Aspiring to Greatness

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.

Don’t Amitte Diem Either

© 2011 A. Krauss

As I write this post, hundreds of thousands of people have read Glennon Melton’s post “Don’t Carpe Diem,” and a good number of them have shared, liked or otherwise publicized that post.  For good reason.  Ms. Melton’s post was well written and poignant and, most importantly, it resonated with a decent-sized chunk of the population.  For those who haven’t read the post and aren’t interested in doing so now, the point was simply that parents are often made to feel as if they are doing something wrong if they don’t enjoy every moment of parenthood.  When I talk about parenting, I almost always find myself saying, “We’re loving every minute of it!”  I then immediately launch into a clarifying monologue about how we’re not actually loving every minute of it.  At the moment our kids are 2.5 and nearly 5.  It would be tempting to describe the 2.5 year old’s mood swings as borderline psychotic, but I fear that would be offensive to schizophrenics and people with bipolar disorder.  And the five year old?  Well, let’s just say she’s independent and strong-willed — attributes I like to think are indicative of her exceptional intelligence.  So, when Ms. Melton voiced the thought that no parent actually enjoys every moment, parents of young children across the globe raised a collective, “AMEN!”

However, I really wish she had found another name for her post.  (Then again, every time I see someone reaching MuchAdo because they’ve searched for “she put what up where” — which happens WAY more frequently than you might imagine — I question my own naming prowess.)  No doubt many of those thousands and thousands of readers will forget the underlying premise of her post — the need to stop and enjoy the truly great moments that come with parenthood and lose the guilt over the feelings of annoyance, or irritability, or outright rage that come with the many less-than-great moments — and simply walk away with the notion that not seizing the day really resonated with them.

The phrase that Horace coined has nothing to do with loving every moment in life, but rather embracing life — recognizing and enjoying the abundant wonderful moments and not mortgaging the present in hope of the future.  Life is complicated.  Most of us work hard, and are always working toward something.  It is far too easy to focus on those goals and lose the moment.  We focus on careers in order to create a better future for our children, but often at the expense of the moments we could be enjoying now.  We become hyper-focused on parenting — making sure our children know right from wrong, that they shouldn’t speak to strangers, that they should speak to strangers when Mommy and Daddy tell them to, that cursing is something Daddy shouldn’t have done but did anyway, etc. — often sacrificing the bonding moments for the teaching moments.  Of course, the teaching moments are important, and any parent who abandons the teaching moments whenever a bonding moment is to be had will soon regret that choice.

But each of us should strive to recognize and internalize each of life’s many golden moments and bask in that pretty light.  This year will mark the 27th anniversary of my mother’s death and the 38th anniversary of my father’s.  Being faced at an early age with the impermanence of life may have been the greatest gift my parents ever gave me.  I am acutely aware — often to my detriment — that life is a series of peaks and valleys.  When I find myself on the mountaintop, I try with every ounce of resolve I am able to muster to enjoy the view because I know it won’t last forever.  I often fail.  I often overcorrect — wondering why my time on the mountaintop has lasted as long as it has and fretting over when I will be plunged into the valley again.  But rarely a day passes when I don’t thank God for the many blessings I have been given.

That, to me, is the essence of carpe diem.  Don’t pretend to enjoy every moment, but make sure you enjoy all the moments that matter.  Oh, and stop cursing in front of your children.

Questionable Parenting Decisions

Sometimes I make parenting decisions that make me wonder whether some day I might find myself saying to the two year old, “Hey, buddy, would you just grab that running chain saw and bring it over here? No, it’s the one next to the super sharp knife.”  Last night’s questionable decision was suggesting that we eat dinner in the family room so the kids could continue to watch the football game. (My judgment may have been a bit clouded by the fact that the kids were actually interested in a football game.  It may have been clouded by the fact that I was interested in the football game.  Most likely it was clouded by the scent of porky deliciousness in the air.)  Approximately 168 iterations of “Stop watching TV and eat!” and 33 floor-bound pieces of carnitas and corn later, it was clear this was a questionable parenting decision.  (OK, it was clear long before that.)  It may not be as bad as that whole running chainsaw thing, but it’s a step closer than I’d like to be.