Last week a friend told me the story of how her daughter learned to swim. She refused at first, terrified that she would sink to the bottom and drown.
The fear of drowning is such an intelligent fear.
The instructor asked her how old she was.
“Five,” the girl answered.
“Five-year-olds don’t drown,” the instructor told her. And thus she learned to swim.
The story struck me for the brute genius with which it obliterated fear. But, of course, it was a lie.
Sometimes we lie a little. Sometimes we lie a lot.
We tell our children little lies for most of their young lives, because the lies are in service of a greater good. We tell our children lies because we tell ourselves lies. They make us feel safe and capable. Confident in the face of staggering uncertainty. We tell lies about effort, desire and glory, about time, dreams and possibilities, success and achievement. Then we come together and celebrate rituals of competition and prowess, pageants of pride and invincibility. You can do it! You can do anything! You can win! You deserve it! The excitement over, spectators leave the stands, plumped on inspiration and daring. Maybe they’ll jog the block in the morning.
But what about the ones who don’t win?
I’ve been watching the Olympics, and I can hardly bear it.
I’m no longer interested in the winners. Certainly not the ones who’ve won four or 12 or 22 times. I’m interested in the ones who don’t win. The ones who lose by a tragic fraction or a humiliating mile. The unknowns in Lane 8, the also-rans beyond the camera range, the nobodies three-tenths of a second back, the forgottens who finish on the far side of oblivion. The ones who cry. Granted, their failure is nearly certain, but it is no less spectacular. All failure is spectacular failure, a mortal blow, a horrific shock. Gone the chance, the hope, the dream!
Where is the song for the ones who don’t win? They are the ones I’m looking for.
When the world champion gymnast didn’t qualify for the finals this year, I reeled. But a half-second later I selfishly thought, “This will be such comfort for all the ones who don’t win.” Give the Wheaties box to another. Give consolation to everyone else.
Years ago when my daughter didn’t get a part in the kindergarten play her teacher told her, “Now that you’re five, you’re going to have to learn not to cry.” That wasn’t quite true, either. She did cry, she still cries, and I do too. A mother cries her child’s tears.
I’ve cried a million, billion times since then. At gym meets, tryouts and auditions. After science fairs and history festivals. In corridors and parking lots. On long rides home. The mother to the girl who didn’t quit and didn’t win, who won’t stop hoping, and can’t stop trying. Defeated and overlooked, she sobs out-of-sight in empty rooms.
We’re all in that room one day or another, eventually, always. The roar far beyond us. The celebration without us.
We know in our hearts we’ve swallowed a lie, but we learn to swim anyway. We keep ourselves afloat in an ocean of tears.
This is your anthem. For you, my champions, my darlings, the ones who don’t win. The Patron Saint of Last Place is watching over you.