A couple of months ago I went to visit with my family to celebrate the Jewish holiday, Rosh Hashanah. I’m not particularly religious but my Jewish identity has definitely played a role in shaping how I view the world. Like many Jewish New Yorkers, I suppose I have more of a cultural connection to Judaism than anything else. So I always do my best to visit with my family during the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as well as the biggies: Chanukah and Passover. In fact, Passover has always been my favorite holiday because, well, I like to eat and that’s pretty much what it’s all about. (Hint: You know about the Last Supper? They were eating at a Passover Seder.) Also, Passover is the only holiday where being gluten-free is not very far from the norm. Bring on the charoset and the macaroons!
While I was visiting for the Rosh Hashanah holiday I was able to go watch my friend’s daughter in her soccer match. I borrowed my dad’s baseball cap and off I went to join the adult cheering squad on the bleachers. This was the first season my friend’s daughter was playing with the team and it was such a treat to watch her run after that ball! I have never been into sports. I was terrible – absolutely terrible – at any kind of team sport as a kid. That shame carried with me into adulthood and created a sort of aversion to the whole topic. (Here’s my proof: Despite living in the city of Philadelphia that is known for its sports fanaticism, I can’t name one Eagles player.) So I was thrilled to watch a strong little girl approach the game as just an exhilarating diversion. I didn’t care if she scored or not. That wasn’t the point. I was just happy to watch her fearlessly give it her best shot and have fun. So I was in shock when I learned that other adults did not share my enthusiasm.
Once I arrived at the game, I found my friend and we grabbed seats on the bleachers together. We immediately spotted our star athlete on the field and were overwhelmed with joy to watch her chase after the ball. But then my attention turned to a man who was crouched down on the sideline yelling at some of the players – well, one player in particular. I noticed that the coaches were on the other side of the field but I couldn’t hear them over the man who was shouting from our side. I asked my friend who this guy was. I was absolutely horrified to learn that he was just a player’s dad. Apparently, it was his habit to sit on the sideline during every game so he could yell at his daughter. Now, let’s put this into context: All of the girls out on that field ranged from 8-10 years of age. Who cared whether they performed like David Beckham? That just wasn’t the point. But this ogre of a father had a very different philosophy. It was impossible to tune him out. I just sat there and felt myself get angrier as he yelled repeatedly at his child, “Go get it, Betty!” “Betty, What are you doing?” “No, Betty! Turn it around!” “Wake up, Betty!” “Come on, Betty! You should be able to do better than that!” “NO! Wrong way, Betty!” “Aw, Betty!” “Betty, Keep it going. Don’t let them get it. Look straight ahead. Don’t worry about her. Just keep going.” Yes, yes… Oh, come ON!” This dad even found it acceptable to make disparaging remarks about other children. “Nobody went to bed early enough last night,” he said.
It wasn’t difficult to identify Betty among the group of girls on the field. She looked the most miserable. But she was also one of the best players out there. Rather than congratulate her for her efforts, this father felt it best to berate her in front of all her friends, her teachers, and all of the other parents and relatives. This must have been so embarrassing for her. Meanwhile, my friend’s daughter played the first half and was ultimately replaced with a more experienced player. Did she care? No! She had fun and was looking forward to trying again. Betty, on the other hand, who outperformed most of the girls out there, looked like she couldn’t wait for the season to be over.
I learned to hate team sports because I was awful at them. Instead of receiving encouragement, I was tormented by other kids who were naturally more athletic than I. Dodge ball classes were just an opportunity for certain kids to torment weaker classmates without having to worry about reprimand. To this day, if someone tosses an object to me my instinct is to dodge it. As I watched Betty struggle to just get through the game, it occurred to me that she might also grow up with the same revulsion to sports I have, albeit for different reasons. It’s difficult to always hear that you could be doing better rather than hearing congratulations for trying and doing your best. But yet, these are the lessons that most of us, like Betty, learn from an early age and carry with us.
Think about it: We get graded in school and learn to feel badly when we don’t get an A. We feel badly if we’re not in the popular crowd. We look at how others are dressed and feel badly if we don’t look as good in our clothes. We feel terrible if we don’t get selected for the best college. When we graduate, we compete for the best job. We strive to have the best car and the best home, and then we dream about cobbling together the best family with the most perfect spouse and children. No wonder Prozac was a blockbuster drug!
I once read a study that claimed adults who spend more time on Facebook have a higher rate of depression than those who don’t. Why? This is because Facebook users post pictures of themselves on awesome vacations, getting married, buying a new house, having children. And we compare ourselves to what we see on Facebook and then feel like losers when we don’t have any comparable moments to post. Betty’s father probably has boastful photos of Betty’s soccer matches all over his Facebook page, even though he chastises her in person.
This could be the reason reality TV is so successful. We all love watching those train wreck scenarios because it makes us feel better about ourselves. Similarly, bullying exists because children like Betty need to find scapegoats.
With Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement just behind me, I think this might be the perfect time to think about how to press that reset button. I didn’t like how I saw Betty’s father behaving, but I bet we’re each even harder on ourselves. I know I am. I constantly feel badly that I haven’t achieved all of the goals I thought I would. When I was in my late 30s I entered an entrepreneurship competition, and I won nine long months later. I nearly ran myself into the ground doing it but second place was not an option. I completed production of my documentary. I got a better job and relocated. I thought all of these things would make me feel better about myself. But they didn’t. I kept thinking about what else I could do next to restore my faith in myself and show the world what I’ m made of.
It’s time for this behavior to stop. Despite the negative criticism, Betty and her teammates won that game. In fact, their team was undefeated. Now, if only every kid on the team felt that was good enough rather than looking ahead for the next victory; that would be a real win. Betty can’t control her father but we, as adults, can control ourselves. Rather than thinking about how we could be better or do better, let’s try and concentrate on feeling satisfied with who we are and where we are right now. We have the ball. Let’s put it to good use.