As I write on this snowy winter day, hundreds of athletes are competing for gold in Vancouver BC at the Winter Olympics. Trained, toned, stoked, pumped, psyched, they hurl themselves down mountains, onto the ice, or into the air at heart-stopping speeds. It’s thrilling to see them win; it’s agony when they crash. The full gamut of extreme emotions ripples like firelight across the faces of parents, coaches, and loved ones in the crowd.
I love to watch the downhill racers and figure skaters. You can see how wonderfully strong and fit they are, and when they fall, as some always do, it’s amazing to watch them get up and go on. How can they stand those tremendous crashes and joint-wrenching falls? If they weren’t in top shape, they’d be seriously, perhaps even fatally injured. The strength and control that allow them to ski or skate right up to the edge also protect them when they slip over. Resilience, courage, and stamina radiate from the bodies and faces of these young warriors, who fight to overcome not just world records and treacherous snow conditions, but also their own fears and limitations.
Of the dozens who race or perform, only three will get to stand on the medal podium. And for every one who makes it to the Olympics, hundreds more have fallen by the wayside in qualifying trials. I cannot help thinking about all these other ones, about their hours of training, their hopes and fears, and the hundredths of a second that can make the difference between moving up and being eliminated. In the winner-take-all world of big-time sport, there is no place for the also-rans. They must look within themselves to find satisfaction, affirmation, and the courage to go on.
Nor, at this time of year, can I help thinking of all the highly-trained people struggling to find or maintain a place in the academic world. It’s the season of job hunting, on-campus interviews, and tenure decisions. You smell the tension in the air, acrid as burnt wiring. The race is on, and at the end, some will advance and some will not. Those who do will have new challenges, about which we’ll be writing later; those who don’t will be challenged in a different way. And all the while, close behind, the next year’s competitors crowd toward the starting gates.
In the warrior phase of life and career, everyone struggles to find a place in the world. Training is past, school is past, and now we have to deal. The world is big and strong, and it asks us to do many things at once. How can we find the strength and balance to rise to the task and survive the bruising we are bound to take on the course, no matter what the outcome?
Our next series examines the phase of the warrior. As you read, think of people you know who seemed to lead a convincing life at this stage. What were their secrets of balance? Feel free to share a comment or, better yet, a story.