And the winner is…

It is almost summer break—which is a way of saying that the entire school is wound up as tight as it can get. We are filling out awards certificates that will have an uncertain impact on the children. The awards may encourage some. They will certainly disappoint some. I wish I enjoyed awards assemblies more, but they make me uncomfortable. I feel a question mark rather than a period: now what? What next?

I have won—and lost—my share of awards. Some of the awards I won led to new opportunities for me to grow. The struggles I went through when I failed to win an award led to different opportunities to grow. None of the awards—not a single award, ever—marked an occasion that I hold onto in my memory as one of the most meaningful moments of my life. There are personal, private events for my family life; there are career-defining moments for my professional life; there are moments when I could feel the presence of God in my spiritual life. Occasionally, there was a public event that marked that those had happened—but in a way, an award is an afterthought, a public acknowledgement that something real took place earlier. And some of the moments that received no public recognition at all are the most meaningful to me personally. If a life-changing moment is not perceived by anyone other than you, it still happened. You are, in fact, your own audience, critic, judge, and performer.

Why do we lose sight of this?

Public recognition seems to open prestigious doors. We crave to belong even more than we crave to “succeed”—but belong to what, exactly? The rich crowd? The smart crowd? The famous crowd? How many hours of sleep have I lost worrying about whether I am acceptable to the “right” people? And my children as well? Isn’t that the whole parenting trap: we must provide certain resources and experiences for our child to have the “right” kind of life?

I am a music teacher. Music is one avenue of achieving public recognition, so I see daily examples of students wanting to receive recognition for performing, and parents anxious to provide those opportunities. I see fewer students who actually love to perform. We miss the forest for the trees; we envy the reputation of musical ability and fail to enjoy the musical experience, whether it is listening or performing. Thank God that we occasionally stop striving and let our guards down so we can just have those life-changing experiences. It is the actual experience that matters, not the public recognition that an experience happened.

I have heard it said that for a person to achieve greatness, that person must experience failure as much as success. No one feels like celebrating failure, but I can say that much of the work I am proud of is a direct result of earlier failure. It’s the classes I worked hardest to teach that I remember the most clearly.

In a few days, my daughter graduates from high school. Some of her classmates will receive awards, some will not. Some of the hardest battles fought in the past four years will not be noticed. But the ground gained in those battles is a permanent victory. You can cheat your way to some awards; I believe you cannot cheat your way to real success. A meaningful life cannot be bestowed; but it can be earned by anyone. I am greedy for my daughter to have the best of everything: I don’t just want awards for her, I want a real life of vocation. I pray that God grants my daughter the grace to live for the reality of meaning rather than settle for the outward trappings of status. It is not an easy road.

But it is a real life.