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  • Writer's pictureNeal Hagberg

Thankful for the Pain?

Can we be thankful for the pain in our lives?

Last week, our swimmer daughter, Madeline, found out she might be pulled from her relay team (which she had swam on all year) and replaced by a teammate, literally the day before section finals.  This was a relay team destined for state and a Minneapolis record.  It had been a dream of hers she had worked for since the end of last season.  And now she would have to wait overnight to find out if she would even swim in what had been up to this point a sure thing.  This girl who is usually unflappable was devastated.  So were we.  It felt like we had all been physically punched, because it came out of the blue. We all went through every emotion in the book.  Sadness.  Disappointment.  Anger.  Confusion.

After crying her eyes out that night and talking about our sadness and all having a conversation (not a lecture) about the Three Crowns of Positive Attitude, Full Effort, and Good Sportsmanship and what we could control and what we could not, she went off to bed.  When she woke, she emerged from her room and said to my wife, Leandra, “I’m good, Mom.  I’m ready for whatever happens.  If I’m chosen, I’ll be happy.  If I’m not, I get an extra week off of swimming.”  I was at our Tennis & Life “I Have A Name” retreat camp with 24 kids and 6 chaperones.  All this was playing out live with the 8th graders there as we were discussing the Three Crowns and how it applied to this real-life situation (including asking the kids for advice as to what I should say to my daughter in this situation.  They mostly said, Tell her you’re proud of her.  Tell her you love her).  They all wanted to know how Madeline was doing, blow by blow.  So I called her that morning (when she still didn’t know the outcome) and asked her what she would do if she didn’t get chosen.  She said, “I’ll cheer for my teammate who did.”  You will? I asked.  “That’s what you do on a team, Dad.”

She didn’t find out until she was getting on the bus that day for section finals that she was, indeed, going to swim.  But Leandra’s and my reaction was unexpected and unsettling.  While we were happy and relieved for our daughter, we were deeply sad for Madeline’s teammate who had had the possibility extended to her the day before and then had it yanked back. We thought we would just be elated that Madeline had been chosen.  But there was another child involved who was feeling pain.  And a coach who agonized over the decision.

So where does this leave us?  It leaves us having to be able to hold both joy and pain at the same time.  It leaves us in a state of understanding that for every joy we have, someone else experiences pain.  For every pain we have, someone else experiences joy.


It leaves us knowing we do not have control over a lot of things in our lives:  a coach’s decision; our own emotions; playing (or swimming) well or poorly in the last match at state (or section, or subsection).  And these things hurt.  A lot.

How, then, do we go on?  By acknowledging that pain, by crying with (and for) each other, and by doing our best to eventually – and this is very hard for me – being happy for someone else’s success which we felt we deserved.  But if we do not acknowledge our pain first, if we gloss over our disappointment by jumping to the Three Crowns too quickly or glibly, we short circuit the process, and don’t get to the deeper meaning.

Without working through our pain in life (and it will come often), we do not get to the point of the real Three Crowns in this messy life.  We do not have that conversation as a family as to what is important.  And we do not get to say, “It’s alright to cry.  And still cheer on your teammates.”  And, “I love you.  I am so proud of you.  Whether you swim or not.”

Happy Thanksgiving.  I hope your pain produces clarity.  And compassion for others.  And that leads to a deeper happiness than you might have otherwise had.


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