Friday, January 22, 2016

A race not to be the best

The London Marathon is one of many around the world, yet only a few really seek to come first. There are those who race competitively, and there are those who have other intentions for running. The atmosphere around it is unique, full of camaraderie and respect for those who run. Yet who is the real winner in such a race?

There are those who run to come first. If they do, then they get some recognition for such a feat. There are those who run to achieve a personal best. If they do, then they feel good about themselves. But what if they fail?  What if they don't win, or don't achieve a personal best? They try again next year. But what if they never achieve it?

Ultimately, what is winning worth? What is a personal best worth? Both are fleeting and arbitrary. Why first place? Why not 49th or last, or some other position? Why run faster? There will be times that you run slower, indeed the principle of regression to the mean guarantees that.

In this culture, there seems to be the attitude espoused by John Christie of Glyndbourne: "Not just the best we can do, but the best that can be done anywhere" It's a meaningless statement which drives people on a search for the impossible or causes them to lapse into despondent inactivity.


First, who determines the meaning of the word "best"? Who sets the standard? If it is oneself, then one automatically achieves it. If not this time, then the time previously. If we define our own best then doing the best that can be done anywhere is tautologically satisfied. If others define the standard, then how can it ever be verified. It may be that in a tiny village in Burkina Faso, one quiet little person has done the best ever, and no one will ever know. We could still strive to do the best that can be done anywhere, but we would never be presented with any quantifiable success until we say, "I've done enough " and then we are settling for the best that we can do.

Second, what is the point of spending a lifetime competing with a faceless rival in anything. Whatever it is will die with us. Boethius reminds us:
‘Further, if there were any intrinsic good in the nature of honours and powers themselves, they could never crowd upon the basest men. For opposites will not be bound together. Nature refuses to allow contraries to be linked to each other. Wherefore, while it is undoubted that for the most part offices of honour are enjoyed by bad men, it is also manifest that those things are not by nature good, which allow themselves to cling to evil men. And this indeed may worthily be held of all the gifts of fortune which come with the greatest success to the most unscrupulous. And in this matter we must also think on this fact, that no one doubts a man to be brave in whom he has found by examination that bravery is implanted: and whoever has the quality of swiftness is plainly swift. So also music makes men musical, medicine makes men physicians, oratory makes men orators. The nature of each quality acts as is peculiar to itself: it is not confused with the results of contrary qualities, but goes so far as to drive out those qualities which are opposed to it. Wealth cannot quench the insatiable thirst of avarice: nor can power ever make master of himself the man whom vicious passions hold fast in unbreakable chains. Honours, when joined to dishonest men, so far from making them honourable, betray them rather, and show them to be dishonourable. Why is this so? It is because you rejoice to call things by false names which belong not to them—their names are refuted by the reality of their qualities: wherefore neither riches, nor that kind of power, nor these honours, can justly so be called. Lastly, we may come to the same conclusion concerning all the aspects of Fortune: nothing is to be sought in her, and it is plain she has no innate good, for she is not always joined with good men, nor does she make good those with whom she is joined.’
Titles and honours and riches and power are all fleeting and will not make us happy, at least not in the long run. Failure always awaits us in the declining of our years. Our riches get spent, broken or moulder away, as do any laurels on which we rest. There is no point in running the London Marathon for any of these.

Yet, the vast majority of runners do so for none of these. They run on behalf of others. They enjoin themselves to a community in which success is just being there.

I am extremely proud to say that I have colleagues and former students who have run the Marathon not for themselves but for others. One runs in memory of his beloved mother who died of cancer and so that he can help cancer charities. Another runs in memory of a still - born child for a children's charity in the hope that his sadness can bring joy to other family. They take away with them an experience and an integrity that they cannot lose. They win only our respect, but that is only a mere byproduct of what they have really received.

St Paul reminds us that we are all running a race.
Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway. (1 Corinthians ix.24)
This is not a race for one winner and many losers. This is a race where simply staying the distance through adverse circumstances and agonies will win the same prize available to all. The losers will be those who choose not to reach the finish line, or determine their own finish line on their terms.

Our ancestors competed for limited resources and we have inherited that same thirst to compete against one another. Yet our true happiness is not a limited resource, for that happiness is not fleeting and thus goes beyond the whole idea of Happiness. It is Eternal Joy.
This Joy subverts all ideas of competition as demands that we should be ministering to those who are struggling and falling away, not cutting them out or running past them, so that they too should strive for that selfsame prize of Eternal Joy - God Himself.

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