One Small Voice: ‘You can’t always get what you want…’

On a bright Sunday morning in 2017, outside a church in Arizona, two little boys are staging a foot race around a makeshift track created by the church landscaping. At 5 years old, Jack already runs like a young gazelle. James’ legs are lengthening, but at 3 years old his legs are still short, just beginning to lengthen out of toddlerhood.

Their dad handicaps Jack with a wrap-around hug and a mandatory 20-count while James takes a head start. It is just enough of a handicap to assure James the victory, which the dad insists be concluded with a handshake between the two and an exchange of “Good race.”

Twice more the race is run, with, twice, an identical finish.  James the victor.  The handshake.  “Good race.”

Then dad announces to the boys that there will be only one more race before they head for home. And he gives a heads-up to two onlookers that there is about to be a major meltdown.

This time Jack is held for only a 10-count. James is showing signs of tiring.  (Did I mention that Jack runs like a young gazelle?) Jack easily closes the gap between himself and his brother, and as Jack passes James and wins the final race, James dissolves into sobbing howls. Dad high-fives Jack on his way to embrace and console sweet James. James calms, and his dad reminds him that, sometimes, you lose. You can’t always get what you want.

It’s autumn of 1993. An aristically gifted high school senior has entered an awesome design in a contest for new helmets for the varsity football team. The judges agree that this is easily the best design.  It looks as if the helmet is the head of the school’s wildcat mascot, whose open mouth frames the face of each football player. But instead of being declared the winner, the young man’s design is awarded second place because it would be cost-prohibitive to reproduce on all those football helmets. Sometimes, for an unforeseen reason, you lose. You can’t always get what you want.

It’s spring of 1968.  A young woman about to graduate high school is sitting at the senior awards assembly. She has worked hard for four years to earn the English award, and it would seem she’s met all the criteria to clinch it. The name of the winner is called, but it’s the name of her best friend. She gets, instead, the German award. Nice, but not the one for which she has worked so hard.

One of her English teachers explains it later. The department, it seems, awarded the prestigious prize to her friend because they felt her self-esteem “needed” it more. Sometimes, extenuating circumstances intervene and you lose. You can’t always get what you want.

But if you try sometime, you might find you get what you need.

Wait. What?

That’s right. They got what they needed.

The high school girl, she learned to be a gracious loser in the face of disappointment. She also learned to gauge perspective. That English award (like the consolation-prize German award) wasn’t a life-changer. She still went to her first-choice university. She had a rewarding career as a librarian, and she enjoyed a late-in-life stint writing for a hometown on-line newspaper. She got a life lesson far more valuable than what she had wanted.

The high school boy, he got the same lesson. In maturely accepting the irony of losing because the best design was too expensive to win, he gained the sympathy and admiration of his fellow students and the faculty. He, too, went on to his first choice art college and lives a life enriched by his creativity. All in all, he got something he needed far more than what he wanted.

And those two little boys? Well, time will tell. But based on what was seen exhibited by their dad, they are well on their way to finding out that same, all-important life lesson.  

“You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometime you find you get what you need.” — The Rolling Stones, 1969 


  • And, sometimes what you want, what you’ve earned and what you need are the same – and still you don’t get it. Life isn’t fair. For example, whoever really earned that German award lost out entirely because of bureaucrats picking a self-esteem winner.

    • Duane, you are completely and absolutely right. The young man who should have won the German award (now a successful neurosurgeon, maybe retired) was the “victim” of the domino effect of not awarding on merit. And learning the lesson that life isn’t fair is one of the most valuable lessons there is. Ultimately, though, in retrospect it doesn’t matter any more, if we’ve learned the value of perspective.

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