Monday, November 21, 2016

About Those Participation Trophies …

Dear Cody,

I’ve seen the message you left for “People Older Than Me” on behalf of “People Younger Than Me”, which has had over 331,000 views at this writing [11/19/16]. For the benefit of everyone else, let me repeat it:

Dear People Older Than Me:

Shut up about the f**king participation trophies. We didn’t ask for them. We didn’t want them. We didn’t cherish them and polish them while thinking about what special, gifted children we are. They were annoying clutter on our shelves that we had to throw out in secret so we wouldn’t hurt YOUR feelings. And if we knew back then that you were gonna bring it up every time you disagreed with someone under 40 for the rest of f**king time, we would have told you where to shove that cheap plastic statue.

People Younger Than Me

Mass Immaturity

Cody, I’m sure you’re sick of the references to the participation trophies. As a friend of mine pointed out, only the really little kids just starting Little League got participation trophies. Eventually, they went out with the ball tee, and you had to learn to play to win just as you had to learn how to hit a pitch. Which is to say, you had to learn to risk losing just as you learned to risk getting hit by a pitch. Participating is a minimum requirement; getting a trophy for it is like receiving an award for putting on your pants.

Just to show I get the larger point, I’m sure you’re also tired of the sneering references to “safe spaces” and trigger warnings and being called “delicate snowflakes”. I suppose it’s also our fault that many people of your generation come to adulthood ill-equipped, lacking confidence, self-esteem, and the normal skills to cope with adversity, unprepared to accept the risks that are part of life in an unsafe world. And if your cohort has shown some rotten behavior as a result of the recent election, I must admit many adults haven’t shown mature behavior either before or after the election.

But in case you missed it, Cody, that was the real point of the “participation trophy” reference — not that your cohort thinks of themselves as special, gifted people, but rather that they throw temper tantrums or break out in noisy tears like spoiled, entitled brats at the least sign of opposition. You’re angry, sad, or afraid? So what; it’s still unacceptable. When you have these episodes of mass immaturity, that’s when we start talking about participation trophies. We don’t simply disagree with you; we find your manner of disagreement absurd and contemptible. No one has to take you seriously just because you do.

Welcome to Adult Life

So you resent having the participation trophies shoved in your faces. You can stew in your resentment at the unfairness of it all for the rest of your lives, or you can learn to live with the fact that life won’t be fair just because you want it to be. There are times when fairness is simply irrelevant as a standard. And there are other times when the definition of justice depends on whether you’re the accuser or the accused. There will be times when you’ll want to scream, “I shouldn’t have to be/do/suffer this!” — but you will have to be/do/suffer it, like it or not, no matter what kind of fit you throw. That’s what we adults mean by the phrase, “It is what it is.” You’re not the only person who’s ever had to eat a crapburger; odds are, you’ll have to eat a few more before you die.

Welcome to adult life, Cody, where no one has to empathize with you, no one has to agree with you, no one has to like you, and no one has to particularly care that you exist. Welcome to adult life, where your peers give you respect and trust only on the condition that you continue to earn them. Welcome to adult life, where discussions are two-way streets, and you have to persuade others to see things your way. Welcome to adult life, where no one has to fix anything for you to make your life better, and where an inability to cope with stress, opposition, disappointment, or failure is detrimental to survival.

Welcome to the real world, Cody, where you can’t win without risking defeat, you can’t love others without risking hurt feelings, and you can’t fight without risking injury to yourself. Participation is only the beginning, not an end in itself.

Don’t ask for help, you’re all alone
You’ll have to listen to your own
I’m sure you’ll have some cosmic rationale
But here you are in the ninth
Two men out and three men on
Nowhere to look but inside
Where we all respond to
(Billy Joel, “Pressure” [1982])

What Are You Going to Do About It?

So okay, we older folk are to blame for coddling you when we should have been training you for adulthood. The question is, what are you going to do about it?

Whether you’ve got the adult skill set or not, Cody, you and your age-peers are adults now, and people will expect adult behavior from you even when they themselves aren’t good at adulting. You’re beyond the point where your parents, your teachers, your bosses, or your mentors can “fix” you. As for the government — is there anything they can fix? Whatever the age of majority is in your state, if you’re past it, you will be held responsible for your acts. And you won’t be able to evade that responsibility by blaming others for your behavior.

By no means am I saying you shouldn’t care about social problems, or that you should give up trying to make the world a better place. But you won’t make the world better by stamping your feet and demanding we do things your way. Our opinions and votes didn’t stop mattering simply because you crossed the legal border between childhood and adulthood.

And, believe it or not, your opinions aren’t infallible just because you’ve been to school. There are many intelligent, educated adults who are certain the schools have indoctrinated your generation in a highly-flawed worldview while denying you training in critical thinking skills. (Coincidence? Perhaps.) Whether that’s true or not, the fact remains that you’ll have to deal with our disagreement with you for so long as we live … which won’t be “for the rest of f**king time”.

You are Our Worst Legacy

Because the fact also remains that eventually we’ll be forced by our mortality to hand over responsibility for the world to you. That’s the fact that scares us most of all, the fear that lies behind the scathing, mocking references to participation trophies. Of all the things we’ve done to leave this world a worse place than we found it, the worst legacy we’ll leave the world is you — a generation of “delicate snowflakes and manipulative narcissists”, a generation of narrow-minded, culturally ignorant androids ready to destroy Western civilization but not possessing the emotional or intellectual tools to build anything positive and enduring upon its ruins.

And all the time — such is the tragi-comedy of our situation — we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests [i.e., magnanimity] and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful. (C.S. Lewis, “Men Without Chests”, The Abolition of Man)

Cody, I’m sorry we older people dealt you and your generation such a crappy hand. I’m sorry the adults in your young life were so busy trying to protect you from the ugliness of the world that they failed to teach you the skills to cope with it. I’m sorry they were so concerned about maintaining your childhood innocence for as long as possible that they failed to prepare you for adult challenges and responsibilities. And I’m sorry that after 1,360 or so words I can only offer you what could have been said less sympathetically in four: “Sucks to be you.”

Life Isn’t Fair

But there it is: if you want us to take you seriously as adults, you’ll have to learn to behave like adults. In fact, if you really want to leave a better world behind you, you’ll have to learn to behave better than us Older People. And you’ll have to do it without our help. After all, we’re the ones who gave you those participation trophies you hated so much in the first place.

No, it isn’t fair. That’s what makes adult life such a bitch — it’s full of imperfect people like you and me who create obstacles for others to deal with. Participation, however, is not an option. It’s a minimum requirement.

An Older Person