I believe in second… yes, second. Second glances and second helpings, absolutely. These are easy… an extra glance at something beautiful, or that dessert so inspiring to the taste the first time around. But, there are bigger, arguably more important, “second’s” out there. This struck me last Saturday … literally struck me in the form of a horrible smell … the smell of a fifty pound bag of cow manure over my shoulder. Walking next to me, giggling about “cow poopy,” was my seven year old son, Sam. By the time we reached the van we were belly laughing about the contents of that bag and the odor surrounding us. And then it happened … a mental switch, an intellectual lighting bolt, or who knows what. But there it was squarely in my head: “Second” is important. Not first, but second … A second chance, second place and, of course, a second thought.
There was Sam in front of me, red faced and giggling. My youngest child. My second. The kind of kid who has given me a second chance to do it right, to recognize, to prioritize, and to embrace my father role without fear and trepidation that came with my first. But, more than that, when I looked at Sam and soaked in his great gut laugh, I saw more. I saw my own father… a father so important to me as a child, but to whom I became estranged following his divorce from my mother. With time, my own children, and the ever tenuous nature extending a second chance, I have connected with my father again only to experience that bond, love, and friendship torn away so long ago. Would that have happened without Sam? I am not sure, really, but am constantly stuck with the realization that there almost was no Sam at all. You see, 10 years ago during one of those rocky moments in our relationship, my wife Susan gave me a second chance … a second chance to catch my breath, get my emotional bearings together, and give it a “second effort,” as my high school cross-country coach used to say.
I suppose Coach Arnett use to push me for that “second effort” because I always seemed to come in second place. Damn. Second place… again, and again. This fact was never lost on my ego, my self-doubt, and that little, evil, voice in my head that forced me to question whether I was even cut out for such competition. I’ve seen the same self-questioning from friends and among my students I teach at Ohio State. I’ve seen it in my wife Susan’s reflections on not being high school valedictorian nearly twenty years ago. She was not first but, rather, the second in her graduating class. This kind of stuff hurts. But it only hurts because I or we seem to be oblivious to the ways that second is actually better than first. Yes, that’s right. I now believe that second is better. We usually miss it, though. The rewards of second are too often lost in the celebration of first. Too bad, really. Second motivates. It produces humility and compassion when triumph does happen. It also generates honest reflection – reflection not bound in self-engrandizement that often comes with first. Yup. Its great to win it all… to be the best. The winner gets the trophy. But then again, that’s about all the winner gets.
Think about it. Better yet, give it a second thought. That’s right, a second thought… perhaps the most valuable of all thoughts. Not invoking it might get you into trouble. For me it has meant sliding into home plate head-first in a “for fun” softball game; laying in the sun for a few minutes only to fall asleep; blurting out the S*** word with my two year old daughter Allegra within earshot; letting a heated moment get the best of what was once a great friendship. A second thought would have created a better outcome in every case. It always does. Indeed, had I not embraced Sam’s smile and laughter that sunny afternoon, I would have simply been sweating with stinky cow manure over my shoulder. But I did embrace it. I took in his laugh and smile, and all of the second chances, places, and thoughts that went into them and my realization of them. Second chances, places, and thoughts… Yet, somehow, on that sunny day I was the winner.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.