The philosopher Alan Watts uses a favorite music metaphor in several of his lectures in which he contrasts the achievement of a goal — or an arrival at a destination — against the pleasure of the effort and the enjoyment of the travel. “In music,” said Watts, “if arriving at the destination were the goal, the best conductor would be the one who played the fastest.”
And so with Olympic gold medalists. They, and the many who finished one one-hundredth of a second behind them for no discernible reason on that particular day, have immersed themselves in the joy of excellence day after day for a decade. Perhaps two decades. They have rehearsed every step, every breath, every muscle flex, thousands of times. The adjustments they make over the years of rehearsals may be momentous or microscopic, but are precise. The sheer physical effort of every rehearsal leads to another joy — that of exhilarated hormones (the “runner’s high) and predictable daily exhaustion.
But all the competitors who even made it to the Olympics — the also-rans as well as the medalists — left behind thousands who did not qualify, as hard as they tried. They did not qualify because some part of the astounding Golden mix of determination, physical gifts, vision, self-esteem, support, initiative, and luck eluded them.
Reasonable people can easily reach out and offer a sincere pat on the back to those who almost made it. Reasonable people can understand, appreciate, and admire the hard work, determination, physical gifts, vision, self-esteem, support, initiative, and luck these lesser competitors brought to the arena and to the slopes.
But then come the not-so-reasonable among us. “He made it to the Olympics, why can’t you?” they ask. But they already know the answer; it’s a lack of character. But I’m guessing you’ve probably never heard that comment applied to those who tried and failed for the Olympic team.
You’ve heard it plenty, though, and you know where you’ve heard it. A high-achieving minority person, or perhaps a white person is the subject of the “He made it” assertion. And the “you” in “…why can’t you?” is a straw-man kid, maybe in a dark skin, living in a difficult neighborhood.
Pointing to a god atop Mount Olympus and demanding of the fat Pierian farmer in the valley below that he get off his plow and run to the top of Mytikas may get you the punch in the face you deserve. Olympian achievement is not part of the “all men are created equal” equation.
And guess what? Those who point to the high-achievers and say, “Hey, she made it, why can’t the rest of those folks follow her example!” are not only failing to recognize the wide variation in actual capability and resourcefulness found in real human life, they are also dragging down the Olympians.
The Olympians deserve enormous respect and we must all recognize them for the grand exceptions they are among humans. Sure, they must certainly serve as examples of the finest we can be, and offer us inspiration. But, “”Hey, she made it, why can’t the rest of those folks follow her example!” dishonors the Olympian, denies the grand exception she represents among humans and spits vile disrespect toward less-than-highest achievers, and those who follow further behind.
Most follow further behind. Much further. Urging the least among us toward higher achievement is a noble goal and can only be accomplished though considered action, meaningful assistance, and reasonable encouragement and demands. Refusing to recognize the consequences of varied capability and resourcefulness is selfish and mean-spirited. To help and uplift a person who seems never to quite “get it” fully may be a greater act of love — a gold medal act of love — than seeking the autograph of the official gold medal winner.