Lessons of the Olympics

(Through Labor Day, the Daily Episcopalian will be the every-other-daily Episcopalian.)

By Jean Fitzpatrick

What can we learn from the Olympics? Like their predecessors on Mount Olympus, the athletes offer us a larger-than-life narrative that reflects our own struggles. There’s are the inspiring stories: Michael Phelps winning his 14th Olympic gold medal, breaking one world record after another. Not bad for a young man with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The women basketball players from Mali, marching in flowing white robes in the opening ceremonies. Yes, they lost to New Zealand hours later, but — coming as they do from a country where women are subject to genital cutting, poor access to education, and domestic violence — their presence alone is amazing.

And then there are those who try too hard: the supposedly teenage tiny Chinese gymnasts who, as the famed former coach Bela Karolyi put it, “look like they are seven and may be still in diapers.” Gary Russel Jr., the 20-year-old bantamweight boxer from Maryland, who collapsed in an effort to weigh in at 119 pounds. And all those cyclists on steroids.

So much focus on striving to win always leaves me uneasy. If the last shall be first, I find myself wondering, how do you defend years of training to go for the gold? Most of us know what it means to want to be the best at school or in the office, or to get our way in relationships. These yearnings don’t generally bring out our most loving or generous selves. And yet there’s something in us that wants to grow, to discover the limits of our talents and sensibilities. How do we tell whether our desires are greedy or life-giving?

In the church we aren’t always as helpful as we might be. Often I wonder why the most “spiritual” people — especially women — who come seeking my help have the worst lives. I don’t mean that they are the poorest in material terms. Instead, often they seem to believe that being a good Christian means losing in life, especially in relationships. They don’t voice their needs and wants. They don’t speak their truth.

If I suggest that it’s time to focus on themselves, I see them wince. “That sounds…proud,” they say. Or “That’s not very Christian.”

“‘Jesus said, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ I often tell them. ‘You’re forgetting about the self part.”

When we try to manipulate or muscle others out of our way in order to have power over them, then we’re like Olympic athletes on steroids. But reaching out to others in love isn’t for anyone who’s afraid to dive right in and try their best. It demands the strength and courage and passion to struggle, to stick with a situation and seek understanding, and to speak up for justice and truth. As Ram Dass famously put it, “We must first be a somebody before we are ready to be a nobody.” I’m thinking of that as getting in touch with your inner Olympian.

Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick, L.P., is a psychoanalyst and a member of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. A layreader in the Diocese of New York, she is the author of numerous books and articles on the spirituality of relationships, including Something More: Nurturing Your Child’s Spiritual Growth and has a website at www.pastoralcounseling.net.

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