Over the last couple of weeks, I have been watching the Olympics when I have a little free time. I absolutely loved the opening ceremony: literature and caring for children—what could be more significant? I’ve seen the athletes’ stories unfold as the commentators tell the audience about the struggles and challenges that many athletes have overcome to make it to the Olympics. I’ve waited for the starting gun, imagining myself on the blocks—I’m sure I’d jump the gun, my impatience palpable as I try to hold back. And then I have watched the competition unfold, one human striving for excellence pitted against another human also striving for excellence.
As enticed as I have been by the spectacle, I had to take a step back and wonder: Why? I mean, clearly I have nothing real invested in who wins the gold for diving or the silver in the high jump; as they say, “I have no skin in the game.” I haven’t spent hours in training or sacrificed time with family and friends or invested my life savings in gym memberships. Yet I find myself cheering for the winner and commiserating with the underdog. I watch the movement, precision and focus and the agony and triumph on the athletes’ faces with real empathy. I love the human drama. Why is that?
After thinking about it, I decided that what the Olympics show us is the pinnacle of human achievement. With basically the same biological factors as anybody else, these Olympic athletes surpass what an average person can do. They strive for the height of athletic perfection. As human beings, we are all elevated by the achievement; we share in the human moment. We see the possibilities, even if we ourselves will not reach them.
Most of us strive for excellence in some area where we feel we are endowed with talent. While it might be athletics, it can also be music or writing or needlepoint or volunteerism. For most of us, though, our area of excellence is not in the realm of world competition, television, lights, opening ceremonies and medals. We work because we feel value in what we do and we appreciate the beauty of what we create. The intrinsic rewards and feeling of self worth keep us working to attain higher and higher achievement in our fields. But every time we improve, every time we produce something wonderful, every time we move to the next level, we place another gold coin in the treasure chest of human accomplishment.
I feel the same triumph for an accomplished writer when I read his or her work as I do for an accomplished athlete. It’s easy to perceive the human race as bright and radiant after reading The Bean Trees, or Love Medicine or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. When I read a student’s paper that shows real insight and knowledge, my faith in humanity is renewed. When I see members of my writers’ group pursuing the perfect sentence or the clear expression of a concept, I know the world is a good place. It helps me overcome my impatience with the human race.
Here’s to trying to be better and better still!