As I watched the closing ceremonies of the Olympics, I found myself considering the concept of greatness. There is much to be inspired by at the Olympics, with its multinational, multicultural, made-for-TV story lines — a brief moment (albeit purely symbolic) of international unity. And whether it is me simply succumbing to the schmaltzy, over-the-top production values or a genuine response to the power of the human spirit, I always exit the Olympics wondering “What if?”
What if I worked as hard as these athletes to accomplish a goal – any goal? What could I accomplish?
What if we could all put aside our differences and focus instead on our similarities (which are far greater in number)? What could we accomplish? As a country. As a people.
Yes, I am aware I am a bit intoxicated by the images of the youthful exuberance of the athletes prancing to a soundtrack of Lennon’s “Imagine” and Bob Costas’s precisely engineered narrative. But the Olympics are undeniably powerful to most of us.
I suspect their power is, at its core, the product of sense memory. As I watched my children reenact their favorite Olympic events over the course of the last two weeks, I remembered the feelings of excitement I experienced when watching the Olympics as a child. I suppose the feelings of melancholy I inevitably experience at this point of each Olympics stems from the knowledge both that I let those childhood dreams fade with each closing ceremony and that I am in the distinct majority in that lapse.
Most of us do little to carry that inspiration forward beyond the closing ceremonies, and as a parent I often wonder how I might fan those flames in my children. It matters not to me what type of greatness they hope to achieve or that they achieve it. It matters only that they possess within themselves sufficient hope to fuel a dream. And it is exceedingly difficult for me to reconcile that wish with the fact that most of us adults have set those dreams aside.
I think most of us at some point aspire to greatness, but those dreams get extinguished at a certain age. Maybe it is a function of the paralyzing practicality of adulthood (after all, dreams rarely come true) or the realities of age (many dreams do, of course have an expiration date — we can safely say that Usain Bolt need not fear my shadow in the 100 meter), but I fear that we have entered an era of limited aspirations — a sort of golden age of mediocrity.
There is no more embarrassing example of this race to average than the current presidential campaign playing out on a world stage between two men — who by virtually all accounts have been blessed with exceptional intelligence, who have experienced success at levels enjoyed by very few, and who have the potential to impact millions upon millions of lives — seemingly hell-bent on using as much of the basest and least productive political trickery they can imagine. They and their multitude of advisors know that trickery is easier and more effective than genuine debate when you have a populace that demands nothing more sophisticated.
We apply the same abysmal standards to our children, our schools, our celebrities (Snookie anyone?), and seemingly everything else. It is time to stop settling . . . to become inspired . . . to aspire to greatness. And this is why we watched the Olympics with our children. My children are just now beginning to consider their possibilities, and I refuse to allow them to become indoctrinated by the dogma of the unexceptional.
While I am unlikely to ever hoist a medal at the Olympics, watching them makes me want to be a better father. A better husband (can you hear my wife shout, “hallelujah!”). A better friend. And therein lies the power of the Olympic games. The power to inspire. The power to remind us of the potential within us all. If nothing else, it is a temporary distraction from the daily onslaught of mediocrity. Maybe the Olympic games aren’t your thing, but I hope that you will find inspiration wherever it exists for you and very deliberately nurture it.
I know I will.