February 24, 2010
"How Do You Spell Success?"
The Rev. Dr. Scott Stoner
I have run quite a few marathons in my life, but the 1999 Chicago Marathon will always stand out in my memory. There were 15,000 runners in the race that year, including the best marathoner in the world, Khalid Khannouchi. The conditions were perfect that day, so perfect that Khannouchi set a world record for the marathon in that race, finishing in 2:05:42. I like to tell people that I ran that race with the world record holder and at one point I was only about a half mile behind him. That point was before the gun went off and we were lining up for the start! In fact, I ran one of my fastest times ever (three hours and seventeen minutes) and I remember I was just passing the seventeen mile mark when fans were listening to their radios and screaming that Khannouchi had just finished and set a world record. Seeing how a marathon is 26.2 miles, it meant I was only 9 miles behind him when he finished. I don't know for sure, but I'm guessing he felt me pushing him from behind.
Khannouchi won the marathon that day by 36 seconds. The third place finisher was almost three minutes behind. Those time gaps between the leaders seems like an eternity compared to the kind of results we are seeing right now in many of the Olympic skating and skiing races where the difference between gold, silver and bronze medals is usually measured in fractions of a second. Bode Miller earned his first gold medal last week in the Men's Super Combined with a winning time of 2:44.92. The silver medalist turned in a time of 2:45.25, and the bronze medalist a time of 2:45.32. Six tenths of a second separated the three best skiers in the world that day, about the time it takes to clap your hands together two times.
We live in a world that defines success in pretty much one way: winning. Can you imagine a person finishing fourth in an Olympic event and feeling like they have not succeeded? That would mean they are the fourth best in the world at something, and yet somehow don't feel like they have succeeded. And oh my gosh, what if, horror upon horrors, you found out you were only tenth or twentieth best in the world at your event? No doubt you would want to hide from your friends and hang your head in shame.
Don't get me wrong--I love competition, in fact more than most people. But as I have aged, and hopefully become a bit wiser, I have come to define success less and less in terms of winning and losing. I now define success much more in terms of being fully alive, fully engaged in life, fully engaged in something that you are passionate about. What inspires me most about watching the Olympians is watching people who were fortunate to discover at a young age something they were passionate about--something they just loved to do, and then to see how their commitment to that passion has brought them so much life and joy. For some it also brings success in terms of winning and medals; for all it brings success in being able to experience something that sets them on fire.
Gold, silver and bronze medals are perhaps the most recognized symbols of the Olympics. But there is another symbol that I think is even more important, and that's the Olympic flame. My hope for all of us is that that flame can stand as a symbol for what enduring success is all about: to live life fully alive, fully awake, fully "on fire" in body, mind and spirit.