The Olympics in Beijing are almost upon us. If you’re like me, you look forward to seeing the best athletes in the world compete for gold medals. I’ve always admired people who are very good at what they do, whether it’s being a tour guide, nurse, administrative assistant, musician, parent, artist, bricklayer, architect, or pastor.
No matter how gifted we are, however, we all experience disappointment and failure at some point in our life. Chris Ballard’s column in the July 28 Sports Illustrated offers a glimpse into the pressures facing elite athletes. Hayley McGregory, age 22, is one of the best backstrokers in the world. She even set a world record during a preliminary heat in the 100 meter backstroke during the U.S. Olympic trials in June.
In the final heat of the 100 meters, however, Natalie Coughlin finished first, with McGregory and Margaret Hoelzer appearing to touch the wall at the same moment. With only the top 2 finishers qualifying for the Olympics, McGregory discovered, to her horror, that she came in third, two tenths of a second behind Hoelzer. Hours, weeks, months and years of preparing, and she lost a spot in the Olympics by .2 of a second. In the final heat of the 200 meter backstroke, she again came in third. There’s even more, though. In the 2004 trials, McGregory also came in third in both events.
But hear this. McGregory said, “I could easily think of it as unfair. But once I realized I wasn’t a failure in anyone else’s eyes, I realized I needed to snap out of it and grow up… Maybe I’m learning some valuable lessons here and will get to pass them on to someone else.”
As you watch the Olympic track and field events, gymnastics, diving or biking, remember that for every athlete who makes it to the Olympics, there are thousands more whose dreams didn’t come true. Like you, I, too, have had dreams that never came true. One of my dreams as a teenager was to play basketball in the Olympics. Unfortunately, basketball did not become an Olympic sport for women until 1976, the year I graduated from college. However, the lessons I learned from playing basketball – teamwork, persistence, practice, patience, and not hogging the ball, to name a few – have opened other doors and helped me throughout my life.
As I have matured and aged, I have learned that the best dreams are not related to specific goals but are about a way of life: specifically allowing God to use me in whatever way God wants. I believe that God hopes for me to become a person who exhibits spiritual depth, compassion, a passion for social justice and a compelling desire to connect people with God and make a difference in the world. That goal can be lived out in many different ways, though. When I zero in on one specific dream, convinced that my life has no meaning unless I reach that particular goal, I am missing the point. The journey is more important than the destination.
Life never goes exactly the way we want it to go. The journey has many surprises, potholes and unexpected turns, and is one of tragedy as well as joy. A mark of mature discipleship is learning to see the hidden blessings in disappointment. God, who is never as hard on us as we are on ourselves, simply wants us to live and love well.
I was saddened over the weekend to learn that Dr. Randy Pausch died last Friday. Many of you know Randy Pausch as the professor of computer science at Carnegie-Mellon who was diagnosed in September 2006 with pancreatic cancer. A year later, knowing that he had only months to live, Pausch gave his last lecture, “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” The lecture became phenomenally popular and has been seen on the Internet by 6 million people. His book, The Last Lecture, is still at the top of the non-fiction best-seller list. Pausch’s web site can be found at http://download.srv.cs.cmu.edu/~pausch/.
Several of Pausch’s comments in his lecture leaped out at me.
- I can’t control the cancer I have, but I can choose how to react to it.
- “Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.”
- “The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.”
- Whining and complaining don’t solve problems. Use the time to work on your dreams.
- If you lead your life the right way, the dreams will come to you.
- Anything is possible. Never lose your enthusiasm, energy, wonder, and fun.
I was equally touched by the brief commencement remarks Pausch made at Carnegie-Mellon just 2 months ago. Reminding the students that all of us will die one day, he urged them to remember that it’s not the things we have done that we regret. When we reach the end of life, it’s the things we haven’t done that we regret.
- We regret not having the courage to risk failure and disappointment.
- We regret not putting people before money and things.
- We regret putting rewards before the respect of our peers.
- We regret not persisting in the face of adversity (Pausch reminded the students that he wasn’t admitted to Carnegie-Mellon as a graduate student the first time he applied).
- We regret not grabbing for our passion and pursuing it.
- We regret not following our heart.
You and I may never make the Olympic team, publish that book, receive a coveted promotion, or get appointed to that prestigious church. But every day we do have the opportunity to live fully, incarnate grace, and make the world a better place.
Hayley McGregory and Randy Pausch have touched more lives by how they handled disappointment than by fulfilling any of their dreams. They changed more lives by how they journeyed than reaching the destination they sought. By the way, Hayley now has a new goal: “Make the 2012 Games, my body willing.” In my humble opinion, she deserves to make the team, but even if she doesn’t, make no mistake about it. Her journey will be more important than the destination.