How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. (Annie Dillard)
American President Theodore Roosevelt delivered a speech at the Sorbonne, Paris on 23 April 1910. Part of that speech has become famous and has become known as: ‘The man in the arena’. It is both inspirational and motivational:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Those lines invite us to reflect on whether we are actually ‘in the arena’ of life, or just sitting on the side-lines. A particularly striking line is “…if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly.” There is a strong hint of challenge and excitement in those words. It is the image of a human being fully alive. Centuries ago St Irenaeus said much the same thing somewhat differently. He simply said ‘that the glory of God is best expressed in the man or woman who is fully alive.
The author of the letter to the Church in Laodicea (Rev 3:15-16) also expressed the same theme, in a typically Jewish way, when Jesus says: “I know your deeds, that you are neither hot or cold. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” Jesus is reminding us that in following him we are called not to an anaesthetized armchair life, but rather to a life lived to the full in pursuit of justice, truth, goodness and beauty. A life lived full of practical love.
The same idea is summed up in the oft used metaphor, “A ship in a harbour is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” In other words we were born to participate in this life at the highest possible level of joy experience and adventure. “Staying safe” in the harbour, can often be a fear-based or scarcity-based stance towards life. We have all seen boats tied up to a pier gently bobbing in the calm, unchallenging tides of the harbour. One day they will have to face the storms of the open sea. That’s what they were built for. Life, too, invites us to leave our safe harbours and engage creatively by using all the gifts and talents with which we have been blessed.
Pope Francis wrote recently: “Life grows by being given away, and it weakens in isolation and comfort. Indeed, those who enjoy life most are those who leave security on the shore and become excited by the mission of communicating life to others.”
To be cautious is sometimes necessary. But too much caution puts self-imposed limits on our lives and destroys the God-given potential to be who we are meant to me. We can become like the man in the Gospel who was given one talent and instead of using it, buried it to keep it safe. In doing so he destroyed its potential. In keeping ourselves too safe we destroy our latent gifts and talents. Mary Oliver challenges us not to do this in two beautiful lines with her question:
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
The challenge and ability to dare greatly is somehow related to how we see ourselves, how we trust ourselves. It is related to the extent we are prepared to risk and even seem foolish. It presupposes that we accept that we will never be perfect and that we will have to move off the fence while we are still imperfect and never fully ready. Maybe our biggest obstacles to ‘daring greatly’ are our fear of failure, our fear of being vulnerable and our attachment to the approval of others.
“Are you ready?” Klaus asked finally .
“Me neither,” Violet said, “but if we wait until we’re ready we’ll be waiting for the rest of our lives, Let’s go.” (Lemony Snicket, The Ersatz Elevator)
Sometimes we just have to trust ourselves and risk when the negative voices inside our heads tell us we are not ready. Otherwise failure to ‘dare greatly’ may become our deepest regret at life’s end. Bronnie Ware, an Australian palliative care nurse, spent many years caring for patients in the last twelve weeks of their lives. She recorded what these people regretted most about their lives as they were about to die. Their number one regret was, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me“.
Maybe the proximity of death gives us clarity and it is then easier to see unfulfilled and how much of our potential we have left dormant or frittered away. The choices we have made, or not made, determine the story of our lives. Ware concludes: “Health brings a freedom very few realise, until they no longer they have it.”
Sometimes life does not give us a choice. Circumstances hurl us into arenas which require great courage, incredible commitment and painful self-sacrifice. Some people lead extraordinary lives of courage in the arenas of their own homes either due to illness or having to care long-term for dependent family members. They are the unsung heroes of the ‘arena’.
Called To Be More
Madeleine L’Engle said, “We have to be braver than we think we can be, because God is constantly calling us to be more than we are.” That’s why we have to dare greatly and resist the suffocating caution that would keep us on the shore. The negative voices that tell us we are not ready enough. We all know the particular arenas where fears deter us. Paradoxically they may also be the places of incredible new life. “It is in losing your life that you will find it.”