I Love You Without All Your Accomplishments

This week, I read an article in the New York Times about an Olympic medalist […]

Carrie Willard / 4.10.19

This week, I read an article in the New York Times about an Olympic medalist who recently died from suicide.

Kelly Catlin was a lot of things in her short life. Beyond Olympic cycling, she was also a horse enthusiast, a triplet, a mathematician, and someone who lived by her own “personal code,” which she developed in the third grade. She and her triplet siblings were, together, voted Most Likely To Succeed in middle school. She was driven, but also socially awkward. She had a hard time making friends. She had a profound fear of failure and a pretty heavy case of imposter syndrome. In other words, she was extremely human.

When Catlin died at age 23 in her second attempt at suicide, her family knew that she had been struggling. She had suffered from a concussion with some severe side effects, and she questioned her identity, which she linked to being a professional athlete. Her family are now combing through clues as to how they could have helped her survive. Before she was buried, her sister tucked a note into her coffin, which read:

“Kelly, if I could trade my life for yours, I would. I love you without all your accomplishments.”

I’ve read the article at least three times in the last twenty-four hours. It reads like an obituary and a medical mystery, and a case study of a grieving family trying to piece together what happened. But that last line — “I love you without all your accomplishments” — reads like the Gospel of grace in a lifetime marked by the law of successes. To be clear, we have no reason to believe that Kelly Catlin’s family was anything less than wonderful, and I have no doubt that they did everything they could do to make her feel loved without feeling like she needed to achieve anything. Her sister acknowledged that she and her siblings may have over-emphasized the need to succeed in their own minds: “Our parents always told us that we could be great at anything we wanted to, if we worked hard enough,” Christine said. “Looking back, maybe we kind of twisted that into thinking we weren’t worth anything if we weren’t the best. I think Kelly believed that.”

At the time of her death, Catlin was closer in age to my children than she was to my age. If I am scared of being measured by my own accomplishments (or lack thereof), then I am simply terrified that my children will feel that they are judged similarly. I know there are no guarantees that good parenting and the privilege of a good education will insulate my family from the worst things that can happen to families, and the Catlin family is tragic proof of that. This week is STAAR (public school standardized) testing in Texas, and I don’t even know what that stands for, except that I know that my fifth grader is being benchmarked with bubble sheets, and being measured in a loud, obnoxious way by people he really wants to please. We’re about to enter the middle school years with this kid. He is a dream of a child, who loves to please us and almost functions like a mini-adult. But I hear the warning cries from my friends with older kids: It’s going to change. He’s going to change. You are going to hate your life. Get a puppy so that someone is happy to see you at the end of the day.

(For the record, people also told me that babies are awful, toddlers are awful, brothers are awful, and Texas is awful. They were all wrong. But that doesn’t stop me from expecting the worst.)

“I love you without all your accomplishments.”

I was having a conversation with both of my kids in the car a few weeks ago, and somehow we ended up down the path of “some people believe that God punishes people for who they are.” Our youngest, a Junior Edition Mockingbird Preacher if ever there was one, piped up. “Well THAT’S crazy. God loves us no matter what. Even if we make a huge mistake, WHICH I HAVEN’T.” I love that at seven, he felt the need to set the record straight that he hadn’t committed any murders at recess lately.

We spend a lot of time telling our kids that God (and we) love them no matter what they’ve done wrong, and I hope that we’re telling them that God (and we) love them regardless of their lists of achievements. I keep every broken board from after-school martial arts class, and I treasure every crappy diorama project they’ve completed and hauled home from school. I don’t know why I keep all of these things, these tokens of their progress and reminders of the registration fees and craft adhesive we’ve doled out. There is, of course, more to them than that, and I love them without all their accomplishments. I believe that God loves me without mine, too.

“I love you without all your accomplishments.”

This is liberating and terrifying. Do these accomplishments count for anything? If we’re not getting credit or keeping score, then why do we bother? Is anybody even noticing? This feels like the first time I applied for a job out of law school and someone told me that nobody cared that I was the valedictorian of my high school class. The steam in that train did not last nearly long enough for my liking.

“I love you without all your accomplishments.”

I keep reading the New York Times piece about Kelly Catlin, the Olympic cyclist whose sister loved her without all of her accomplishments. It is nothing short of tragic that her life ended at such a young age, with so many accomplishments waiting to be achieved. My hope is that she knows her sister’s love and God’s love, without all her accomplishments.

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8 responses to “I Love You Without All Your Accomplishments”

  1. DALE E KLITZKE says:

    I love you without your accomplishments! I love you if you couldn’t write. I love you if you are not an awesome mom, wife, daughter, friend, and every thing else you are to so many of us. I just love you..without any of the bonuses, without you even trying. I just love you! Receive it and enjoy it—-even for a brief moment.
    P.S. Did you remember that next Friday is my birthday?

  2. Linda Klitzke says:

    So much food for thought here, and you put it all together beautifully. I think people save representations of accomplishments (their own and others) for different reasons. The tangible things help us to remember that the accomplishment really did happen long after the moments of honoring the thing, and the hours and work that went into it, have passed.

  3. Heather Wiseman says:

    I love everything about you and about this article. Thank you again for sharing your gifts!

  4. Bill says:

    Sooo good! Thank you!

  5. DLE says:

    The stakes on everything are too high. It used to be that you grabbed at the brass ring, and if you missed, you missed. Today, you not only miss, but you fall off your horse, roll off the carousel, the carousel catches fire, and then it collapses on top of you in a flaming heap.

    So much pressure on a young life. Potential success rendered impossible by circumstances is a pressure in itself. Such a sad story, but not a new one. We need to find a way to back it all down a few notches. Minimally.

  6. As pastor struggling with how to feel after a busy holy week, I needed to hear this God. Grace to y’all.

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