Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Race for Number One

"Number One" was a phrase my father -- and for that matter, my mother -- repeated time and time again. It was a phrase spoken by my parents' friends and their friends' children . . . In the culture of my childhood, being best was everything. It was the goal that drove us, the motivation that gave life meaning. And if, by chance or fate or the blessings of a generous universe, you were a child in whom talent was evident, Number One became your mantra. It became mine.

How far would you push your child to be the best? I recently finished a book called Lang Lang: Journey of a Thousand Miles. I found it very moving and deeply disturbing. In it, Lang Lang, a gifted pianist from China, describes his childhood and the pressure on him to become number one, to be ranked first in every competition, to win, to be the best, not just in his city or in China, but in the whole world. His parents devote their whole lives to this pursuit. And Lang Lang, in the end, fulfills their dreams, winning a scholarship to study in the United States, playing in Carnegie Hall and with all the major orchestras. He even convinces a skeptical Chinese audience (who didn't understand why he hadn't been entering competitions since he went to the U.S.) that he was worthy of their adulation in a tour with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Reading the book made me feel the pressure on Lang Lang keenly. When he won, I felt excitement and relief. When he had setbacks, I worried for him and all his family had invested in his future. But mostly, I read in astonishment at the lengths his parents went to ensure his success. It wasn't enough that he practiced seven hours or more a day from the time he was four or five years old. Or that he was celebrated in his own city as a child prodigy. No, his father needed him to be the best in the whole world, so he quit his job, took Lang Lang away from his mother at the age of nine, and went to Beijing to live in a slum and try to secure entry into a prestigious school there. A few months later, Lang Lang's new Beijing teacher tells him she will no longer teach him, that he has no talent. The next day, Lang returns home from school to find his dad enraged.

His screaming only got louder, more hysterical. "I gave up my job for you! I gave up my life! Your mother works and starves for you, everyone depends on you, and you're late, you're fired by this teacher, you're not practicing, and you don't do what I tell you to do. There's no reason for you to live. Only death will solve this problem. Die now rather than live in shame! It will be better for both of us. First you die, then I die."

For the first time in my life, I felt a deep hatred for my father. I began cursing him.

"Take these pills!" he said, handing me a bottle of pills I later learned were strong antibiotics. "Swallow all thirty pills right now. Everything will be over and you will be dead."


I felt shocked, dismayed, flabbergasted -- how can winning mean so much to this family, this culture? Lang Lang mentions several times that it's partly the one-child policy in China. Everything -- all a family's hopes and dreams -- rests on the success or failure of their one and only child. The Cultural Revolution also shares some blame. Both of Lang Lang's parents had to give up their dreams in the chaos and shifting policies of the 1960s in China.

I'm grateful that our culture is not quite so intense. But still, I think we all struggle with the question of how much to push and how much to let go, how much to involve our children and how much to let them be. Free time or structured activities? Dance or gymnastics? Piano or violin? Karate or soccer? Obviously, none of us is a crazed lunatic pursuing single-mindedly our child's success at the expense of their stability, but I think we all sometimes buy into the notion that we need to make our children really good at something -- anything -- to make them important or great.

I would venture to guess that when asked, most parents would say that they want their kids to be happy, well-rounded, balanced individuals. But secretly, don't we all harbor great desires to see our children excel beyond our wildest dreams? Why couldn't OUR child be the next Michael Phelphs, the next Mozart, the next President? When our child shows an interest in music or sports or math or whatever, of course we involve our children in classes or programs designed to nurture that talent. But don't we also wonder if we're doing enough? Are we holding our children back from their brilliant future if we're not pushing them every moment? Did we miss some critical period by not teaching our two-year-old sign language, by not playing classical music in the womb, by not signing our baby up for swimming lessons? Have we destroyed their future as a concert pianist if our children don't learn the piano by the age of three?

The truth is, I don't want my children to be ordinary. I don't consider myself ordinary; why should they be? But ultimately, my real desires for them don't have anything to do with success the way the world measures it. The pursuit of power, wealth, position, or acclaim has little meaning for me. My deepest desire for my children is that they will grow up with faith in God. I want them to develop an understanding that God has a place and a purpose for them.

I want them to realize that lives of service and love will bring them more happiness and joy than any trophy or award or ranking. I want my children to be light-bringers, to lift and brighten others by their actions and words. I want them to experience the feeling of helping someone who's in despair. I want them to cry with a friend who's had a disappointing day. I want them to be a friend to someone who's lonely. I want them to use their talents to bless others, not to seek glory or fame for themselves. If glory and fame come, fine, but I don't want my children to ever measure their success based on its presence or absence.

There is something quite evil in the idea that we are only good enough when we are better than someone else, in the pursuit of ranking and basing our worth on how we compare to others. I'm not saying we shouldn't excel, or that we shouldn't aim high and develop our talents; on the contrary, our talents can bless the lives of others. Who among us hasn't been touched by a great piece of music, performed by masters? Or been inspired by the performance of a great athlete?

What is evil is not the desire to become great at something, it's the desire to be better than everyone else. It's the constant comparison, the ranking, and the pride. It reminds me of what C.S. Lewis once said, “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. . . It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest.” (Mere Christianity). In the words of Ezra Taft Benson, "the proud depend upon the world to tell them whether they have value or not. Their self-esteem is determined by where they are judged to be on the ladders of worldly success. They feel worthwhile as individuals if the numbers beneath them in achievement, talent, beauty, or intellect are large enough. Pride is ugly. It says, 'If you succeed, I am a failure.' "

The problem with basing our worth on being better than someone else is that we buy into a lie. I taught special education students for over a year before my first child was born. In the contests of life, my students would never be ranked among the best or the brightest. Most of them were dismal athletes, poor musicians, and limited scholars. And yet, in their presence, I was humbled. I always felt as if I was in the presence of some of God's greatest children. Their smiles and triumphs brought joy; some of their challenges and obsessions brought humor. You don't have to be the best at anything to bring light into the world.

So ultimately, while I want my children to enjoy sports, play an instrument, and be intelligent scholars, to reach for their dreams and achieve wonderful things, I want them most of all to see other people as precious children of God. I want them to rejoice when others succeed and to celebrate the reality that God has given all of us talents and abilities and when we use them on behalf of others, then we are truly great.

3 comments:

Michelle said...

thanks for reminding us that winning isn't everything--and that being #1 doesn't have to mean finishing #1, just believing that you are the best that you can be.

I have a special needs child, and his eyes and smile are #1 in my life.

I enjoyed your thoughts.

shawni said...

I love this! Thank you so much for sharing it! You are so right on I everything you said.

swedemom said...

I'm coming to this late. I completely agree with your point.
Everytime I see someone who is so talented or a prodigy at something, I wonder at the cost, to the family or to the person. Sometimes, the cost is worth it--justified by the end. But sometimes I don't think it is.

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