My life ended in 7th grade. I was dropped off to school fifteen minutes early so I could check the roster of the Franklin Knights basketball team. But there was a mistake--my name was missing. I soon realized this was no error, but my exclusion from this list was the polite way of the coach telling me, "thanks, but no thanks". What happened next? I walked back to our purple minivan with the pink stripe down the side of the door. Opened the passenger side door. Looked my mom square in the eye, with tears rolling up in mine and said, "I didn't make it."
I cried for ten minutes straight. I couldn't go to school. I begged not to go to school. I had to go. I was so hurt. Never before did I want something so badly--to wear that silver and blue jersey, to be part of "the team" and impress my peers. If felt as if the foundation of my life was a lie and that I might as well give up completely. Why bother, right?
Ironically the group of students selected to that Franklin Knights basketball team ended up winning the state championship the next year in an unbelievable double overtime victory thanks to an 80ft hailmary shot with 2.7 seconds of clock remaining. My 4' 8" would not have helped the team much--so in retrospect, good call coach.
It wasn't the last time I tasted the sweet slap-in-the-face of rejection. We're well acquainted by now. My first girlfriend broke up with me in a voicemail. I was at soccer practice and my dad picked me up. I checked my phone as we drove away and heard the worst words a naïve boy could hear. "I think we'd both be happier with other people." To the girl, if you're reading this, I deserved it. But it still hurt. For the record, I hold nothing against her. She changed my life.
"Dear Brian, we regret to inform you that we're unable to admit you to The University of Illinois' School of Business. Your application has been waitlisted and we will notify you if your status changes. Thank you for your consideration." Both my parents taught at the University of Illinois. I didn't have a spot in the business school (I did get into the Liberal Arts College). This was four years after I'd been turned down by the university-affiliated laboratory high school which my brother attended. It was déjà vu.
Why does rejection suck? It makes us feel isolated, exiled, excluded from the tribe. Our animal instincts scream, "Stay together! You'll never survive alone." Yet, here I am, plunking away at a coffee shop. Alive. I suspect people have way more horrific stories of rejection than the few I've shared above. It's an unwelcome friend to us all. Does it ever not hurt? No, but I do think you can build your tolerance to rejection like the way people build "tolerance" to caffeine or alcohol. After so much abuse, your senses become numb. Try telling a war veteran how horrible the line was at the grocery store, I'm sure he or she would be riveted.
What's the moral? Life's a series of rejections, unless you live in a shoebox, then you're safe. Do I think it's ok to feel hurt. Absolutely, it's a necessary part of the healing process. Will rejection make you stronger? It can. What I do know is that I'm still here. I didn't die in 7th grade despite my nightmare of being laughed to death by my taller and more skilled peers. You start dying when you stop trying. When you no longer wonder, "what if"? Rejection, I'm sure we'll meet again, and when we do know this. I came looking for you.