One of my kids is in a youth soccer league. She…isn’t good. She doesn’t pay attention, she rarely bothers kicking the ball, and while she can run with the best of them, she doesn’t really have any plan regarding what she should do when she gets to where she’s running. She is six years old, though, so none of this should really be a surprise. Her “skills” put her on par with about two-thirds of her teammates, most of whom run around the field in a loose pack and look for an opportunity to kick the ball in a direction (any direction), but don’t really want to get to close to anybody else or do anything too aggressive. Because of course they don’t – they’re little children.
This season, her coach is a guy who takes all this a bit too seriously. I mean, he isn’t hurling abuse at his players or anything truly unsportsmanlike, but you can tell he is genuinely distressed at the “level of play” (and I use that term well aware of how absurd it is) he’s seeing out there on the field. The other day, he gave me advice for improving my daughter’s “skills” for “home practice.”
“She needs to talk less and hustle more,” he said to me. “She needs to pay better attention.”
My answer was something along the lines of “my daughter is a bit of a daydreamer, so she doesn’t always pay attention.” I said it with a shrug and a chuckle, trying to make clear that I was unconcerned with the fact my kid sucks at soccer and that my interest in arranging “home practice” was effectively zero. I mean, if my six year old expressed any interest in practicing soccer at home, sure, sure – but she does not. Honestly, my wife and I were mystified that she wanted to play at all this season.
Picking up on my implications, the soccer coach grimaced and said, “Yeah, well, it’s all just fun at this age.”
That has stuck with me the last few weeks. Particularly the last part: at this age. I wanted to ask him at what age does soccer cease to be fun. When does this game stop being about enjoying yourself with friends and rivals as you kick a ball around a field on a sunny day and start being about something else? And what else is that? Money? Prestige? Fame? And even supposing soccer begins being about those things at some point, why should it ever stop being fun?
There are things in this world that are not necessarily enjoyable but are worthwhile in and of themselves. Nobody likes much of the work they need to do on a daily basis, but that doesn’t mean you should stop grocery shopping or going to the doctor or bathing your kids. I don’t think there’s anybody out there saying you absolutely have to enjoy working out or dieting, but those things have results that we find satisfactory regardless of what we had to do achieve them.
But games? Games aren’t like that. There is nothing (nothing) so important about any sport or game that would mean you should continue to pursue it despite hating every second of it. I’d even go so far as to include art in this category. If you don’t enjoy some kind of art? Don’t consume it. If you hate a particular kind of story? Don’t write it. Unlike eating and sleeping and earning your daily wage, you don’t have do this.
The arts and entertainment world (of which sports are part) are important to our lives, but we get to choose how and when and in what proportion we consume them. We also get to choose how and when and if we participate in or create them. The experience itself should be enriching, not some ancillary benefit that comes after the fact. The proportion of people who make a full living off of the arts is approximately the same as those who make a living playing sports: the merest fraction of those who do it. You shouldn’t write stories because you think you will be rich or respected one day. Nor should you attend grueling double basketball practices because you think someday you’ll be in the Hall of Fame and it will all be worth it then. No. It has to be worth it now.
If you hate playing baseball, you should quit. If you despise painting, stop. If you are bored by poetry, find something else to read. Don’t let somebody (anybody) brow-beat you into believing your skill at this particular form of art/entertainment is essential for your self-worth or identity, because it isn’t. And anyway, the annals of people who hate playing a sport who then go on to become champions of that sport is a vanishingly small list – even smaller than that sliver of a percentage that go pro. You can’t hate-write a novel (or at least not a good one) because writing requires a kind of self-authenticity that weeds out the posers. When someone says to you “do what you love,” it’s not some kind of aspirational mantra, it’s practical advice.
So, no, my kid isn’t any good at soccer, but as long as she says she has fun doing it, I’ll keep signing her up for this little no-try-out local league. Likewise, so long as I like writing stories and novels, I’ll keep doing that too, no matter how much I suck.
Because where we end up should matter less than how fulfilling we find the journey. It should never stop being something we fundamentally love. If it does, then we are truly lost.
Got a story for you. It’s an old one; maybe you’ve heard it.
