The New Yorker often overflows with literary greatness. I read it for sentences and vocabulary that gives me pause. Past New Yorker favorites have included Peter Hessler’s tales of daily life in China, Jerome Groopman’s insights into the human body, Oliver Sachs insights on immunization programs, David Eagleman on innate human sense of timing, and Malcolm Gladwell on anything.
Malcolm Gladwell is a gifted writer. He’s gifted in helping readers “see” the point he’s driving home, see the connections his brain is making, and he works hard to find tangible ways to tie concrete experiences with bigger ideas. And, in my mind, it works. In a recent New Yorker article, “Slackers,” he wrote about running in a race as a teenager:
“I had done what everyone always says you are supposed to do as a human being. I had given it my all. And I realized that what everyone says you should always do was so painful that I never wanted to do it again.”
This thing he did was “so painful” he never wanted to repeat it. Gladwell’s lines make me think of lines the Bard of Avon, William Shakespeare, delivered by Caliban in The Tempest:
Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.
On any given day, most of us want to live lives that are surrounded by things that “give delight and hurt not….” We don’t necessarily want Thoreau’s “lives of quiet desperation,” but we don’t exactly want to hurl ourselves at pain on a daily basis.
This being said, watching the Olympics can make us grouchy. We can become bitter, that someone is more naturally talented than we are, that they drew the better straw in the genetic lottery. We can make the assumption, watching athletes that make sports look really easy, that they are the lucky ones in life. That greatness is a gift, and only given to the few. But, the Olympics at its best reminds us that greatness is honed daily, for years and years, in swim lanes, on chalky mats, in neighborhood gyms, in the deep accordion folds of the cerebellum. Watching glorious moments encourages us to forget what it took, the pain endured to get to that place, the cost.
In Gladwell’s article “Slackers,” I really enjoyed the notion that Gladwell as a teenager had learned how to push and give his all, and it was so excruciating, that he never wanted to go to that brink again. I read and reread this section. It made me laugh out loud. I wish I’d written it.
The spiritual path can feel the same way. Give it all, give until it hurts, and guess what? It may hurt. It may prove really painful. And? You may never want to do it again.
And? That’s okay. I really think that’s okay.
We as the church do such numbers on people, we accelerate guilt, while we ease back the brake pedal of grace. We forget, often, to tell people, “You tried your best, and that? That was enough! It was plenty, no really. And you? You are plenty. You, my friend, are enough.”
If we believe in a God of grace, we believe that we can fall short, come up quick, jump too soon. Just like Olympic athletes, we can let nerves get the best of us, we can pay too much attention to the crowd, we can get lost in our heads and forget what we are here to do. And, it can get ugly. We can be poor sports even. We can make unwise choices.
In our greatness, humans can “hold infinity in the palm of your hand,” as poet William Blake said. Watch McKayla Maroney’s unforgettable vault, and you’ll see that infinity, held, however briefly. We are great as a species, limited and unlimited, seemingly, both. The Olympics remind us of how what used to be exceptional quickly becomes de rigueur when it becomes something people now know can be physically done. We humans are knowable and beyond comprehension too, like athletes’ bodies, like space, like limits.
In faith, it’s similar. We can accomplish mighty things, and we can fall flat. God knows the level of our pain, God knows the depths of our despair, God knows our limits. Where we stop, where we finally fall exhausted, like a spent athlete, we hear an echo from the past,
“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. The Lord does not faint or grow weary; the Lord’s understanding is unsearchable. The Lord gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” Isaiah 40:28-31
When we come to our end, the end of our capacity, the end of our understanding, the end of our patience….when we are done and done for, we can find God there, in that place, in that sudden clearing. Just because we are at our end does not mean we are at the end of God. Funny, that. Maybe that’s a new beginning? Maybe there, at that place, where things are broken and not “right,” maybe at that place where all seems lost or hopeless or spent, maybe there is where something new emerges within or without us?
I remember running a Lake Run and trying to keep pace with someone I had no business running with in the first place, feeling winded going into mile three, wondering how in the world I’d make the next four. I was trying to run someone else’s race.
Or, watching the Olympic swimmers last night, I remembered how my lungs would burn during swim meets, pushing it as hard as I could for the wall. Watching them, I kept wondering how they kept pushing through the burning in the lungs, what drove them in to the wall, how did that feel for them? How much did it hurt to do so well? The swimmers emerge from the pool, are immediately interviewed, and still they are catching their breath, still their lungs want air and more air. They talk to reporters over gasps of breath and words.
I enjoy watching people excel: the New Yorker writers who make this craft of writing look easy, or American swimmer Allison Schmitt who swims like a champion and smiles like one too.
And, I like when it ends, when Michael Phelps gets touched out, when humans fall weary. Not because I wish that on anyone, but because it’s human, because as amazingly fabulous as we are, we have our limits, and one day, if not today, we will reach them. It’s at the end of our limits where cool stuff happens. I’m convinced. It is when we are out of our power and strength, out of breath and falling exhausted, when we learn what is out there beyond it.