The reason I was the only seventh grader to make the varsity basketball team at my high school was because I was driven. I ran like hell and worked my ass off. I’d been playing suburban driveway ball since I was a toddler, mostly against older boys who had zero interest in “letting” me win.
We were a championship team, so of course I rode the bench most of the time, and once in a while when it was safe to slip in the last string I got in a game. But I never really understood until many years later what made the rest of my team so very good, when I was only ever adequate.
Pinpointing the deception
Several years ago I saw a documentary called The Heart of the Game, and I finally was able to put my finger on it. I had learned how to play rough roundball at home on the concrete, but as I grew up, there was a clear sense that those rough-and-tumble practices needed to be sharply curtailed.
Like most southern white bread suburban girls, I was brought up to be nice. I had a sense that I was tougher than the face I had to put on in public, but I felt like I was being told that the reason I had to be so nice and so careful was because the world was a very fragile place.
Like if I bumped up against the world as a teenager or an adult, the world might be damaged. People would get hurt.
It was a long, long time — decades — before I learned that this was a lie that would damn near wreck my life.
Meanwhile I carefully kept my knees together and my elbows in and tried never ever, ever to brush against other people. Certainly never to body check, smack, chuck, hip sling or head butt, or careen wildly like a bumper car at the State Fair into trees and chairs and china cabinets.
Barely breathing, barely moving
Believing that the world was unbearably fragile held me back on a thousand levels. I was naturally curious, naturally energetic, forever wanting to dig in, turn over, unpack, dismantle, and understand things. But I didn’t. I was careful. I was so I was careful I barely shifted the air currents with the weight of my longing. I held my breath a lot.
People everywhere were falling off bikes and getting black eyes and eating juicy peaches straight from a neighbor’s tree while I carefully tried not to take up any space not explicitly allotted to me. It was like all my psychic clothes were a few sizes too small. I got good at barely moving, so that none of the metaphysical seams ripped.
Ever felt that way?
Learning to bang (when your culture says “be nice”)
The trailer for Heart of the Game makes it look like it’s a story about the inner-city tough girl who battles for her eligibility to play, but what I took from it was that this one rather unexpected coach taught his girls how to play with their whole bodies. How to slap, slam, dive, and hurl themselves into the game for the win. Which is exactly what happened when they committed their bodies, and not just their hands and feet, to the game.
He taught them to bang. And they learned that it was not only good, it was amazing. And it won ballgames.
I saw the film about the same time I was learning to box, and I can’t tell you how utterly synchronistic it felt. Like I’d finally gotten a significant message the universe had been trying to send for nearly all my life.
Like the universe had been trying to deliver a letter to me that the culture around me kept stamping “return to sender.”
Why do we get taught not to move, not to take up any space? I’m still working on that, but I’m looking at who benefits…
In other words, I’m seeing that lots of people got ahead of me in line. I allowed pretty much anyone to take things I had if they wanted them. I worked long hours in order to meet everyone else’s needs, hoping there would be enough for me afterwards.
It’s still hard to really pin down who’s to blame, and truthfully, I don’t waste a lot of time on it. But I am aware of what it cost.
The high cost of failing to fight
Does it sound weird, “the cost of failing to fight”? It still rings oddly in my ears. But failing to answer the bell of the world, failing to learn to throw a punch, failing to push against the forces that sought to hold me back cost me.
Because there are forces seeking to hold you back.
I didn’t know that, all those years. I thought everyone else was just rude (if they were shoving against me), or lucky (if they were winning at life); that the world was just a periodically hard, mostly random place. When in actuality, the world is crammed to bursting with opposing forces, and most of the other people are fighting for something. Those of us who aren’t fighting are being bruised and squashed and left behind.
Our marriages are breaking under the strain, our kids are going astray, our carefully planned savings accounts are taking a nosedive, and most of all, we aren’t living the dreams we believed we could, all those years ago. Of course, for most of my life I thought I would be able to live the dream only if someone out-and-out gave it to me…for being so undemanding, I suppose.
Surprises along the way
I had to come to the breaking point before I learned to fight, which in turn taught me to live, and even more, to win. I had to get to the point of being ready to leave everything — marriage, kids, life in the cookie-cutter house — before I finally realized I could have all that AND more. If I just learned to understand what I wanted and how to fight for it. And I had to overcome my fear of hurting someone, or bruising the universe.
And I’ve learned that the universe is built pretty damn well.
This bad girl is sturdy. Marriages can go through some nasty shit and come out stronger (can I get an amen?), and kids are shockingly resilient. People overcome amazing setbacks and come out shining.
And once you join in that flow, that fighting way of life, things seem to get easier. Not like “less work” easier, but like “achieving the dream” easier. It’s like finally you’ve joined a team that can battle its way to a championship.
Rambling, sorting, organizing as I go…
These are the things going on in my head these days, and I’ve said versions of this so many times in recent emails and conversations that I finally decided to try and get some of it written down. Not sure how coherent it is, but I’ll keep working at it, and maybe you’ll have insights to add as well. Or questions that will help me clarify things.
I have questions for you, too.
Did you grow up fighting for what you wanted? Or did you learn to fight later in life? If so, what was the catalyst for you?
Or…are you still waiting to learn?
Creative Commons image by K.M. Klemencic via Flickr.