This post is for the many people out there who think that they are losing some socially-constructed game, or that they are last in some kind of unspoken competition with those around them. Maybe a lot of you are talented, driven people who find yourself out of your element. Or maybe, you are comparing yourself to others who are more fortunate, but you are not “last” by any means. Worse yet, perhaps you feel like you are last because being “first” is part of your identity and god forbid you also allow yourself to be human.
Let me start by telling you to stop keeping score because there is no such thing as “last” in this imaginary and arbitrary “game of life” that none of us really have to play if we don’t want to. More than once, I have heard that stupid criticism about how America is creating a “nation of weaklings” by giving every kid a trophy even when he/she is not the best player/winner. “If children get a trophy even when they aren’t the best, how will they ever learn to work hard and compete in the real world?” they say. They speak with a fervor and condemnation that wrongly suggests that competition is integral to our culture and that sports are analogous to the real world. The way they say it, you would think all it would take to tear apart the fabric of society is a trophy in the hands of an “undeserving” child.
I was an unusual kid, so I am aware that my experience cannot be generalized, but I think I can still use it to make a point. When I was four, my parents put me in Soccer. I did not care much for the game, and the coach was often pulling me aside to take away a stick that I found more interesting than the ball. At the end of the season, there was a pizza party at which I got one of those trophies. Upon seeing it I was sorely disappointed because it was, of all materials, plastic. If I was playing for the right reasons (e.g. fun, friends, a love of the game), I would not have cared about the trophy. As it was, I felt thoroughly ripped-off.
Since then, I have become socialized enough to develop the same discomfort with being “last” as many people in our mistaken society. Even though I happen to be good enough at this unspoken “game” not to feel like I am “last” very often, I am fortunate enough to have avoided having my identity rest on being “first.” Having strayed a long way from being perfectly content to play with a stick when everyone else is running after a ball, I actually want to bring myself back to the stick. I have learned enough about success to cherish those times when I am “last” by someone else’s more-common definition of the word.
Most of my experiences with being last would put me in the category with those of you who are talented, but out of your element. Perhaps the game requires you to take tests when you were born to play music, or perhaps you are starting a new job that doesn’t cater to your strengths at first. The name for this blog was inspired by The Tao of Pooh which actually has some good Taoist wisdom on this kind of problem. In the chapter “Cottleston Pie,” Benjamin Hoff writes that the song’s line: “A fly can’t bird, but a bird can fly” refers to how people ignore “things as they are” and try to “fit square pegs into round holes.” As Einstein put it, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
Most-recently, I felt like I was “last” because my definition of winning at studying abroad was not to learn the language, but to discover whether or not learning the language is worthwhile. I was “last” ever so briefly in my first Chinese class while studying abroad in Chengdu, China before dropping out of Chinese because I had no passion for seeing the country from the inside of a miserable classroom. Classmates judged me harshly and patronized me for dropping out of the language, but I reminded myself that I was not competing with any of them. I then proceeded to become a food columnist for a popular expat magazine and work with the global nonprofit Heifer International as an assistant coordinator, all while going to school and learning a fair bit of the language when I resumed Chinese classes on my own terms a few months later.
A few weeks ago, I was “last” in my knowledge of Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian Language) among 5 other students while studying at Gadjah Mada University. We were all wise enough not to judge one another, but I realized that I still felt uncomfortable because I subconsciously hated being last. Then, something empowering happened; I told myself: “Try not to compare. It’s just you.” I realized that even though I thought I had opted out of a game that I consider to be stupid, arbitrary, and socially-constructed, I was still imposing the game upon myself on a subconscious level. When I realized this, I knew I could fight it by taking each time I’m “last” as an opportunity to tell myself: ” There’s no one else ahead of or behind you. It’s just you. As long as you’re getting what you want out of this experience, then be “last” with grace and gusto!” The experience was so reaffirming that being “last” was actually one of the high-points of my trip in Indonesia.
I have come to believe that learning how to be “last” with grace, and even gusto, is one of the most important things a child can learn. To stick with this sports metaphor, that kid who is good enough at the “game of life” to always (or usually) be “MVP” (Most Valuable Player) is the one I worry about. If he always expects to be “first,” then how will he fail gracefully and take personal responsibility for his mistakes when the rules of the “game” change, or he’s playing a new game for the first time? What room is there in such a person’s identity for failure and imperfection? Having met grown-up versions of such kids, I wish every one of them the experience of falling precipitously, but hopefully softly, into a pile of being lasts from which they can reshape their identities into something a little more suited for the real world.
So, if you are like me and you ever feel like you are last because you are out of your element or chasing a ball instead of picking up sticks, tell yourself that flies can’t bird and fish can’t climb trees, and then find a way to (1) put your talents to work, (2) make sure you’re playing the right game for the right reasons, and (3) chase after whatever interests you the most. If you’re comparing yourself with others, stop and keep your eyes on your own prize. Last but not least, if being “first” is part of your identity, I hope that you are having an identity crisis now that someone is telling you that the game is mostly a figment of your imagination, you are actually playing alone, and worse yet, you are…human.