Showing Up in The Arena – Why Only Authentically Directed Action Matters

I wrote this a while ago but I’m feeling it again today so here ya go. Also, for those of you who don’t know, I ran track in high school. Hurdles were my thing 👍🏼 (Also, I have no idea how to fix the formatting issues below, I’ll try again mañana.) Enjoy!

The gunshot goes off. My fingers lift from the squishy, rough, maroon surface as the muscles in my legs contract propelling me forward. The nerves that had haunted me for the last hour are gone all at once. My left foot hits the ground for the first time and I feel my spikes dig into the track, lifting me – I am light as a feather. My right foot hits the ground in rhythm. Within seconds the first hurdle is in front of me, waiting. I feel my left leg constrict. My foot comes up. The tendons in my thigh are rippling and my heel sails smoothly over the top. My back leg folds to my side at a ninety degree angle and follows me over the hurdle. My head remains level. My form is impeccable. Boom, boom, boom. Each hurdle is gone in an instant, followed by the next. Boom. The last straightaway stretches in front of me and the final hurdle is gone. I can tell it will be my best time yet. I surge forward and throw myself over the finish line. As I stumble forward towards the time booth I already know it. I see the times – short 0.04 seconds. I was the MVP in only my junior year, I practiced harder and longer than anyone, I put in the time, sold my soul to the sport and it was over just like that. I left my heart on the field and I lost. Since that day, I lost the will to fight for what I love. Since that day, I have been sitting on the sidelines.

I had missed the next level of competition by a measly .04 seconds. Corrupting thoughts started rushing through my head: “If my best isn’t good enough, then why try at all?”

Fast forward to my senior year. I’m the team captain – people are looking to me for support, for inspiration, for someone to push them to their limits. It’s the first meet of the year. As I step onto the track, I feel my will to win slip away. It’s an oddly warm day for spring in Massachusetts. It’s the first meet of the year. I’m feeling loose, lethargic, and my body unwilling. 

The announcer calls the next races: “Girls’ 100, Boys’ 100, Girls’ 100 hurdles, Boys’ 110 hurdles.” ‘Ah, 110. My race,’ I think. I force my body off the crash pad it was lounging on. I meander towards the beginning of the straightaway. I’m not nervous. I’ve run this race hundreds of times before, the competition sucks today, it’s already in the bag. A yawn escapes my mouth as I turn my dreary eyes to the blocks on the starting line. I don’t feel the normal pre-race excitement itching at my skin. I put this out of my mind and take a few tentative leaps into the air, pulling my legs towards my chest and then shooting them back toward the ground. My fingers find the ground as my spikes settle into the blocks they know so well and I shoot forward on my test run. My left leg tenses, my foot comes upwards, and my thigh muscles shiver. My left leg slips over the top with only centimeters to spare.

SLAM. My back foot catches on the hurdle and I’m sprawled on the ground. I feel worms gnawing on my stomach with emarassment and my left arm aches where I caught my fall. I slowly get up  – “It was just a practice run” I tell myself. I return to the starting line.

The moment has come for the race to begin. I lock myself into the starting position: My feet in the blocks, my hands straight and perpendicular to the ground. My whole body is tight, like a pressed spring. The gunshot goes off and I feel the familiar flying sensation take hold of my body. I’m blasting forward towards the first hurdle. 

Step, step, step, step, jump. I’m soaring forward, but something is off. My brain is fuzzy. I’m not focused. My left leg clears the hurdle, my right leg follows. SLAM! Again, I’m on the ground. My brain is working hard. A few things pop up in quick succession: I can’t win in such a short race; I messed up the same exact way as before; I have to keep going because my dignity won’t stand for quitting. I get up and take off again. Boom. The next hurdle is cleared in a gust of wind. I see the third hurdle in front of me and feel my left leg clear the top, just scraping over. I’m jumping up instead of forward. I realize my mistake before I feel it – in hurdling, jumping up instead of forward is the worst thing one can – SLAM, and I’m on the ground completely numb. My body – numb. My emotions – numb. I step off the track, watching my competitors fly forwards and I walk towards my team, suddenly silent.

One teammate comes to me. “Faolan,” he bemoans, “I think your arm is broken.” I look down for the first time and notice that I’m holding my left arm limply with my right, cradling it. The pain then shoots into my body from where it had been hiding and I look again down at my arm. I give it a shake to see if it will listen to me – no response. Retreating back inside myself, I feel shame, I feel the repercussions of my laziness surfacing, I feel like a failure. Tears drip down my face. I’m done with track forever and I finished my career with a lethargic, lazy race

I’m a junior in college now. This evening, as I watched Brene Brown’s face flicker onto the wall from my projector I knew that I had to step back into the ring. In my life, success has been ubiquitous and for that I am lucky. However, my ubiquitous successes have not been deep, nor ressonant, nor empowering. Since the beginning I have achieved everything that I have set out to do. The secret to my successes: only do the things that I knew I could win at. Throughout my life I have known what I alone am best at. I know my strengths and weaknesses.

Recently, two of my best friends told me my strengths and weaknesses. They found that my biggest weaknesses stem directly from overdoing my strengths. For example, I love to push myself to be my best, but I tend to also push the people I love to do the same, which is not always correct. Tonight I realized another strength-borne weakness: Because I think I know what I can win at, I only strive towards that which is safe. I never try for things that could lead to failure or pain. As soon as I fail, I give up, never to do that activity with my full effort again.

Theodore Roosevelt said: “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.”

My fingers buzz. Time has caught up to me. “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.” I hear the phrase run through my mind over and over again. I think back to my junior year of high school when I gave my all to the arena of track, to the last time I gave my all to an arena. When I lost as a junior by .04 seconds, I stopped striving. The following year, I broke my arm because my heart wasn’t in it. I lost once and that was enough.

Since my fall, I’ve done my share of battles – I fought through application essays, journeys around the globe, and rejections – and I’ve won. I have victoried and I have lost. I have fought, but I have not been in my arena… and it clicks.

Suddenly there is clarity. I always wondered why my successes don’t resonate, why I expect them, and why I can be so unfulfilled when my life is so full. The answer materializes with a great WHUMP as it settles into my very being – My victories are empty because they are not mine. I have fought, but I have not fought for myself. I have won, but I have not battled for my own life, for my own causes. I have fought because fighting is expected and I have won because that is what I do, but I am unfulfilled because I do not fight for what I believe in, because I have not been in my arena. Today I vow to step into the arena – I will challenge my fears once more and regardless of the hurdles that appear on the way, I will run forward, with the full strength of my heart behind me and inside me.

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