I am not much of a sports fan, outside of high-school and intercollegiate wrestling (and even then, I’m not a superfan). I watch professional sports from time to time, not out of a love for any particular sport or loyalty to a particular team, but because I was never much of an athlete myself, so great physical performances are amazing to me.
This also helps to explain why I have so often been a fan of the greatest players and moments in sports. For example, I was a Detroit Pistons fan as a teen, but loved to watch Michael Jordan do his thing, and I still rewatch Gibson’s homer and Jeter’s flip anytime I want to shake my head and grin in disbelief. The ability to anticipate the action, to slow down the speed of the game, to perceive the field clearly, and most importantly, to will your body to respond, is beautiful and incredible to me—especially when I remember my own athletic career. As a young baseball player, I was lucky to make contact with the bat and struggled to stay focused in the field. As a tween basketball player, the pressure to move my body and the ball on offense (or worse yet, shoot) caused the ball to bounced off me and my fumble-fingered hands. As a high-school football player, I finally settled in as a backup noseguard…the one position simple enough for me. And as a wrestler? I loved the sport, but could rarely make my body respond quickly enough to my opponent’s moves and counters.
So I watch athletes in any sport, willing their bodies to do the beautiful, the amazing, the impossible, and it captures me.
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Something changed in me as I approached (and since then, entered fully into) middle age. Whether I’ve grown more accepting of and accustomed to my own strengths and weaknesses, or no longer feel pressured to perform, I can do things I never could before (although I still can’t hit a baseball for any money).
Of course I’m still no athlete, so most of these newfound abilities are physical, but not athletic. For example, last spring, when Emma, Trevor, and I took our road-trip to the Florida Keys, I drove more than 70 hours in a week—exploring and keeping pace with the kids; dealing with bug bites, sunburn, erratic drivers, and limited sleep—and loved it. When Jodi and I honeymooned and for most of our marriage, we have split driving duties because she likes to drive and I used to get so tired behind the wheel. Now I just buckle up, settle in, and go.
Then there’s FedEx. For the past few months, I’ve been rising at 2 or 2:30 a.m. to sort packages, then showering, eating, and going about the rest of my day. Since September, that has involved a second job. I’m doing physical work on relatively little sleep—something that would have been impossible for me not long ago. On top of that, it used to be that this level of activity and stress would result in me getting sick or hurt, but I’ve been relatively healthy during this entire time.
Most of this, I’ve come to believe, is mental. Great athletes have substantial physical gifts, of course, but to compete against others who are similarly gifted, you have to be mentally disciplined. Your mind must master your body and drive it to success, whatever the cost. If you want to succeed or excel, you must will it.
On a much more ordinary scale, this seem like what I’m experiencing in recent months and years. I am, for the most part, less likely to succumb to comfort or discomfort; to fatigue, soreness, or sickness, because I have things that need doing, and people counting on me. If I want to accomplish what I set out to, I must will it.
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Does not the same approach apply to the spiritual life? So much of sin is the result of us yielding to comfort, pleasure, and self-love over the more difficult efforts and sacrifices that demonstrate our love for God and those around us. I would rather eat, drink, sleep, and enjoy myself than watch, fast, pray, and sacrifice for someone else. Most days I would rather be loved than love.
We can deceive ourselves and believe that striving for holiness is complicated—but the saints and Jesus Himself struggled against the same temptations we face and persevered. How? When St. Thomas Aquinas was asked what it takes to become a saint, his spiritual program was two words: “Will it.”
You gotta want it. If you don’t want it, work for it, will it, it won’t happen on its own.
I am grateful God has allowed me to live into middle age to learn these things, and I am hopeful He continues to preserve me that I may bring these newfound strengths in my earthly life to bear on my spiritual life. May I continue to climb, even when I’m tired, sore, cold, hungry, lost, and alone. Amen.
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