I was not on the track team in high school—didn’t do much of anything in high school. While my parents encouraged my sister and me to be interested in a lot of non-academic activities, they weren’t “joiners” themselves and tended to advocate independently driven interest in things like sports and music. We played piano at home, we weren't in the orchestra or the marching band, and we went hiking weekends with our father instead of joining cross-country. I know how ridiculous it is to resent them, still, for any perceived parental neglect; they had our best interests in mind, always, but they didn’t quite realize how crucially important social interests are to kids that age—to people, really, of any age.
More than a quarter of a century later, I still, still, still can’t get past the what-ifs of high school. What if I had been encouraged to try out for school plays, to write for the school newspaper, to run? I was energetic as a little kid, always on the move, often getting in trouble for running when I was supposed to be walking. (I still remember during my brief stint in Catholic school when a terrifying nun grabbed my arm in passing and said, “Why are you always in such a hurry?”) What if I’d kept running? All the things I’ve watched during the BF’s daughter’s track meets, they could have been my experiences. I could have been someone pushing herself to achieve, to succeed, to win. What might that have done for my life, if I’d discovered that kind of drive back then instead of over a quarter century later?
Of course, when I start paying attention at these track meets, I realize that this is an overly exalted—and inaccurate—view. Nothing’s to say I would have been any good in track, and even if I had been, only one person gets to be the winner of a race. Most everyone else goes away at least a little bit disappointed—and often completely crushed. The BF’s youngest daughter is enormously talented, but she’s tasted more disappointment than glory this past season. On Friday we watched her struggle to complete her high jumps, ultimately being eliminated two rounds in, after which she verbally kicked the hell out of herself for ten solid minutes. Three hours and a rain delay later, she went back out for the 800 and came in fourth, didn’t do her best time, didn’t do her worst, didn’t do well enough to qualify for State. Her season was officially over.
“She’ll get over it,” the BF assured me. “She’s upset now, of course, but she never lets anything bother her for long.”
“That’s good,” I said, and I meant it. Better to get over bad stuff within minutes than stew about them for decades like … er, some unfortunate beings.
The BF shook his head. “It’s a mixed bag.” He told me how his middle daughter, now a college sophomore, is the kind who stews about things, whose self-kicking when she ran high school track would go on for months. While it was hard for the BF to watch her eating herself up like that, it did make her incredibly focused and driven, gave her the motivation to work her butt off so that she wouldn’t be disappointed again. She did achieve and succeed and win, and she didn’t do it by shrugging off her defeats and moving on.
So which is it to be, then? Carry the weight as an incentive to push harder, or shrug the whole business off? Obviously it’s a little of “a” and a little of “b” at different times in different situations, but the funny thing is, even though our culture seems almost fascist in its insistence on positive attitudes and optimism, it’s hard to relate to someone who too easily shrugs off disappointment. I daresay it’s hard to believe someone who acts like they’re OK with not reaching their goal. Why have a goal in the first place?
On the other hand, why, well into adulthood, do we continue to pursue goals so fraught with the potential for disappointment? This past weekend, some of my running buddies were wildly successful in racing, while others were crushed—which is how the game always goes, though the players endlessly rotate in terms of who gets wild success and who crushing defeat. Of course we love the success stories, but the truth, I think, is that our failures are what define us—not as failures, but in terms of how we react. When things go right, we find out what we can do, but when things go wrong, we find out who we are. I’m someone who tends to carry disappointment and regret for a really long time. Sometimes that’s a problem, but not always. Nothing is so satisfying as cheering up a person who is feeling down, and if I weren’t so familiar with downness myself, I might not be so able to sympathize with the girl who didn’t make State or the guy whose ultra didn’t go as planned. The person who doesn’t easily shrug off that weight won’t often hesitate to help someone else carry theirs.
I imagine I’ll continue, to the end of my life, to think about my childhood in terms of what could have been. I’ll always wish I hadn’t waited until middle age to discover running, and I’ll wonder how different my life might have been. Yet despite all this wallowing in what could have been, nothing I do today is meant solely to make up for glory days I never had. Trust me, when you’re eating tater tots at the Sonic with your cute BF after a track meet, it isn’t particularly going to matter when in your life that’s happening. It’s happening, and that—with a milkshake—is a win.