A Lesson About The Unfairness of Life
I must’ve been 10 years old, when I entered a story reading competition in my school. It wasn’t a big deal, because obviously it wasn’t sports, so there were just fours kids participating.
I was one of those four. The 10 year old with his pants fastened too high above his waist and who still didn’t know he needed prescription glasses.
The theme was “Legends”, as in local Ecuadorian legends, of which there are plenty. Encouraged by the female heroes in my life, mom and my two grandmothers, I went in feeling brave and ready to prose the hell out of this thing.
I was a shy kid, so going up on stage and giving it my all required a level of strength I didn’t know I had in me. I can still remember the metallic taste that the fear of failure in a public forum left in my mouth.
The show must go on though.
So I went out there drenched in cold sweat and unable to control my hands. I had coffee jitters way before I ever tried coffee. I took the stage and recited the Legend of Cantuña with my squeaky preteen voice, and I nailed it.
I can’t remember who else went up, but I will never forget this little blonde girl that performed last. I remember her hair, her face, her voice, but I don’t remember the story she told, funny enough. It’s easy to forget the message when the messenger doesn’t deliver it appropriately.
She never finished her story. About halfway through, she broke down in tears, as little kids are wont to do, and stepped off the stage. I felt bad for her. She had the same exact fear I had, but she hadn’t been able to take control of it.
Well, I felt bad for her for about 10 minutes, which is as long as the judges deliberated for. When they came back, they announced the winners. Fourth place, some kid. Third place, some other kid. It was down to me and the girl.
Second place. Me.
Now I’m not claiming I’ve ever been a good loser. This one stung bad, though. I had nailed it. I had used the hand gestures. Tone, poise. I never even stuttered.
The girl won. Because the judges had felt bad about her. She didn’t complete the challenges set forth by the competition rules, yet she took top spot.
After that day, I never again greeted the school’s librarian. She was one of the judges, and to this day I have no idea who she voted for, but she gave the announcement, so to me it was her responsibility. It was her personal affront to me, and I’d carry that vendetta all through middle school.
The lesson was harsh, but it took me years to completely understand it. I was too salty back then to truly grasp it.
Sometimes you give it your all, and you still lose.
Because life isn’t fair. Life is a convoluted series of random events, and as such, one should expect random effects. Maybe the judges knew the parents of the girl. Maybe they owed them money. Maybe they made a judgement call because they knew the girl. They didn’t know me. Maybe they realised exactly what losing the contest would do to her self confidence (hell, it wrecked mine). I was the quiet kid at school. I wasn’t well connected. My networking skills didn’t kick in till the late 2000’s. Maybe I was off putting. Maybe I wasn’t as good as I remember.
This one event poisoned my well for years. My family were super supportive and they always tried to make me feel like I was really good at whatever I did. It was positive reinforcement, not spoiling. But ever since this contest I’ve been second guessing people’s compliments. I judge their motivation first and their words a far second. Trust issues are a different post though.
The point is, I gave up. I stopped reading, stopped writing, and ever since then I’ve been unable to take a compliment without a sarcastic retort.
It shouldn’t have been that way. It shouldn’t have taken me 30 years to realise that, even when you do your best, even if you ARE the best, life will sometimes turn its back on you. Even for a little bit.
Ever since my divorce I’ve had that word tattooed in my brain. I move forward. I wish I’d learnt that lesson sooner.
The whole point of life, of creativity, and the pursuit of art (in the wider sense of the word), is about moving forward. It’s about getting up, and learning your lesson.
If that lesson is “I should take up chess instead” then so be it. But you have to give the feeling of being slighted a chance. Let it explode and knock you down. Let it burn a hole through your head. It’s unfair. But you still move forward.
Because the next time I give a reading in public, it won’t be at a contest. It’ll be at a library, not unlike the one at my school.
And it’ll be a chapter from my own book.
Because 30 years later, I finally understood the lesson.
Sometimes you do enough. And life will still fail you.
So we go forward.