungry enough to chip them away--never fully satisfied.
I know enough to know that confusing satisfaction with happiness might be my biggest flaw of all. I know when I do well, just as I know when I can do better. I may be happy with how I progress, but once I’m satisfied, I’ll stop wanting to learn about myself and I’ll stop trying to improve upon my time here. My race will be over. But, like my Golden Boy, one day, I’ll hit a plateau. Maybe that day is now? But if I stay hungry, I won’t burn out.
I may even medal.
Originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.