As a skinny, myopic boy with a bookish nature and a talent with the violin, I was an easy — if not an obligatory — target for the stronger boys. I was punched and teased and bullied and beaten on the school tarmac. Several times I was “called out” to fight in the churchyard: appointments I never kept but instead walked past, shamefacedly heading home while the gathered boys jeered. I kept these trials to myself — to admit them was to admit my weakness — but one evening after one such “missed” appointment I could contain it no longer. I complained to my father, bemoaning the fact that I would never be as strong as those other boys. My father did not teach me to box nor puff me up with empty promises. Instead, he told me truly:
“There will always be someone smarter or richer or stronger than you. Do your best, and you can be happy with who you are and what you have.”
At first I rejected those words and their unflinching precision, but they haunted me through the months that followed. I refused to accept, at the age of nine, that I would never achieve what I perceived to be the only purpose in life: to be the best at something. As I wrestled with the concept, though, I realized that logically there could only be one person who was the richest in all the world, one who was smartest, one who was strongest; the vast majority of us could never be the best. To be the best, I saw, was a not a reasonable goal, whereas working to do one’s best could bring satisfaction in many ways.
It’s a lesson I must still relearn periodically.