I have never had the burning desire to be considered the best at something. But it has become clear to me recently that I most definitely have the burning desire to not be considered the worst at something.
Last year I was happy to stumble upon a group of people playing pick-up basketball at a school just across the street from me. I hadn’t played basketball for almost 13 years so I jumped at the chance (but not too high – white man and all that). The group played every Saturday morning from 9-11a.m. It seemed like the thing for me.
The group was mostly French Canadians so I felt a bit awkward at first as I cannot speak the Language D’Heaven. But I could handle the pace and it felt good to get back to basketball after such a long hiatus. I’ve never been all that good at the sport. One keen observer once noted, “Ron doesn’t have a lot of skill. But he uses everything he’s got!” In truth, I can’t shoot to save my life but I can pogo up and down and bang bodies like a punk rocker in a mosh pit.
However, this particular group had a way of dividing up the teams that smelled too much like pre-teen spirit to me. If there were too many people for two teams, “captains” would be appointed who would choose – junior-high style – the players that they wanted for their teams. The first time this happened, I assumed I would end up somewhere in the middle of the pack, as that is where I had assessed my skill level among this group of players ranging in age from early twenties to early sixties. This was not to be. In fact, the first time it was done, I was left to the very end and, even then, not chosen by any team so much as allocated. I was a leftover.
Certainly, this was a blow to my pride but I dismissed it due to the fact these people didn’t know me that well yet. When they had a chance to play ball with me for awhile, they’d realized what a valuable asset I am to a team and not leave me hanging on to be the “Mr. Irrelevant” of Saturday morning basketball.
However, it happened again… and again… and again. Each time was galling. Each time I’d play so hard, race the floor, do anything I could to show these deluded people the error of their choosing ways.
I came out to play faithfully almost every Saturday morning from October to April, determined to get better at this game and prove everyone wrong about me. But when the chance came to play again this past fall, I didn’t have the drive to go back. The excuses came easily: It was too big of a time commitment on a Saturday; the risk of injury was too high for a forty-something like me; I never connected with this group of players; I didn’t really have any fun. Clearly,this wasn’t the thing for me.
But recently I’ve been reflecting on it more. Sometimes it is a harrowing journey pondering things because the path leads to places that you thought you passed a long, long time ago. Could it be my lack of motivation to go back and play basketball wasn’t tied into any of my excuses but to the proverbial inner adolescent that still lurks in me? I wasn’t an athletic kid. I was the comic-book-reading-sensitive-artist kid. To be bullied was common. To be chosen last or simply allocated was common, too.
I’ve never been a prideful person. I’ve never been driven to be the best. But when I felt I was considered the worst it was something I couldn’t bear. Pick-up basketball had slammed my pride. What was meant as a recreational activity, something to give me exercise, had become an angst-filled experience, an exercise in self-pity and self-absorption.
One of my favorite authors, Frederick Buechner, wrote this in his book “Wishful Thinking”: “Self-love or pride is a sin when, instead of leading you to share with others the self you love, it leads you to keep your self in perpetual safe-deposit. You not only don’t accrue any interest that way, but become less and less interesting every day.” My own dalliance with one of the Seven Deadly Sins had kept me from fully giving my Self to those Saturday morning pick-up games; had kept me from experiencing the joy that can come from giving the joy of my Self to other people.
Why should it matter that I might find myself in a situation where I could be considered the worst at something? Being the best or being the worst in itself does not give me value. What gives me value is being the Self I was created to be, and being that Self in abundance. Self-love can only lead to hiding that true Self away in order to protect it, which can only lead to a lonely and dismal life.
I likely won’t go back to Saturday morning pick-up basketball any time soon. A wound to the pride, especially one self-inflicted, takes a long time to heal. But I hope when other opportunities present themselves to me to be my true Self I will be so unabashedly. After all, life is a gift and we don’t fully enjoy it until we give it away.