When I was about twelve years old, I was in a race. With the neighbor girl. She was a dancer, with round feet and round joints, and not a fast person at all. She never would have won against me. We lined our toes up against one long stick and Tj, my brother, counted down from some absurd number like 12.
Aaand 12,11,10,9,8… when you are the youngest of four you don’t ask why things are the way that they are—you just wait. As an adult, I would pause, look at my brother, and say something like, “Who the fuck counts down from 12?”
But I wasn’t an adult and I certainly wasn’t using that language back then. So, I just waited, and so did the neighbor girl.
Since my childhood consisted of doing whatever Tj did, it involved a lot of watching Michael Jordan. So, in that flash second of a moment, during the absurd countdown from 12, I remembered an interview between a reporter and Michael Jordan following a game where they just dominated the other team.
Reporter: Why don’t you just relax when playing teams that you know that you’ll beat?
MJ: I don’t relax. I win. If I know my team is that much better than the team we’re about to play, then we better beat them by 40 points instead of 10.
In that 12 seconds, I was Michael Jordan, and I needed to win by 40 paces.
Tj was waiting at the finish line, which was another stick.
When we crossed that stick, he called out the winner, and it was not me.
I threw my arms up, looked at him like you’ve gotta be kidding me. She hadn’t even crossed the stick yet. It was such a far stretch between her and me that I decided to just chalk this one up to the game of being Tj’s little sister. He would always be harder on me.
Ten years later, I was dating this guy from Kenya.
He would always, under any circumstance, no matter where or what temperature it was outside, be faster than me. We went for runs together outside, and being in Mankato, where it’s extremely hilly, I would literally be dying by the time we completed our run, with cotton mouth and everything.
He was also a rock climber. And I was a rock climber. One time, I was climbing a route that was 5.11+, which is a little harder than I typically climb, and no girl had done this route yet. They had attempted, but nobody could get past this really hard section.
When the other girls tried it, he was so encouraging and sweet. They’d make the first two moves, and he would literally be moving on the ground with them, telling them where to go next.
When I tried? He said, “Go get ‘em, babe.” That was it. No mirroring from the floor telling me where to go next, no more sweet talk, it was all business once I stepped my last foot off the ground. He stared at me like she better get this, with his arms crossed.
I made it past the first move, past the second, and then the hard section. I fell, exactly where the last girl had fallen. He told me to try again. I told him I am not going to get it. He told me to try again. I told him I want to come down. He told me one last time to try again. I began to tear up. He said I should come down.
When we left the gym that night I cried and said, “Why are you so kind and sweet to the other girls but so damn hard on me? Why can’t you just be loving to me like you are to them?”
His response: Because I know you can get it.
When I reflect back on these moments, though it was hard and I wanted to just be held and told I did a good job—it was circumstances like this that helped me do better. Eventually, I could climb that route, and I could run really weirdly fast for scarily long distances. It was like I was given some machine and I didn’t really know how to operate it but it operated well, and that was because it had been built up by all the others that had spent time putting it together.
Humans are weird with each other. We’re quietly competitive and when someone we love takes a loss; we take a loss. When someone we love takes a win, we take a win. It’s like we’re all interconnected with our loved ones.
Even though what I am going through now is by far the most challenging time in my life, it’s like life is my big brother. Being hard on me because it knows what I’m capable of before I even know it myself. It’s like life has given me the harder challenge because it knows I can make it.
What if we viewed challenges and setbacks as this? My partner, Michael, says that setbacks are just setups for future success. Like a bow and arrow, the further it gets pulled back, the further it will go. Michael is, naturally, also a big fan of Michael Jordan. Our lazy days are spent watching The Last Dance and desiring nothing else than just lying there watching MJ dominate. What I find inspiring about MJ is that he also uses his setbacks and failures as setups for future success. Misses a layup? He gonna be in the gym tomorrow morning at 6 am shooting running layups over and over again until practice starts at 10. When his father passed away, very tragically, he used that energy to keep striving and fighting and doing better.
What I find fascinating about Michael Jordan is that there is no top.
We all know he is the best. Sorry, LeBron, but nobody can compete with the original. Tj and I would go back and forth about this because he fell in love with LeBron, well, we both did, but I was still a true MJ girl. I knew MJ was better, and that two eras cannot be compared to one another. But, Tj couldn’t see past LeBron’s shine. It was blinding.
Though I want to toss my arms up and scream at the sky about how unfair life is—which I might do sometimes, there comes a calm after the anger where one must just accept that life is hard. And setbacks, pain, trauma, and sadness, are all energetic possibilities for future success, for greater reward, and a much, much bigger heart.