In motherhood my daily reading has expanded to include an abundance of children's literature. Trips to the library are part my children's weekly routine and they have no trouble selecting an armful of books each time. We easily check-out and read 30+ books a week and I must admit that I am as excited to crack open and read through each new story adventure as my kids are. While most books are educational to some degree and/or provide a laugh or two; the ones I like best teach important values and incorporate character building lessons. Some of my favorites such books are "The Scaredy Cats", "Happy Valentines Day Mr. Hatch" and, the one that prompted the writing of this post, "Is Their Really a Human Race?"
The aforementioned story is a play on words and a child asks many questions regarding the human race. Some of the questions are as follows: "Is there really a human race?... When did it start? Who said, 'Ready, set, go?'... Do I warm up and stretch? Do I practice and train? Do I get my own coach? Do I get my own lane? .... Am I racing my friends? Am I racing my sister?... Is there pushing and shoving to get to the lead?... Do some of us win? Do some of us lose?...Why am I racing? What am I winning?"... And so on and so forth.
There are cute illustrations of babies in nurseries with bib numbers and tennis shoes, pages filled with images of racers of all different ages, shapes, sizes, and nationalities who are apparently in a harried frenzy to get wherever it is they're going. Award ceremonies are held celebrating various achievements such as: "Most Fluffy, Worlds Furriest Man, Biggest Hair Without Product, Biggest Overbite," etc.. Though these are obviously ridiculous achievements, it does call into question some of the many things we strive for that are perhaps, under the surface, equally obsurd and frivolous.
In the book the child questions why we race so fervently, what is the goal, and ultimately, what is the prize? While the answers to this question are likely as numerous as the people you ask and are quite possibly not easily narrowed down to a single answer by any one person; there is one purpose that I believe is truly noble and worthwhile in running a quality race. A rare and genuinely honorable racer is the one who seeks not primarily his own gain, acclaim, or best good, but seeks the good of others. Or, to put it another way, one who chooses to be others-centered throughout life rather than self-centered. This is not to suggest that I have mastered this practice; in fact, it's an area of great personal weakness and I'm only just now learning to appreciate it's true significance and apply it more fully in my life through the working of the Spirit.
Our society is extremely competitive, driven, and ultimately self-centered. Though it is important to have goals, set standards for achievement, and do our best in whatever it is we set out to do, we should never confuse skill, wealth, titles, or awards with true success and/or value.
My oldest child took her first steps into the independent outside world of school this year. The hardest part for me was knowing that she would be judged by other people's standards of "success". She would be graded on just about everything, compare herself to her peers, and begin to derive a sense of self-worth based on others evaluations of her performance on tasks that many times have little to do with real character. For example: mad minute performance, reading group placement, speed in running the mile, money earned in fundraising, number of smencils owned (yeah, it's a thing!), coolness of show and tell items, and academic grades. This is just the beginning; there are an abundance of ways children can be labeled "winners" or "losers" in life and many have nothing to do with real virtue.
Please don't misunderstand, education is foundational. Physical health and wellness are to be treasured. Supporting non-profits in their fundraising efforts is noble. Achieving high standing within a profession is admirable. Owning nice things is a blessing. Setting and achieving a goal is thrilling. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these things, but when we equate them with personal significance and/or allow the pursuit of them to rule us and justify immoral actions we've ultimately lost out on life's greatest blessing--a life lived for others.
Like many parents, I am sometimes concerned that my children will deam themselves failures based upon someone else's erroneous standard of success. However, equally concerning is the fear that they might actually buy into the lie and enter the "human race" pushing, shoving, and trampling underfoot principles and/or people that get in the way of their achievement.
Last May, I set a goal to run a 10K as fast as I could. I wanted to discover my potential, push the limits, and see what I was capable of accomplishing. As I mentioned in my previous post "The Mental Race", I trained diligently for the race and it was a significant effort. Being a busy mom on a budget I don't often take time to train for and run official races, so it was a bit of a splurge and a much anticipated event. Oddly enough, my conscience used this opportunity to put my character to the test.