A wealthy merchant is walking through the streets of Baghdad when he sees the Angel of Death. Death recognizes him and seems very interested in him. The man concludes that Death is in Baghdad to take him and, unwilling to die, he expends all his vast wealth in one day to secure the service of a genie. “Genie,” says the man, “I’ve no wish to die. Transport me to Damascus in one night, so that I might evade Death’s embrace.”
And so the genie did as was asked of him and worked great magic to transport the man, along with all his family and home and livestock and servants, far away to Damascus in the space of a single night. The merchant slept easily, knowing he had fooled Death.
The next morning, however, the man went into the streets of Damascus to find Death waiting for him. The man was aghast. “What? How did you find me?!”
Death shrugged and said, “That is why I was so interested to see you in Baghdad. You see, I had an appointment to meet you today in Damascus.”
Heard that one? Well, it’s true, let me tell you. I was the genie.
You would imagine, as an immortal being whose task it is to grant wishes, I would have seen more than my fair share of happiness over the millennia. Not so, though. I have some thoughts on the subject.
You people – you mortals – you can never figure out what you actually want. I mean that, too – you cannot, as in you are not capable. A man wishes for wealth and dies alone. A woman wishes for beauty only to drown the next week. A boy wishes for power only to pine for his mother. On and on and on it goes. You don’t know what tomorrow brings and, so terrified that Death might have penciled you in for Friday, you pick the absolute worst thing for you at the time and think it solves all your problems. It is so consistent as to be actively tragic.
Had a guy once – sometime in Ancient Babylon – wish to be an invulnerable warrior. Easy enough, right? How can a guy go wrong with that? Simple: his tribe, the people he wanted to protect, drove him out of their lands claiming he was a demon. So he was the world’s biggest badass with nothing to fight for. He died of old age as a hermit. Blamed me, too.
I don’t trick people, okay? Not my thing. I’m a servant of the lamp and that’s it – you rub, I appear, and we do business. I am not “imprisoned” in the lamp – it’s just a convenient hole in space-time for me to zip through. I’ve got a life outside of this one. I mean, not one you’d easily understand, but it’s there. Had one lady wish to have me explain it to her once. She went insane.
So, yeah, I’m not upset when somebody rubs the lamp and pops me out. Not a big deal – less than an eye-blink in the breadth and depth of the cosmos, understand? You really cannot waste my time, since I have as much of it as I want. When you wish for something, I give it to you – no judgment, no tricks. Do I sometimes screw up the details? Yeah, sure – some of you guys are damned unclear. I mean, how am I supposed to interpret “I wish for the world?” Go on – I dare you to figure out, in concrete terms, what that means exactly. That guy’s name was Atlas and man, was he pissed. Not my problem though – if you can’t be bothered to read the fine print on the lamp itself, don’t come crying to me.
Anyway, where was I? Oh, right – wishes. Let’s get this out of the way: You can’t wish for true happiness, okay? You can’t have it like that. I cannot give it to you, much as I might want to. You mortals are always thinking in external terms – give me gold, give me power, give me land, give me love – and that’s missing the entire point. Happiness comes from within.
Oh sure, the occasional wise-acre wishes for internal happiness, but it doesn’t work. I just have to turn them into different people. Is that success? You want to know what really happened to Attila the Hun? They say he died of a brain hemorrhage while doing the wild thing after deciding not to sack Rome. What he did instead was take the lamp, given him by Pope Leo I (who had used it to become pope), in exchange for sparing the city. So he did. And then he wished to be truly, permanently happy. I turned him into a friendly dog – best I could do. His followers did the rest.
Happiness is something that people who seek me out are never going to find. Happiness is contentment, understand? To be content with your lot, no matter what your lot is. That is true, contemplative happiness. If you got it, what do you need me for? What can I possibly give you to get you there? No, all wishes – all rewards and triumphs – are things you need to have grow out of yourself, not have dumped on you from on high. Give a fish shoes and it’ll have no idea what to do until it grows some feet.
The best wish ever? Oh, that’s easy: fella name of Lao-Tzu, ancient China. Summoned me up and chatted with me for a little while on a road in the middle of nowhere. When I asked him what he wanted, he said, “Only to talk. Thank you.”
He meant it, too. I still think about that sometimes.
Anyway, enough about me. Let’s whip you up that private island, okay? Did you have a hemisphere in mind, or am I just gonna get creative?