Watching the Olympics: Virtue on display for the world to see

Posted: Friday, February 22, 2002

A few days ago I was talking about the Winter Olympics with a friend who'd spent much time around serious athletes and run marathons herself.

"I never watch the Olympics," she said. "It's all too commercialized, and I know about the pressures on those people when they're young." When the judging controversy in the couples skating program erupted, she said, "See, it shows up. There are tremendous pressures behind the scenes."

I felt that I was seeing something different, but wasn't clear exactly what it was. I found myself entranced over and over at the same pictures: graceful, ethereal forms flying seemingly miles through the air, or bouncing from one bump to another, or leaning at impossible angles while cornering on the ice. What was the attraction?

On the one hand, anyone who's attempted to improve a physical skill can see vividly the extremes to which a skill can be developed. A little bit of snow under your own skis and you have a reference point for others doing at 80 mph what you do at 8 mph. You dimly grasp how much self-discipline and concentration they must exert.

But deeper layers of the experience, I believe, attract us even more. A piece of ourselves goes on display, our hope for some beautiful thing. The Olympics propose a hope of an extraordinary kind, to be acknowledged as the best in the world at something. We hear the individual's thoughts before the test and after it, and in his grace or disappointment we sense a lesson for ourselves, that this is how excellence works - to aspire, strive greatly, be grateful for the opportunity, and graceful in either defeat or victory.

Then we look at ourselves. Sometimes we find a talent or tendency that begs expression and we seem impelled to hone it, but we wonder what it will cost us, whether we can expend that much. We need self-knowledge, know how much we can push ourselves early in the contest, whether we can sustain that. We're uncertain whether our will is deep enough to push ourselves beyond our own pain and fear. How much can we trust ourselves later and how strong are we? One who's approached a bar a hundred times to go beyond it knows better the limits of their own capacity better than one who's done it only ten times. Winners typically carry with them the history of their discipline-how many years, how many miles, how many attempts have led them to this pass.

Years ago I ran across a simple formula for success suggested by Nelson Bunker Hunt, one of the richest men in the world. He applied it to business matters but I believe it's true for all of life. First, decide what you want. Second, determine its price. Third, pay the price.

Each step carries its own problem. The first lies in deciding what we want. We use the best thinking our mind has when we're least knowledgeable and proceed by its analysis. As a 15-year-old, what pleases us may be to be liked or admired; as a 25-year-old perhaps what makes us rich or famous. After a few years, however, we realize that we pay a price for something that doesn't hold up and we then, with our 30- or 40-year-old mind, must recast our efforts, think afresh about an ideal that will truly sustain us, perhaps more modest than the first one but also more enduring.

We determine what we want, in other words, limited by our capacity to perceive what might be in store for us. A businessman I know who was very good at helping sales people said he'd found that people could really only conceive of earning about 25 percent more than they already were. Even though while they might declare a distant goal, they could only really believe that they would obtain about a quarter more than their present level. The lesson is that we typically cast our lure further only by increments.

As we set and pursue our ideals, our spiritual powers become decisive. They help us attune to the more subtle and enduring qualities of our goal, help us estimate for how long our ideals will please us, whether they'll outlast the wrinkles gathering on our face, or our body shape wandering out of our control; whether they will please us on our deathbed, or as we look back at the total form of our lives from some vantage point in the spiritual planes after we leave our bodies behind. Wealth, physical attractiveness, or the esteem of society become irrelevant from that view. The only things that hold true both in our lives and beyond life are the states of heart we carry: our courage, our love, or the testimony of our lives to a truth we declare important.

One of the saints (whose name I can't recall) planned as if he were to die on the last night of each month. He'd live the four weeks with the expectation of "meeting his maker." The last day of the month would be solemn preparation for death and he lay down to sleep expecting that he would not reawaken. The following morning, he would give thanks that he'd been granted one more month to serve God here and would repeat the process again. This is aspiration of a different kind, the hunger to draw one's life closer to God's view of it.

Maybe the Olympics interests me because the events remind me of my own ideals, what I want to become before I pass from this life. The Olympians testify by often unbelievable discipline that striving for an ideal has worth, even to be "higher, faster, stronger." Mine may be "kinder, more loving, more considerate," weighed in a venue where the Judge's scale of measurement is never wrong.

John Jensen is a member of the clergy of Eckankar, the religion of the light and sound of God.



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