A month ago, when my church gave us the opportunity to help out at the annual “Fall Family Fun Feast,” the members of my youth group had all looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders. Not the most exciting event ever, but we supposed running different game stations for young kids would be fun.
And it should have been.
But when the day arrived, it turned out to be quite different from how I had imagined it. As the organizer assigned different stations for the youth to work, people eagerly volunteered. However, when she reached one booth, a sudden lack of willingness materialized.
People called it the “Candle Station,” and at first it didn’t seem too daunting. When the organizer asked me if I wanted to work at it, I agreed. All the other stations required only one person to man them, but I had my friend, Mark, to help me. Knowing I needed another person to assist me should have foreshadowed the future difficulties of the booth, but I meandered to the Candle Station anyway, happily oblivious.
At our booth, children extinguished three burning candles with a water gun in less than 30 seconds – or at least tried to. Our only role was to make sure everything ran smoothly. It seemed simple enough, and Mark and I prepared to lead the children in our game.
As the kids began arriving, I quickly found out why the Candle Station needed two people. Mark and I faced problem after problem after problem; with each new trouble, I felt increasingly terrible because things fell short. If we couldn’t run this station well, then what was the point of working it at all?
In a typical round, a child came up to the station, eager to play. As he waited, he saw Mark trying to fill up our one working water gun, desperately shaking it in a bucket of water. The child glanced up to see me frantically trying to light the candles.
Interestingly, candles refuse to light when wet; of course, this problem normally never pops up for candle owners. Come to think of it, the only situation I can ever imagine where a candle would become wet seems to be when someone squirts water at it.
To make matters even worse, one of the lighters we were using — the good lighter, of course — stopped working halfway through the evening. While timing using Mark’s phone, I spilled so much water on it that I feared it would stop working.
That evening, as I often do, I concentrated only on the bad. Things weren’t perfect, and in my mind, that meant they weren’t going well at all. Faced with trying to light a stubborn candle for the hundredth time at least, I mentally marked the “Fall Family Fun Feast” as a failure.
In multiple studies, such as one by Purdue University, researchers have found that people who focus on the bad tend to have so much anxiety about failing that eventually it becomes a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” They end up failing because they think they won’t succeed.
That was what happened to me. As I tried, once again, to light a stubborn candle, I paused and looked up to see the next participant in our game. Maybe six years old and eagerly grinning ear to ear, she juxtaposed my annoyed demeanor.
After 30 seconds with the water gun, she — like so many other children — failed at our game. Instead of immediately counting out her tickets she received as a consolation prize, I paused to study her face, wondering if she felt the burden of failure like I did.
Not a trace of unhappiness tainted her smile; she simply shrugged and skipped off to the next booth. I saw her fail, yet in her mind, the night remained absolutely perfect.
I wrote her off as being one of those ridiculous, perpetually optimistic types of people, but to my surprise, when I paused to look at our next participant, he shared the same unbreakable joy. In fact, all the children who visited the Candle Station came with a smile and left with a smile. I was dumbfounded. Maybe being flawless wasn’t what mattered.
As I continued to help with the game, my mind set began to change. I started to seek the joy the kids were looking for instead of striving to be flawless.
In the end, I wasn’t going to remember that the water almost ruined Mark’s phone or that I spent far too much time trying to light candles.
I would remember the smiles of the children and the happiness they found, and I would remember giggling with them about all of our problems.
They taught me that it really didn’t matter what a situation is like. The important thing, instead, is that they approached the situation with joy, as if they couldn’t be any happier — as if they thought everything was perfect.
And, slowly, I began to realize it was.
By Kirsten Buchanan