The "Jeopardy!" Effect

In the summer of 2003, my sister-in-law Sara was selected to be on "Jeopardy!" Sara's mom and Aunt Sandra and my brother and I all went to LA for the taping of the show and a mini-vacation.

She came in second, beaten by a guy with lightning-fast reflexes and an all-too-thorough knowledge of the arcane and the trivial, and although we all told her repeatedly how proud we were that she'd even made it onto the show, she was understandably disappointed.

The next day, Greg and I dropped Sara, Diane, and Sandra off at the Getty and headed to the Bel Air to soak in the ambience (and the booze) of the hotel bar. After a drink, I asked how Sara was doing, and Greg replied that she was truly sad, though he couldn't quite understand why. Just placing on the show was a major accomplishment, he said, and she knew we were all oozing with pride. Plus, though she didn't get the first-place prize money, she did still walk away with much more than she'd come with.

I don't remember the exact arc of the conversation (as the waiter came around with another pair of drinks), but I do remember I told him that I could understand Sara's sadness. It's like this, I said, taking out a pen to draw on a napkin. Our everyday lives are here [line toward the bottom of the napkin], and every once in a while something happens that catapults us up to another level [line in the middle of the napkin]. From that level, we can see greater things [top of the napkin] than we ever had a view of down below--and, even better, not only can we see them, we also start to believe that they're actually reachable.

And that's where Sara had been for so many months prior: on that second level, with the potential for so many amazing things so clearly in view. Not only that, but even everyday life looked a bit better from where she was.

But then she didn't win, and all of the sudden that higher level shrunk away. Sure, she was still in a better, more interesting spot than she'd been when she started, but now she had to sit with the disappointment of having lost what she so truly believed she had a chance at reaching.

I've been thinking a lot about that conversation over the past few days, and I think I understand a bit why this breakup feels so innards-destroying, so heart-shredding: because after a long time hanging out at that workaday level, last summer found me perched happily on the level above. And while it was great to be able to fathom even better things ahead and above, the truth is that I was just so unbelievably happy to be where I was. I got so used to that happiness, so used to the delight of being able to face each day with a sense of calmness, a sense that things, after being wrong for so long, were now right and sweet and good.

Now, though, not only has the upper tier utterly disappeared from view and stretched way beyond my grasp, I've been punted out of level 2 as well. I had so hoped--and so come to expect--not to be back down here again anytime soon.

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