Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Running the Race

A memory... It was the last day of school, my 4th grade year, and the Mustang Valley Elementary school playground was all abuzz. Not for the upcoming summer, the freedom, the endless hours of watching TV and playing basketball outside, but rather to watch a very interesting spectacle. I had, in all my wisdom, challenged J.L. Keplinger to a race around the edges of the yard. Around the swing sets and monkey bars, I had decided to run with the fastest boy in school, just to see if I could do it. I had just received word that I would be moving soon, out of the battered Oklahoma economy (the oil crisis of 1983, and the failing of the Penn Square Bank had made construction of buildings unnecessary, so my dad, being a sprinkler system designer had to move to more fertile ground), to Georgia, where everything was as green as the kudzu.

It was a futile experience, as everyone knew I was one of the slowest runners in my grade. There was no point. And I did lose that race by quite a bit. Now, as I look back, I wonder why I did that. Was it a spectacle made so that I could go out in some glorious fireball of attention (certainly my ADD would have said so)? Or was it some deep yearning to be more like the other children, more physical, more adept at something other than pretending I was a Transformer? Perhaps it was the same yearnings that Max had as he made his igloo in Where the Wild Things Are (which comes out next week). I still am not certain.

I think admiration has a large part to do with it. There are people that we look up to, not for any mental or emotional reason, but because the things they do are perfect. They discipline themselves to reach a level of their trade which is just not possible except for the top 1% of their peers. And while this occurs in business, in religion, in mental arenas, the most obvious is the athlete. As they exercise and perform at the highest level of sport, we look at them with admiration, with a little envy perhaps, to see what the most excellent of the human form might look like. As close to the Platonian "form" of "human" as there is. The Adonis of body, of mind, of skill. These are the people we look up to. It is not surprising that the Ancient Greeks held their Olympic Games in the nude, as it was not just a performance of the highest skills, but a stage for which others might admire the sculpted bodies, art chiseled alive by time and effort.

And we look at the athletes with that admiration, and they are set high on pedestals. As they should be. Look at the recent Olympic games set in Vancouver. Shaun White did amazing flips high in the air, a performance that demands power and skill to almost superhuman ends. How did he do that??? Or the beauty of the figure skaters. The flips and spins in the air, landing on blades of steel upon hard, cold ice. How can human beings be that perfect, that precise?? It boggles the mind, it pulls the emotions, to see mankind perform at that level.

As the IOC president said at the closing ceremony, "This Olympic games was a celebration of humanity." And so it should be. I've said it before, that the exaltation of mankind is as much as praise to God as it is to us. Just as the Olympic athlete should reach for measures of ability far beyond themselves, so should we reach for frontiers far beyond our reaches now. The moon landing of Apollo 11 was the greatest achievement of mankind thus far, and each performance of the Olympic athlete mirrors that achievement. It shows, for the world to witness, the ability of man, to reach, faster, higher, stronger, as the saying goes. And each Olympics has those shining moments where that happens.

We like placing the athletes, the Apollo Ohnos, the Tiger Woods of the sports, on pedestals. They become like gods to us, measures of mankind that we might never reach. And the envy comes through and becomes jealousy. We reach to pull them down off their pedestals and throw them into the muck. Such is the media's job, for while perfection gives ratings, the fall from perfection sells even more. Perfection is fleeting, and the descent, like the climb, is hard. Mercy to those who achieve perfection, only to fall upon the vices of mankind. We see those examples everywhere. Solomon, the wise, and Sampson the strong in Biblical times, succumbed to their wants and desires. Just as Tiger Woods did. Or Michael Phelps, to a lesser extent.

We must chain ourselves to the masts of our ships, and, having listened to the siren's calls, resist with all our minds and hearts. Ulysses, as Tennyson has proclaimed him, was just such a perfect soul, who, having reached his goal, sailed again, ever searching for the unknowns and the unreachable. "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.."

So I think it is that feeling that made me challenge J.L. to that race. The admiration of a perfect being, in my mind, an athlete who could race and strive for things I never could have. To admire that one last time before I moved. If J.L. kept that up, I don't know. I found that he scored the most goals on the Southern Nazarene University soccer team from 1995-97, but what he has done since then, I don't know. Hopefully he did not succumb to the siren's call.

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