Bode Miller, hot dog downhill skier known for epic fails as much as epic wins, may not spring to mind as Sage of the Day. But something he said in a recent interview caught my ear. Tom Brokaw asked him what the Olympics meant to him; I can’t tell you the answer verbatim because more sound bites piled on in television’s relentless pace (and the clips deleted this part of the interview). But what I remember was his description of the Olympics as a venue where you had the opportunity to create your best.
Volumes are spoken in that sentence. Every athlete at the Games has spent years practicing and training to be prepared to do her or his best on whatever the day of performance turns out to be. For most, simply making the team and competing in the Games is all the victory to be had. For a few, there may be a medal won by the merest of margins: tenths or hundredths of seconds or inches. Sometimes that slim margin is the difference between life and death, as in the case of Georgian luger, Nodar Kumaritashvili, killed in a track accident. Kumaritashvili’s father also had been a luge competitor; many of the athletes at the Games come from competitive family traditions, including skating champion Sven Kramer, whose father and brother skate(d) competitively.
What does it mean to spend your life preparing to perform and compete at this level? How does this level of dedication shape the human psyche and physiology? What effect does a family tradition have: the early awareness of the wide realm of possibility, and the encouragement toward its pursuit?
A sense of what is possible is a strong shaper of our expectations, as Ruth Frankenberg decribes in Living Spirit, Living Practice: Poetics, Politics, Epistemology. Through a series of interviews, Frankenberg explored how the practice of spirituality shapes everyday life, how people “live spirit and live practice.” One of her findings is the relationship between spontaneity and cultivation: the in-breaking of spirit is unpredictable, and yet more recognizable to people who have some practice already, because there is a “frame” of sensibility or intelligibility the spirit can use, like a language, to make itself felt or known in a way the practitioner can recognize and to which she can make some response. Accordingly, while the movement of spirit cannot necessarily be predicted or controlled, it can be prepared for by ongoing spiritual practice.
Wasn’t it Mary Oliver who said you’d better have a pencil in your hand when the muse descends? Preparation plus practice equals readiness. A readiness that must hold until the venue presents itself, in which to create one’s best for that moment.
Athletes of the body not only practice the moves of their sport, but also visualize and meditate to hone their mental strength and calm. I am on the other side of the coin: I run and practice yoga to stay loose enough to sit for writing, prayer or meditation. And I find the endurance for running and writing come from the same well; I can’t number the times I pushed out one more page of the dissertation because my running self said, “Yes, you can. You ran that fifth mile yesterday. You can write the fifth page today.”
Oh, and the name of that well? Discipline. Developing an appreciation for disciplines – spiritual and otherwise – has taken me a long time. But these disciplines, these practices, are what prepare us – as Frankenberg explained – to recognize and receive the happy or awe-filled surprise of the in-breaking spirit.
I believe I am part of several circles of people poised on the edge of something new: my family, my church, the communities in which I might work. In each of these circles, we will become what we are practicing to become.
Which raises the question: what am I practicing to become? Answering this question tells me what my Lenten spiritual disciplines should be, because I know what I want to become. And so, my practicing must be …
Open-hearted. Patient. Clear. Passionate. Disciplined.
Preparation plus practice equals readiness. I believe God will bring the venue: it’s my job to be prepared to create and give my best.