I do not think that the world is in any danger of running out of people who believe winning is the only thing worth feeling good about. I think the world has absorbed Vince Lombardi’s deranged ethic quite well.
If you haven’t seen by now, the NFL’s James Harrison made his sons return trophies they received for participating in sports, because they did not win; because, by his reckoning, his sons did not deserve the trophies. He then went on Instagram to congratulate himself for “believing that everything in life should be earned” and that men do not “believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best” and so on. For this demented nonsense, he has been praised to high heavens, in media and elsewhere; USA Today has him striking a blow against “entitlement culture.” His sons, by the way, are eight and six years old.
As I write this, my two young sons are running around a grassy field where I can watch them. They have balloons stuffed under their shirts; they are crashing into each other with their big balloon-bellies and making weird monster noises and giggling so hard they can’t speak; the sun is in their hair and their eyes are bright with some anarchic Looney Tunes glee at a game that has no rules and cannot be won or lost. I want them to feel good about everything. I want to celebrate them for existing, to celebrate them for every day some absurd electrochemical miracle keeps their brave hearts beating and wards off entropy for a bit longer so they can wake up and wonder about things, to celebrate them for lighting up the world and for not having accepted its terms just yet.
The big grown-up world is coming up behind my children—behind James Harrison’s kids and yours, too, if you have them. To sort them: those who will prosper, or falter; those whom the barbarism we have enshrined into our way of life will reward, and those it will devour; those who will strive with their whole selves to make their way in that grown-up world and then unknowingly choose to attend the same prayer meeting as Dylann Roof and be snatched out of it in violence and fear and confusion, whether they got trophies for participating in sports or not. Along the way it will beat them up and overwhelm them and punish or exploit what is best and bravest about them; it will make them feel small and lonely and bad about themselves, each and every one, because that is what the grown-up world does to all our little kids when they grow up into it. It is cruel and arbitrary and vicious; it will tempt them to be cruel and arbitrary and vicious, too, and even if they accept those terms—even if they break their own big hearts to make their way in it, even if their fearful, bought-in father holds them down and breaks their hearts for them—it may just betray them anyway. It does not care.
In the meantime, I have my two (and that is a tough break for them, buddy, lemme tell ya) for now, and I do not have to do the world’s work for it. The world is patient, and its stride and stamina are much greater than theirs, or mine; it will catch them, no matter what I do. That is the only race they are running, and they will lose it; they will have lost it before they learn it is happening. Everyone does. For now, for now, for as long as I can have it, the reason to do things—to play sports, to do work, to get out of bed in the morning—is because the privilege is a fucking miracle, because it might allow my children to be children now, now, today, before the least consideration of long-term goals and competition and getting ahead may intrude upon the impulse a little kid gets to put a balloon inside his shirt and make another little kid laugh. Before the world barges in with its repulsive notions of good enough and demands to know whether these two small people have earned their place in it. They earned more than the world can ever give them when they woke up this morning. So did James Harrison’s kids. So did you.
Some hours have passed; my sons are now sitting next to each other on the couch, watching a movie on TV and muttering conspiratorially in their little gremlin voices about what they are seeing and drinking juice boxes I will later find on the floor next to the trash can. Before I became a parent, I sometimes felt bad about all the time I spent doing pretty much exactly this with my brother when we were kids: I wished I’d been motivated—or that someone had motivated me—to spend my time learning useful things, practicing valuable skills, acquiring discipline and applying myself toward a more successful and accomplished future. Toward competing and triumphing. That is stupid. No one has ever accomplished anything more worth having than the moments little kids steal away from the big grown-up world, together; when they wall out all of our sad hypocrisies and fucked-up values and grotesque striving, illuminate a little world for each other, and fill it with their easy goodwill and eagerness to participate.
The trophy to give back is the one they get for winning. It is worse than worthless.
Photo via my dumb phone