Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Love, Hope, and Beauty

The post over at Common Grounds a couple of days ago struck a particular chord with me and so I commend it to you. It's simply a reproduction of Rick Reilly's back page column from Sports Illustrated. Reilly is a great writer and has a knack for mixing straight sports-talk, humor, and truly moving human interest stories in a way that few people are able to do. Most sports writers are good at only one of these talents and when they try to mix up their game, it just doesn't work. Reilly is the exception that proves the rule and this column is an excellent example of why.

(What follows assumes that you've read the article.)

I've reflected a lot recently about why stories like this affect me so deeply. At one level, I'm sure it has to do with the fact that I'm a parent now. I know it's a cliche but I definitely think there are some things you can't really understand until you have children of your own. It's the only relationship most of us have where someone is entirely dependent upon us, has done nothing to earn our love, and whom we nevertheless love more purely than anyone else in the world. Such a dynamic opens up emotions and insights that it's hard to get otherwise.

That being said, I think there's something more general about the Hoyts that makes their example so moving. On the one hand, it's a case where something is so clearly not the way it's supposed to be. Children aren't supposed to be born with brain damage. Something as flukey as having the umbilical cord wrapped around your neck isn't supposed to have such dire consequences for one's life. Rick did nothing to deserve this fate and yet he's stuck with it. If there is such a thing as a senseless tragedy, this would seem to be a pretty good candidate.

But the feelings of sadness and anger that might be aroused by Rick's plight are immediately confronted with something that is so profoundly and beautifully right: a father's love for, and devotion to, his son. Sure, in this case, that love leads to particularly impressive accomplishments: Dick has run exactly 24 more Boston Marathons than I ever will. But I'm sure he doesn't think about the accomplishments at all. They are a complete afterthought--a mere means to the end of making his son happy.

I think it's this juxtaposition of dissatisfaction and beauty that give stories like this their universal appeal. They touch our deepest longings in a way that no philosophical or theological argument can and lead us to hope for a time when "death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away" (Rev. 21:4).

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Ditto

I was going to write an analysis of the PGA Championship this evening but I realized that I've already said everything that needs to be said in my comments on the British Open. If you replace "Royal Liverpool" with "Medinah No. 3" and scratch the part about someone stepping up and punching Tiger in the mouth (nobody did today), then things played out pretty much the same today as they did a month ago.

As I see it, the tournament was over on the middle of the back nine yesterday. If someone was going to make a move, they needed to do it then. Tiger has never lost a major championship when he was tied for, or in, the lead after 54 holes and that wasn't about to happen today. Phil Mickelson is probably the only person in the world with the talent to battle it out with Tiger toe-to-toe. But his long game has been too erratic of late for him to really be a factor this week and I'm not sure he has fully recovered from his U. S. Open debacle. He will. But it might take some time away from the game in the off-season for him to get back to where he was.

I have two overarching thoughts about Tiger's recent dominance. First, it would be fantastic for golf if a true rival emerged for Tiger. I am convinced that Jack Nicklaus only achieved the greatness he did because he had a series of rivals--some of whom beat him on occasion: Palmer, Player, Trevino, Watson. Competitive greatness involves being tested--even losing--and then seeing what you are made of. In some ways, I'm not sure we really know what Tiger is made of since he's never come up short in these kinds of situations.

Second, I don't think it's too much of an overstatement to say that right now Tiger Woods may be as good at what he does as anyone has ever been at what they do. And I'm not just talking about sports. I'm talking about anything that anyone has ever put their mind to do. I don't think Einstein was as good of a scientist or Monet as good of a painter as Tiger is a golfer right now. Even if you don't like golf, I hope you can appreciate the nature of his excellence. It's truly remarkable.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Ambition

Recently I've become aware that there are some things that I just don't care about. Included in this list are things like "making a difference," "doing something of significance," "having an impact," and "changing the world." Had you asked me ten (or even five) years ago whether I wanted my life to include these things, I'm pretty sure that I would have said yes. Granted, it would have been in my chosen sphere of influence. I would have wanted to write books or teach or engage in ministry that changed the way people think and lived their lives. I probably have thought in terms of how I could use my gifts and talents so as to have the greatest possible impact on the world around me.

Not that there was anything particularly self-serving or arrogant about these thoughts. It was, I think, a question of responsibility and the idea that we should all do something with our lives that "really matters." But as of late, I find it very difficult to think in such terms. "Changing the world" and getting out there to "make a difference" just don't make it onto my "to do" list anymore.

This isn't to say that I don't care about things. There are many things that I care about much more than I used to. Since I've been a parent, I've been far more concerned about matters political than I ever was before: about poverty, war, famine, disease, educational policy, the national debt, and yes, even the stock market.

I care deeply about what kind of person my son grows up to be: that he is honest, humble, compassionate, that he isn't lazy, that he finds a vocation that engages his passions, that he has friends whom he loves and who love him in return, and that he still wants to hang out with me when he's sixteen.

I care about my wife: that she is happy and able to fulfill her goals, and that I might play a role in helping her do those things.

I care about my parents and my sister and how great the time is that we are able to spend together.

I care more about my friends, especially those I am unable to see very often. As Cory recently said, "Life takes friends. It is fuller, richer, and more beautiful than life lived in isolation, or with mere acquaintances." Amen.

I care more about having fun and laughing and about simple pleasures: good beer, good wine, good movies and music, college football on Saturday afternoons, stolen time on the golf course, or watching the back nine of a major championship.

I still care deeply about truth and about the integrity of my work. If no one ever cites my papers or books, I'll be fine. If I never hold a named chair at Oxford or Harvard, my life won't be one wit less successful. But if people don't believe that I am trying to address issues that are truly important as honestly and tenaciously as I can, then maybe I'm not doing something right. And relatedly, I care about getting my students to think beyond themselves and to see the importance of thinking critically about philosophical questions. I don't care if I'm the greatest teacher they've ever had. I do care that they don't think they've wasted their time in my class.

To some, this shift might signal a loss of ambition, as though I've ceased to care about leaving my mark on the world. Fair enough. If that is what ambition is, then I'm couldn't be less ambitious. If living a life of significance means having one's own wikipedia page, then count me out of the realm of significance. I just don't care. On the other hand (and in case you couldn't tell, here's where I come down), maybe it means that I'm starting to have things in proper perspective--that I'm maturing, gaining a better sense of what things are really important, and finally learning how to live the life that God intended all of us to live.