21: Chutes and Ladders

21: Chutes and Ladders

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Positive

Chutes and Ladders

You can never quit. Winners never quit, and quitters never win.

~Ted Turner

The late afternoon sun streamed through our living room windows, my four-year-old son Evan’s sticky handprints smudged across the glass. He and I sat on the carpet, his Chutes and Ladders game sprawled out before us. “It’s your move, Mommy,” he said.

I was preoccupied. I’d just gotten a rejection letter on my book, and as much as I love playing with my kid, a grown person can only take so much Candy Land and Hungry Hungry Hippos. My mind swirled with self-pitying thoughts: Was this where all my years of writing had led? Was this my destiny? I could almost feel my brain withering.

I shook off the melodrama and refocused on the game. I already had two fully-grown children and I knew all too well how fast this precious time would pass. Moments playing with my kid were what really mattered — and who cared what that stuffy agent thought, anyway?

Evan spun the dial. “Woo Hoo! I’m gonna win!” he shouted as he moved his playing piece up the ladder.

The object of Chutes and Ladders is to move 100 spaces to the winner’s spot at the top. Along the way, you are provided “Ladders” that allow you to skip spaces and move to the top, and then there are “Chutes,” long slides that send you reeling back to the bottom.

Lately, Evan had been obsessed with the idea of winning. In fact, he saw everything as an opportunity to win. When we got out of the car, he’d race me to the front door. He’d finish a glass of milk, slam it down empty on the table and exclaim, “I win!” But he, like every four-year-old, was having a hard time with the concept of “losing.”

So when we’d play games like Candy Land or Don’t Break the Ice, I tried to teach him good sportsmanship. When he’d win, he’d shout, “I win and you lose, Mommy!” He didn’t say it with any malice, and technically he was right, but I explained to him that even in winning we must be gracious, and encourage the other person for playing a good game. After that, whenever I lost, he’d gently pat me on the back and say, with a sweet expression and sing-songy voice, “Congratulations, loser.”

Once again, Evan roused me from my daydreaming. “Your turn, Mommy.”

I spun the dial, and just happened to get the ladder to the winner’s circle. I won. He looked crestfallen. He dropped his playing piece and started to pack up the game.

“Aren’t you going to say ‘Congratulations, loser’ to me, Mommy?” he asked.

And suddenly, the importance of this moment sunk in. My son wasn’t a loser because his roll of the dice was different than mine. He wasn’t a lesser person because his journey set him back on the game board. My head was spinning as I related this preschool game to my whole life. I could see our family’s history on the multi-colored spaces . . . .

The Dexters’ Real-Life Chutes and Ladders:

1993 — My struggling business turns a profit after four years of loss: Ladder

1994 — It burns down: Chute

2003 — We take out a loan and build my husband’s recording studio: Ladder

2004 — It floods: Chute

2009 — We finally pay off our debt: Ladder

2010 — We’re sued: Chute

But did we ever pack up the game and walk away? No! We kept rebuilding, kept going after our dreams. We knew that other “chutes” could be in our future, but the winner’s circle was still up there.

So I told my son, “Wait a minute, why don’t you finish the game?”

He looked at me confused. “But I lost, Mommy.”

I answered, “Just because one person makes it to the top first, doesn’t mean the rest of us lose. You keep going.”

So he did, and bless his little heart, every time he got close to the top, he’d land on this one terrible chute that would take him right back to the beginning. And I’ll be darned if that didn’t happen four times in a row. At first it upset him. A lot. But after the fifth time, it became ridiculously funny to both of us. Evan was laughing so hard he fell over in his chair. It took him another half hour to finally make it to the winner’s circle, but boy-oh-boy was that a sweet moment. We jumped up and cheered — the victory all the sweeter for having been so hard earned. Isn’t that just like life?

And of course I caught my own reflection in this lesson. I thought I was teaching my son something that day, but I’m the one who really needed to learn the value of persistence, and hope, and what’s more — a sense of humor. When I think of all the times I’ve been discouraged — the times I just knew that someone else had already done it better, faster, slicker than me, whatever it was. All the times I packed up the game and quit, because someone else had made it to the top first — they had written the better essay, the more brilliant book. All those times, I walked away from my own chance to win.

I certainly wasn’t going to teach my son that there is only one winner, or that every situation is either win or lose.

I believe the winner’s circle still looms up there for every one of us. Some of us may take a long time to get there. We may be four years old, or forty, or twice that (Betty White’s resurgence at 88? Helloooo!). The journey will look different for all of us. Some of us might get knocked down that chute five times or more, while others take the ladder straight up. It doesn’t matter.

What matters is that we find our own way, and persevere.

It’s like I told Evan that day. “Don’t pack up the game. Keep going.”

We started a new way of “playing the game” that day, and you know what? It’s much more gratifying for all of us.

By the way, my book eventually sold.

Ladder!

~Hollye Dexter

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