All My Trophies Smell Like Kitty Litter

And other realizations upon turning 30.

“We’re trying to downsize, what do you want to do with all your trophies?” my mom asked.

The trophies she spoke of spanned my entire high school career of fine arts competitions. Years ago they were proudly displayed by the piano where I spent hours honing my skill. Now the piano was gone and the trophies were packed up in plastic bins in the storage room that also housed the cat’s litter box.

***

I’m turning 30. Deep down I know it’s probably time to get rid of the trophies I won when I was a teenager. The fact that they’ve been packed away for years already should have made the decision obvious. When would I ever display these trophies again? Did I envision a time when I’m entertaining guests in my Manhattan apartment, enjoying hors d’oeuvres when the glisten of the gold-colored plastic catches someone’s eye.

“My, my, wherever did you acquire such fine plastic trophies with the gaudy, oversized music notes?” they inquire.

“Well,” I reply, “That one is from when I won the second highest honor in 8th grade for doing a slightly better than adequate job at interpreting Paderewski’s Minuet!”

Sadly now, the only eyes that will be caught by the glisten of those trophies will be my cat’s as it takes a dump. Turning 30 means no one really cares anymore about what you accomplished in high school — not even your mom. And to further complicate things, turning 30 while living in New York City means you’re constantly meeting people who’ve won better “trophies” than you — they’ve accomplished more than you, they have a better degree than you, they have a bigger paycheck, an apartment on a higher floor. Or all of the above.

I think the human tendency then is to over-correct in one way or another. We might tend towards bitterness and dismiss everyone that has accomplished more than us with thoughts like “Well if I would have been born into wealth…” or “At least I didn’t have to sell my soul to get where they’re at.”

Or we tend towards full-throttle-make-up-for-lost-time “trophy” acquiring. “I’m going back to school.” “I’m starting my own organization that will really make a difference.” “I’m getting the granite countertops like everyone else on HGTV!” Does creating a blog count?

And while none of those resolutions are inherently bad, when our motivation behind the resolution is to justify our existence or prove our worth, we’re in danger of major disappointment.

We trick ourselves into believing that achieving enough fame, power, popularity, or success will give us enough of a contentment boost to satisfy us through the rest of life. We think there’s a trophy out there that will ultimately silence our biggest critic — ourselves. But even the best trophies lose their luster.

***

In Wright Thompson’s 2013 article “Michael Jordan Has Not Left the Building” which is perhaps the best ESPN article I’ve ever read — and by best I mean it’s one of the only ESPN articles I’ve ever read…but give me a break, I didn’t have time for sports in high school, Paderewski wasn’t going to adequately interpret himself — we get a glimpse into Michael Jordan’s life since stepping off the court.

As Thompson writes,

Most people live anonymous lives, and when they grow old and die, any record of their existence is blown away. They’re forgotten, some more slowly than others, but eventually it happens to virtually everyone. Yet for the few people in each generation who reach the very pinnacle of fame and achievement, a mirage flickers: immortality. They come to believe in it. Even after Jordan is gone, he knows people will remember him. Here lies the greatest basketball player of all time. That’s his epitaph.”

“There’s a fable about returning Roman generals who rode in victory parades through the streets of the capital; a slave stood behind them, whispering in their ears, “All glory is fleeting.” Nobody does that for professional athletes. Jordan couldn’t have known that the closest he’d get to immortality was during that final walk off the court. . . . All that can happen in the days and years that follow is for the shining monument he built to be chipped away, eroded. His self-esteem has always been, as he says, “tied directly to the game.” Without it, he feels adrift. Who am I? What am I doing? For the past 10 years, since retiring for the third time, he has been running, moving as fast as he could, creating distractions, distance.”

Jordan’s accomplishments haven’t produced even a decade of contentment. There’s a restlessness gnawing away inside.

“Man, I wish I was playing right now,” Jordan says. “I would give up everything now to go back and play the game of basketball.” “How do you replace it?” he’s asked. “You don’t. You learn to live with it.”

