David Spangler on The Olympics

August 6, 2012 - 7:20 pm 6 Comments

It doesn’t take much these days to command headlines and garner attention. A good celebrity divorce will do it, or much worse, a killing spree such as occurred in Colorado earlier in July, or much, much worse, massacres and civil war as is happening in Syria. It doesn’t take much to pull a trigger and kill people.

But consider the Olympians. Here are young men and women from around the world who have been training for years, putting blood, sweat, tears, pain, and effort into showing all of us what a human being is capable of doing. We know that we’re capable of killing each other; we see proof of that every day on the news. But every two years, summer and winter, dedicated and disciplined men and women show us what else we can do, what else it means to be human. If anyone deserves headlines, they do…and right now they are rightfully getting them.

Growing up, on occasion I would eat Wheaties. I actually didn’t like the cereal that much; my favorite was Cheerios. But I was seduced by the phrase “The Breakfast of Champions” and the image on every cereal box of some great athlete. Becoming a champion seemed like a worthy goal, and if eating Wheaties would do it, well then….

Of course, much more is required, and in my case, physical issues made sports not an avenue for me to follow. But championship, I have discovered, can take many forms, and most of them don’t have to be Olympian in nature. A parent foregoing a good night’s sleep to nourish and care for her or his child is a champion in my book. The athletes competing in London this month put forth Herculean efforts for a few minutes, breaking world records, winning gold medals. The mother or father, on the other hand, may be getting up for hours night after night, foregoing a good night’s sleep sometimes for months and even years—now that’s Olympian behavior! Or the person going day after day, year after year, to a job that he or she doesn’t like and that pays poorly but which is the price this individual pays to support his or her family. That can be pretty Olympian, too!

There are all kinds of Olympics going on around us all the time: Olympics of kindness, of compassion, of goodwill, of forgiveness. An ordinary person may suddenly find himself or herself acting like—no, becoming—a champion.

Championship isn’t necessarily the product of extraordinary skills and efforts, but it is always the product of discipline. For the Olympic athlete, it’s the discipline of the gym or the pool, the ski slope or the playing field. But for the rest of us, it’s the discipline of the heart and mind that refuses to act from the lowest denominator of our natures. It’s the discipline to say no to the hasty and unkind word. It’s the discipline to keep still and not jump to conclusions until more facts are apparent. It’s the discipline to see beyond appearances, to rise above our tiredness, to keep our mind from wandering when another seeks our attention. It’s the discipline to stand for what we believe in, the discipline to maintain integrity. It’s the discipline to love even when fear and hatred sweep through the world. It’s the discipline to take a moment to put ourselves in the shoes of another and see the world through his or her eyes. It’s the discipline to act with compassion.

A champion need not run the fastest, jump the highest, or endure the longest. A champion, though, does put forth that extra effort to embody the angels of his or her better nature rather than give in to the demons of the world’s lowest expectations of humanity.

The Olympics and the young people who compete in them remind us that champions are made. A bowl of Wheaties is not enough. Work is required. But in their exuberant display of the best of human skill and physical prowess, they remind us that the work is worth it and that being a champion is possible.

If I swim in a pool once or go to a gym once, if I hurl a javelin once or run once around a track, I will not make it to the Olympics. Once isn’t good enough. It’s not good enough for life, either. Being kind once, honoring another once, loving once….that will not turn you into a champion. The mother or father doesn’t get up with the baby only one night and then sleep through all the other nights however much the child cries. Parents do this night after night after night for as long as it takes. And no one gives them a gold medal, though they deserve one many times over.

So it is with loving, forgiving, being compassionate, being skillful in our relationships with others, and all the other capacities that are important and necessary to building wholeness. We don’t do them once. We do them over and over and over, and in the process, we hone our skills, develop our muscles of spirit, and liberate the champion that’s within us.

There would be no Olympics if no one were willing to do what it takes to be an Olympic athlete. There may be no good future for us if there is no one willing to do what it takes to be a champion on behalf of the world.

The good news is that any of us can do this. Any of us can be a champion of wholeness, and it doesn’t matter what kind of cereal we eat.

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