I am a child of the age of encouragement. In the 1990’s everyone was a winner. Parents shuttled their children to and from a myriad of after school activities, all which bestowed numerous meaningless awards. From 9th place ribbons to 10-year-old black belts there was no tamping the achievement of children. Trophies were even given out at birthday parties rewarding whichever child gave the “best effort” while playing miniature golf, or was the “most improved” at bowling by the end of the day. Children were even told in school that they could be anything they wanted to be. In the middle of America’s greatest boom, no one could lose. We were all comparative winners.
Not so in my house. Where I grew up we were always comparative losers. My parents, as umpires of the world, called it as they saw it. And in that sense, for a white boy in Westchester, there was always someone who could trump anything that I did. While other parents lauded each of their child’s mediocre accomplishments, jumping for joy when Johnny was able to ride with the training wheels on, my parents would use any opportunity to teach me how easy my life really was. For example when I learned to ride a bike, I wasn’t congratulated, rather I was remained that there are people who can do that without legs.
Years before the #firstworldproblems this comparative loser scheme operated as a kibosh on any whining or complaining. No matter what problem I was having, someone had it worse. In 6th grade when I broke my arm and had to wait in the hospital for a whole day, my mom reminded me to “be thankful its just an arm, you could have cancer be waiting for chemo right now.” If I was hungry, “you know there are people in this world who have no food.” When things weren’t going well at school, I was told to “be thankful you even have a school, there are children in Africa who are not so lucky.” And so by age 10, I had no expectation of being good at anything. No matter what I did I was almost certain to lose to someone better or worse.
Now, looking back things, I am grateful for the morbid wisdom my parents passed on. As a result, I am better equipped than many of my friends to deal with the everyday disappointments that life contains. Outside the bubble of trophies and ribbons for non-accomplishments, we are very rarely rewarded. No one cares about mediocrity. And sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you don’t get the job you want, you don’t get a second date, and you don’t an A. For my friends who grew up as comparative winners that often comes as a shock. I, on the other hand, continue to press on, always remembering that somewhere out there is a Somilian refugee with no mouth trying to eat a bowl of rock soup.