To be successful in my college department, I had to be unrelentingly competitive.
Speech and debate is highly visible, black and white, and judged by beady-eyed word nerds. You’re either winning or losing, good or bad. Yet, in spite of my determination to never drop a dud argument on the third floor of Southern Hall, in my last semester, I had acquired a reputation that today horrifies me. By the end of the semester, my nickname was “Second Best.” It seems that I had relinquished my desire to kick everyone in the balls and was satisfied with just doing well. “Well” isn’t self-deprecating, until I consider my path up until that point. Then I just want to slap Spring Semester Annie. Why was I suddenly comfortable with runner-up when before, second place was always first loser?
Was it a guy? Senioritis? Or had it dawned on me that I’d spent my college career in a most isolating field of study? Regardless, I excused myself from demanding better, and I find this tug-of-war between excuses and reason embarrassingly habitual.
After college, I was quite willingly a so-so waitress. My service was acceptable, but rarely memorable. I just wasn’t invigorated by the work enough to do more. I should have demanded better of me. Instead, I let the excuse of “temporary employment” reason for me. But waitressing was just a pit stop on the way to something bigger. So, was I excused?
When it comes to our personal best, when is an excuse reasonable or just a weakness in disguise?
Once a year I pledge to throw myself into a new cardio regimen. I tell myself, “This is the one I’ll stick with.” Inevitably I excuse myself one morning because I slept like crap the night before. A few days later I’m excused because I let work pile up. Then it’s because I catch a cold, and finally, I just forget to work out altogether. Another time I was gearing up for a three day juice cleanse, but just reading the directions on the juicer I bought for the cleanse was so overwhelming that instead, I drank rosé and binge-watched “The Real Housewives.” My excuses might have been human, but they weren’t reasonable. I could have demanded better, but I was weak to lazy excuses. Or maybe it really wasn’t that important to me after all? So, am I once again excused?
Other times we care too much, giving our excuses complete control.
How long have I put off getting that weird mole checked? How long have you let that heart murmur slide? We’re probably perfectly fine, but we excuse ourselves from knowing for certain on the off-chance that what we’ll actually know is just how fragile we are. I once watched my daughter hesitate for a whole ten minutes before getting down to business on a math word problem. She wasn’t procrastinating as usual. She was afraid she wouldn’t be able to solve it at all, that her mind was too weak to wrap around such algebraic concepts. So she sat frozen until I forced her to cry through her fear and solve the problem. Turns out, her mind can handle second grade math, but she first had to relinquish control of the excuse that she couldn’t. Excuses feel like safe spaces, when they aren’t.
So when we need exemption from the hopelessness, disinterest, laziness, and fears that create our web of excuses, how best can we reason with ourselves to demand better?
Any good grant writer knows that what must be established in order to be awarded funding is not just a clear picture of life with the grant, but even more important is a desperate image of life without the grant. A fiction writer must present a strong case for why the stakes of the protagonist are so desperately important in order to keep us reading. It’s that persuasive sweet spot that churns our vulnerability. Perhaps it’s a reasonable sweet spot that we should consider before giving in to excuses. Imagine if we shaped our lives like a grant proposal or the next great story? What if our stakes were worth the same fight as that of a capital campaign or a book deal? We only get one life and yet fighting our good fight isn’t always in high demand.
Until the demand is made for us.
Tomorrow, Nov. 15, is World Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Day. Pancreatic cancer is the only cancer with a single digit percentage survival rate because early detection is a rarity. Most cases, like my father’s, aren’t discovered until long after the tumors have metastasized. It doesn’t always show up in conventional CT scans, its early symptoms aren’t dramatic, and yet it’s there, a silent, sly killer. All that being said, you won’t see a lot of purple ribbons this month or NFL players making touchdowns in purple cleats. But I’ll be wearing purple tomorrow, as a symbol of a demand that was decided for me, but one for which I’ll fight for the remainder of my life. In this instance, I have no reasonable excuse not to demand better for Pop and all the other Pops fighting for their lives.
I know enough to know that demanding better, especially demanding my all, will only get the results I want when I make no excuses. Excuses aren’t solutions, and if something is worth doing at all, it’s worth doing really well. I’m stronger than my excuses. I’m more optimistic than my excuses. I’m braver than my excuses, and frankly, I’m more demanding, too.
My speeches were good in college. At times they were great. They could have been even greater had I demanded better.