I am not much of a TV watcher and so it is unusual for me to spend as many hours as I have this past week in front of the TV screen–but I simply cannot get enough of the Olympics. Watching the Olympics has become my spiritual practice these days. Watching the athletes pushing themselves to their limits, striving for excellence, whether individually or as a team, helps my heart and soul to feel just a little bit more alive.
In the second century, an early bishop of the Church named Irenaeus, said, “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.” This is what I see when I watch the Olympic athletes. I see people who are fully alive in what they are doing. This is why the athletes compete. Of course they would all like to win medals, but the reality is that most of the athletes who compete in the Olympics know they have little to no chance of winning a medal, but they continue to practice and compete anyway. So why do they do it? Because pursuing excellence in their sport is what makes them feel fully alive. This is the true essence of the Olympic spirit.
Another wonderful quote about being fully alive is from Howard Thurman, an influential American author, philosopher, theologian, educator, and civil rights leader who in the in the mid-twentieth century said, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” As we see in the Olympics, some people come alive when they swim. Others comes alive when they are fencing, or rowing, or riding a horse, some when throwing a shot put, or performing on the balance beam. And here is something that at first may appear to be a paradox. Even when we see an athlete experiencing a heart-breaking disappointment, we are still witnessing a person who is being fully alive. That’s because being fully alive is not about winning. Being fully alive is about being fully present, being “all in” with your whole heart, soul, strength, and mind.
When do you feel most fully alive? In what endeavors in your life do you pursue excellence? What is it in your life that is so important to you that you pursue it with passion, excellence, and determination? Most likely your endeavors will not qualify you as an Olympic athlete, but that is not what is important. What may make you feel most fully alive may be being a parent, or loving your partner, or being a great friend. It may be tending a garden, or spending time in nature, or giving back to the community. It’s different for each of us because there are indeed a variety of gifts amongst us all.
For most of us, there are neither Olympic sports nor bronze, silver or gold medals in the pursuits that make us feel most alive. But when we are actively pursuing what makes our hearts and souls most alive, medals or recognition from others is not necessary nor are they the greatest reward. The joy of being a “human person fully alive” is reward enough.
So to all the Olympic athletes I say, “Go for the gold!” To the rest of us, I say, “Let’s go for what makes us feel fully alive,” as the world needs more people who are fully alive.