It’s almost depressing how clearly I remember this.
I was playing shortstop, for some reason. Normally, the other kids would send me to right field. That’s where they always sent the kid who was picked last – and I was always the kid picked last. On our playground (which was just a parking lot), right field was the shortest field of the rectangular layout. The fence was really close. Bumbling kids who were afraid of the ball could let the ball bounce past them and pick it up on the rebound from the fence without letting kids get too far on the bases.
But on that day, for whatever reason, I was standing between second and third base. I was probably nervous out of my mind.
An older boy lined up at the plate, waiting for the bouncy kickball to be rolled to him from the pitcher. He asked for a bouncy pitch. His name was Joel. He was a nice kid to me, but had a bit of a temper.
When he kicked the ball, it soared slowly up into the air. A pop fly. A certain out in any other game. But luckily for Joel, that pop fly was headed straight towards me.
I could feel the annoyance from my teammates while it hung in the air. My feet stuttered around underneath my body, trying to position myself under the ball. I extended my arms out, gritting my teeth and preparing for impact.
Does this sound a little overdramatic to you?
Let me put this in perspective: I was in fifth grade. I was ten years old. I had played kickball on that playground, with those kids, for five solid years now. Half of my life.
And never in those five years had I ever caught a kickball during a game.
That’s not an exaggeration, either. I usually bobbled the ball. I closed my eyes. I pretended to not be able to reach the ball in time. I did anything I could to avoid actually catching the ball.
I don’t even know why I was scared of it. But I was.
I didn’t go to a school with a lot of “nice” kids. Especially the boys. Our school’s culture ran on mockery and laughter. It wasn’t uncommon for me to walk in from recess feeling about two inches tall because I couldn’t catch a kickball or shoot a basketball or throw a football. I was a liability for any team I was on. That’s why I was picked last all the time.
Today, they would call it “bullying”. Back then, I just accepted it as a part of my life.
Fortunately, I learned as I got older that this wasn’t normal. Other kids who had troubles with sports were often coached by their friends. Kids helped other kids get better. When I realized that as an adult, I just about choked up.
Nobody cared about helping me get better when I was a kid. They just laughed if they were on the opposite team, and complained about me to my face if they were on my team.
I hated playing sports. It was just stressful for me. The more they made fun of me or yelled at me, the more nervous I got. The more nervous I got, the worse I would play. The worse I would play, the more they made fun of me or yelled at me.
It was a neverending cycle.
I distinctly remember a time when it all snowballed into a worst case scenario – probably in third grade. I was in right field and was playing particularly poorly. The other team figured me out, so they spent an entire recess kicking every single ball at me. I have no clue how many runs they scored, but I ended the recess covered in sweat, gasping for air, with about a dozen kids mad at me for ruining their game because I couldn’t catch anything or get anyone out.
Nobody bothered to come over to right field and help me, of course.
Back to fifth grade.
Joel was running with confidence. So were the other players on base. Why wouldn’t they? Kicking a ball to Tommy was a sure thing.
I don’t know how or why it happened, but I’m glad it did: when that ball came down, I wrapped my arms around it. I didn’t try to keep it from hitting my chin, which is what I always tried to do (and why I never caught it). I opened my arms and scooped it out of the air.
I probably bobbled it a little bit. I’m sure I did, actually. A split second of doubt. But I held tight. To my complete and utter disbelief, after five years of embarrassment, I caught a freaking kickball.
I honestly couldn’t believe it.
“TOMMY!” I heard from behind me. It was Amanda. She was one of my oldest friends – a year older than me. Our families have been tight for decades. She was like a sister to me – the rare human being in our school that would publicly stand up for me. I tossed the ball back to the pitcher and Amanda just about tackled me with a huge hug. Another classmate, Shikeda, was right behind her with another hug and a big smile.
The field erupted in cheers. Outside of those two girls, who were genuinely happy for me, I’m sure the rest of the team was reacting like you react to a pitcher that hasn’t thrown a strike for three batters. Like, “HEYYYYYY… you CAN catch a kickball! Finally!”
I didn’t celebrate or pump my fist. It would be stupid to jump up and down over something that routine for literally everyone else in the class.
But my stomach was in knots with relief and excitement. I finally did it.
And as my adrenaline calmed down, and I savored in watching Joel stomp his feet, angrily blaming the pitcher for some reason while he was beet red at being the first kid in the history of Redemption Lutheran Grade School to be caught out by Tommy Meitner of all people, one thought bounced around in my head: Why was I so nervous to do that? There was nothing scary about it!
This would become a theme for that part of my life.
I started catching kickballs. I actually climbed off the ladder of swimming pools and went into the water to swim – or even just walk around, since I was actually tall enough to touch the bottom of the pool anyway. I carefully guided my bike up and down the driveway without training wheels on, learning to balance myself on two wheels.
These are all experiences I didn’t have until I was nine or ten years old.
Think about that. When I should have been enjoying the freeing experiences of childhood, I cowered in fear.
I avoided flying kickballs. I clung to the ladder at the pool, often while wearing a life vest and floaties on my arms. If a bike didn’t have training wheels, I didn’t even bother sitting on it, holding steadfast that I “didn’t like” riding bikes.
Smaller, younger kids passed me by, taking on these experiences long before I did.
But I was just too afraid. Kickballs could hit me in the face and cause pain. I could drown in a pool. I could fall off a bike and break a bone.
It’s not uncommon for my wife to tear up at these kinds of stories when I tell them, usually matter-of-factly. They were a part of my life, and they aren’t any more. I would change these things if I could go back, but I can’t. All I can do is raise my kids to be even slightly braver than I was.
But I carry the lessons I learned back then with me to this day. When I see people watching the news, which gives a ridiculous overrepresentation to bad news and risks because scared people drive up ratings… I think of those days.
I think of how much life I didn’t live because I was scared.
Were those risks real or imaginary? Well, they were real. A kickball can hit me in the face. I can drown in a pool. I can fall off a bike. Those are all very real risks.
But in my steadfast devotion to safety at all costs, I left my life behind. I missed out on years of life lived that I can never get back. I hid from the true joy and fulfillment that only comes when you take measured risks.
It’s something that I wish more people would understand now, while politicians and newscasters try to keep them scared at all costs.
I want them to know what it’s like to give up five full years of your existence, just because you were afraid.
And the regret that sinks in when you realize that you would’ve probably been fine if you had just lived your life like normal, instead of hiding in fear from everything around you.
For some, it’ll be too late. They’ll give up on life experiences – valuable, fulfilling, joyful ones – just in the name of pain avoidance.
What will remain? A different kind of pain, and one that you won’t easily rid yourself of. My only hope for those who fear is that they will learn from the mistakes they’re making now and move forward with some confidence – and an acceptance of risk.
Life without risk isn’t worth living. Trust me, I know.