“How can I enjoy the next 20 years without so much of this consuming me?” he asks…”How can I find peace away from the game of basketball?”

Thompson mentions how Jordan is used to being the most important person anywhere he goes. And it shows.

“My ego is so big now that I expect certain things,” says Jordan.

“Jordan is at the center of several overlapping universes, at the top of the billion-dollar Jordan Brand at Nike, of the Bobcats, of his own company, with dozens of employees and contractors on the payroll. In case anyone in the inner circle forgets who’s in charge, they only have to recall the code names given to them by the private security team assigned to overseas trips. Estee is Venom. George is Butler. Yvette is Harmony. Jordan is called Yahweh — a Hebrew word for God.”

Yahweh — I AM WHO I AM.

***

As a kid I never understood that particular part of the story of Moses and the burning bush. When Moses asks God to clarify a little bit about who he is, God says “I AM WHO I AM.”

Kind of vague isn’t it? Not the easiest concept to explain with flannelgraph. What’s going on here? God was defining himself by himself. I am who I am.

At a party when you’re being introduced you’d never describe yourself this way. “I am who Steve is.” As humans we always seem to need something outside of ourselves to define ourselves. “I’m a teacher.” “I’m a student studying at _____.” “I’m friends with _____.” We fill in the blanks with career, accomplishments, and connections. That’s what differentiates us as created beings from Yahweh, the Creator. Yahweh is who Yahweh is. Michael Jordan is who basketball made him to be. Jordan is defined by something outside of himself, Yahweh is not.

When we as created beings try to use other created things to gauge our self-worth, we’re destined for an eventual identity crisis. Sure, our current accomplishments might be satisfying for a time, just like the iPhone 3G was satisfying back in 2008. But as time passes, the thrill of our accomplishments will fade, and we’ll encounter situations where we find our accomplishments no longer provide the validation they once did. We’ll be like Moses in Exodus 3 when he asks God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” Really Moses? Come on, you were raised by royalty, you survived a genocide, you’ve got a palace education, and you definitely know how to fight! You’re like the Michael Jordan of Old Testament Bible characters!

But God mentions none of that in his reply. He simply says “I will be with you.”

There was Moses, standing before God searching for something to justify his existence. As if Moses was the one that thought up this whole existence thing in the first place.

Granted, we’ve done our fair share of screwing things up to the point where we realize God would be completely justified to give up on us and start over. I mean, it doesn’t get much worse than God sending his Son to reverse the curse that we brought on ourselves only to have us kill him instead. We, the created beings, killed the Creator. Yet God used even the death of his Son to reiterate his love for us yet again. What should have ultimately cut us off from God actually restored our relationship with him. Jesus, in his resurrected body, said so himself. In his parting words in Matthew 28, Jesus reminds us once again, “I will be with you, always.”

Only when our self-worth isn’t resting in ourselves will we find freedom from the constant need for bigger, better “trophies” to validate our lives. Jesus sees us at our worst and comes alongside us anyway. That’s the beauty of Christianity. It’s humbling, and it’s revolutionary. Because when we no longer have to worry about whether this opportunity or that accomplishment will boost our self-worth, we’re free to work, create, invent, serve, love, and dream out of joy, not out of angst. We still work hard, but now we’re free to rest.

Like my parents’ cats. Cats don’t seem to struggle with self-worth. While dogs are constantly in need of validation, always worrying whether they’ve earned their keep, done enough tricks, and gained their master’s approval, cats just rest. I guess they’ve figured out that if you’ve brought them into your home and made them a part of your family, they don’t really have anything else to worry about. Either that, or the trophies we placed in their bathroom gave them a pretty significant confidence boost. Just wait until they turn 30.

4th Grade Math & Literacy Teacher: NYC Public Schools | Curious about how faith, social justice, education, and the arts all combine.

4th Grade Math & Literacy Teacher: NYC Public Schools | Curious about how faith, social justice, education, and the arts all combine.