Let me explain, during the course of my training one question frequently and persistantly came to mind begging to be answered. It came at the worst times--near the end of a difficult run when I was most aware of all the energy I was expending in pursuit of my gaol. The question was simply this, "What would you do if, on race day, you're running a solid race and are well on your way to setting a personal record when a fellow racer just ahead of you gets injured and needs help along the way?" Assuming I was in a position to provide aid, would I stop and help, forfeiting my gaol and essentially waisting all my time spent in training? OR would I run past, achieve my victory, celebrate and let someone else with less lofty ambitions give aid? Trivial as it sounds, this question literally haunted me. It was relentless and I hated it.
Of course I knew what I SHOULD do, yet it pained me to think of sacrificing my goal. Would it be worth the personal cost? As I contemplated the dilemma I considered how I would advise either of my children in a similar situation. I pictured myself on the sidelines watching them run and confront a similar situation. My heart swelled with pride and joy as I imagined them stoping to lend a helping hand. What a proud mama I would be! This visual was enough to confirm what I already knew to be true--there is no greater achievement then the laying aside of self in order to lift someone else.
That said, correct knowledge doesn't always lead to correct action and as race day approached I was still undecided as to what I would do if push came to shove. Would I help my fellow runner or pass them by? Fortunately for me, I wasn't put to the test. No runners were injured and I was able to achieve my goal guilt free. However, I couldn't help but wonder, "If life is a race, how often do I let my selfish pursuits and goals superseded or even trample the needs and/or rights of others? How often do I pass a fellow 'human racer' in need without lending a helping hand, encouraging word, or even a second thought? How would life be different if I raced with a different goal and perspective on success?"
Jumping back to our original story, "Is There Really a Human Race?", the questioner comes to a meaningful conclusion:
"Sometimes it's better not to go fast. There are beautiful sights to be seen when you're last. Shouldn't it be that you just try your best? And that's more important than beating the rest? Shouldn't it be looking back at the end that you judge your own race by the help that you lend? So, take what's inside you and make big, bold choices. And for those who can't speak for themselves, use bold voices. And make friends and love well. Bring art to this place. And make the world better for the whole human race." I appreciate the authors outward focus and how success is measured by contributions to the beauty of others' existence.
In the end, the benefit gained by achieving something great for oneself is largely singular and finite, yet the impact of a self-less act is incalculable; who can determine it's boundaries? Yet, how often I have been blinded to the beauty of self-surrender and humble service; seeing only the burden rather than the blessing in sacrifice. Ironically, I now see that it is only in loosing ourselves(ego) that we truly find ourselves(contentment). It is in service to others that we find life's greatest purpose, joy and meaning.
Sometime in the near future I'd like to run a race with a new purpose. Rather than striving to finish fast or achieve a personal record, I'd like to run with the goal of helping as many people as possible along the way. I'd run with an eye out for those in need and arms outstretched to help those who are faltering, wavering, and/or doubting their ability to finish. I'd run with a pack on my back and arms outstretched to give band-aids, high fives, energy packets, moles skin, bottled water, sunscreen, visors, ponchos or whatever the situation necessitates. What a thrill! In loosing my selfish ambition I would be free to live, love and enjoy the journey. Though there would be no material prize, no place amongst the first, no acclaim, and no bragging rights earned it would be a race most rewarding and well worth running! My joy would be complete, bursting forth, and overflowing. Wouldn't yours?
God has called us, as His followers, to be different--to have different standards, ideals, and goals than the world. Though we sometimes think it a burden to let go of self, it's really likely to be a most freeing and rewarding experience. We are wise to reject the deception that a self-centered life is a happy life and to obey the cammand to love one another so our joy may be complete! God's kingdom, which stands in direct opposition to Satan's, is founded on love. Love is not proud, boastful, or self seeking. Jesus, our ultimate example, taught His disciples saying, "Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave--just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mathew 20:25-28)." In God's eyes a life of loving service is the highest calling and the ultimate reason for racing.
Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthains 13:1-3, "If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn't love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God's secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn't love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn't love others, I would have gained nothing." As we lace up our running shoes each day to participate in the human race, lets remember to "Run On!" in selfless, others-centered, love--what a joy it will be!