The Achilles Challenge

The great warrior Achilles was given a choice: live long or live gloriously. He made a choice many heroes make and lived an intense, but short life. Others, safer souls, would choose differently, but Achilles very nature demanded an extreme life.

We are, none of us, going to live forever and no matter what I do my health will decline. Adults choose between goods and health is not the only good. I thought of this when reading attacks on playing football. Intense sports training has long term health consequences, some of them serious, and those should be measured.

Especially in childhood sports safety should be a high priority, but it cannot be the only priority. Children grow up to live in an intense world requiring courage and endurance. If a sport teaches that value very well, at the risk of some harm to health at the end of life, then it is a hard call for a parent to make.

Leaving aside childhood athletics, then sports for adults, college forward, is a choice between competing goods. Each of us, in our own way, faces the choice of Achilles: live splendidly or live long. In fact, more than health, time is the resource that forces hard choices.

A college student that studies all the time will achieve success that a student with a very active social life will not achieve, but at a cost. It is up to people around the student to make sure he or she knows the choice being made, but there is no certain answer.

Saint Paul gave up marriage for more time for ministry: a choice between goods everybody wouldn’t make.

Once the choice is made when the consequences come, normal humans have a moment of regret. The hero feels sorrow over leaving life so young, the athlete feels the pangs of old age even more than the rest of us because of the glorious splendor of his body in early days. Once again we must face the old, painful truth: we cannot have any good without losing another and we will get old and know pain.

Regret does not mean the choice was bad, but is recognition of cost. If I buy a treat, then the bill will come due. No society should encourage all men and women to live the safe life: where will the warriors, the upper level scientists, or humanitarians be found?

Even in more trivial areas than ministry, who is to say that the experience of being a hometown sports hero is worth, to some people, some extra physical pain? Would a woman really be better off to have never experienced the thrill of victory for better knees in her fifties? Where would the lessons she gained be learned? Experience is the best teacher, but experience consumes time and energy.

Health must be concern, especially for children, but it must never be the only concern. By all means count the cost, by no means should most of us with monomaniacal intensity sacrifice all other pleasures for one good, but this must be balanced by the demands for excellence in a few and general excellence in the rest of us. Even the most balanced life, there will be sacrifices in favor of areas of particular interest or giftedness in the individual.

The goal is flourish as an individual should flourish not to create a society of well fed, well groomed people whose bodies are as sound as they can be, but who do not know the higher glories of living. We are not cows, but people. We must not live as cows, but as people . . . willing to choose even martyrdom for a greater good.


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