Three years ago, I ran the Salt Lake City “Haunted Half”—a half marathon…a “-thon” if you will…and a “mara-” if you will not. I suppose it depends on whether you see yourself as having run the first half or the last half. And as Mormons from all over Utah descended on the capital city bedecked in frocks, lion costumes, prisoner costumes, and police uniforms, I spilled out from every corner of a Superman t-shirt, so nervous about my first race that I missed the first ten minutes standing in line at a bathroom to pee—since I had heard tell of people losing control of their bodily functions after exerting themselves too much. I thought, better ten minutes late than ten minutes early and covered in pee. Ironically, with three children this motto has come in handy more than this once. And to be honest, I can’t be sure that this trip to the bathroom is not actually why I didn’t end up finishing covered in pee.
After committing to months of training, I took off like a walrus bounding toward the ocean. Through canyons where Pandora no longer functioned, across busy streets and into the city where Pandora did function. By mile eight I was pretty sure I was going to die—and I was ready to greet death with open arms, rather than face running one more damn step. I was being passed by men and women, old and young, tall and short, skinny and fat … some of them weren’t even running … but still I kept on, and what seemed like an eternity later, I was crawling past a finish line that I was 90-percent sure was the finish line I was looking for. And standing on the other side were a very proud daughter, a very proud son, and a concerned couple who couldn’t wait to return them to their rightful owner … just kidding. It was my wife, who was also proud. But before I got to them, I ran through an inflated Halloween-themed awning and passed by a woman who gave me an enthusiastic high five and put a medal around my neck. I had done it! I’d finished my first race—and I had the medal to prove it!
My medal didn’t have a number on it. It just had a big headless horseman on it. In fact, if you were to look at it—I could just as easily have won it in a skeeball toss at Chuck E. Cheese, or pulled it from a novelty sized Crackerjacks box, or bought it as the perfect accessory to jazz up casual Friday at work. But I didn’t. I earned that medal. I ran my ass off. I pushed myself to do something that used to be out of reach physically. I did something I was nervous about. I tried. And I did. And I was proud.
But medals went out to each of the runners. The tall, the short, the old, the young, the fast … and yes, even the slow. It was nothing more than a participation ribbon. It didn’t distinguish me from anyone else who ran the race. It was just some janky participation ribbon—so what value could it possibly have, right?
And yet, the medal did make me feel distinguished: distinguished from every other person who didn’t run. So, when I hear Gen-Xers and Boomers complain about the participation ribbons (participation ribbons that they bestowed no less) given to Millennials, I think about my -thon, and about how my participation ribbon commemorates the hours I spent running when I could have been sitting. It honors the scheduling, the stretching, the heavy breathing, the progress, the frustration, and the embarrassment I faced down to accomplish my goal. It honors sticking with something I hated until it became something I loved.
To me, participation ribbons do not diminish the accomplishments of those who finished first—those who trained harder, and longer, and made more progress. There is still only one ribbon that says first (or maybe a couple, depending on age or weight … or something … I was so far from first, I couldn’t even look at the first place medals without someone kicking me in the crotch.) In fact, I was a swimmer as a kid, and I was actually pretty good … most likely because it’s the only sport where you can’t trip over anything. And I can distinctly remember feeling very differently about blue—first place—ribbons, and yellow—fourth, fifth, or sixth place—ribbons.
Culturally, we are taught to value winning. We no longer watch cooking shows where Julia Child teaches us how to roast pork; we watch Chopped, and Cake Walk, and Cupcake Wars, where we determine the best baker, and we learn nothing. Who cares about learning, when we can figure out who is the best … out of those three participants … who were picked, because …uh … they were all free on a Saturday? And then we wonder why adults no longer do these things for fun. Sadly, it’s this “winner takes all” logic that says that if you’re no longer in the running for the Olympics, there’s really no point. Participation ribbons simply say that there is more to competing than dominating. There is trying. There is testing your limits. There is supporting your team. There is bonding. There is friendship. There is working, when you can stream Power Rangers on Netflix.
It seems particularly unfair to call Millennials “special snowflakes” because of the participation ribbons given to them by their parents and coaches. Life is full of participation ribbons—rewards for those of us who don’t come in first but who make an effort, nonetheless. Credit cards and grocery stores offer rewards and discounts, and those don’t just go to the “best” customers. My insurance gives me a deduction for going to the gym 10 times per month, and I don’t even have to have the biggest bench press. And imagine a company who forgoes a three percent flat cost of living increase for all employees and simply doubles the salary of the most productive employee.
So, when someone offers you a participation ribbon, you tell them to take that ribbon and shove it … right into your hand, because participation ribbons are awesome, and you earned it! If someone wants my Haunted Half medal, they’re going to have to chase me down and pry it from my cold, dead hands … and I can run pretty far … I have the medal to prove it.
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