Monday, April 5, 2010

Life is Like...

When you read that title, did you automatically finish the sentence by adding...'a box of chocolates?'  I suspect many of us might have...myself included.  Well, counter to Forest Gump's twangy protestation, I've been thinking, ever since watching the Olympic gold medal game almost two months ago, that life is actually kinda like a hockey game.  I was probably the only person in North America who was pondering that question during that particular game, but there you have it...I've always known I'm a little off.

I've never been a fan of the 'life is like a box of chocolates' line from the movie. To me it implies that life simply is what it is and that, depending on the chocolate that you pick, you're going to end up with a certain never know what you're gonna get.  That's too fatalistic for me.  Are there certain things in my life that I've had no control over?  Of course there are.  Many things.  The fact that I was born into the family that I was born into; that I was born on this continent instead of, say, Africa; the fact that I was born with the colour of my eyes and hair...all of those things and many more I've had no say in. There are elements of my character and disposition that are also beyond my control - how much, I have no idea, though I'd be ok debating the nature-versus-nurture issue some other time.

On a different end of the spectrum, I am also not a fan of the theory of "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps" as a way of defining people who have been 'successful' - in a materialistic sense of the word.  Counter to the Forest Gump expression, this one is usually used to note the accomplishments of someone who, as a child, had little, and who, through what appears to be their singlehanded effort, has become materially successful - life is, from this perspective, more a matter of how much effort you put into it than it is a matter of choosing a pre-destined flavour of chocolate.  Now, I'm a fan of putting effort into things - you'll know about me from a recent post (see earlier post) that I'm trying to cultivate an attitude of effort in Matthew, much more so than an achievement mentality.  Thus, I don't dismiss the fact that there are people who have worked extraordinarily hard to improve the circumstances they were born into.  But I have problems with the theory, for at least a few reasons.  First, this theory pays no homage to the myriad people or circumstances who/which have actually been hugely instrumental in that person's successes; to pull oneself up by the bootstraps infers, rather arrogantly, that it's one person who's singlehandedly accomplished wealth, or some other form or material success.  But the reality of life is that it's never just one person striving on his/her own that will enable that individual to become successful.  Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers (see earlier post about this book), would possibly support this perspective, come to think of it.  Second, the bootstrap theory suggests that certain people have the ability to pull themselves 'up' and other don't, and possibly also that those who can pull themselves 'up' are somehow better off than those who don't have the ability.  Third, the implication of this expression, at least in the context of how it's commonly used, is that material success is the end goal; that being in the 'up' position is the sought-after end.

You may (or may not!) be wondering where that leaves me.  If neither the fatalistic chocolate box nor the self-made bootstrap theory work for me, what platform does that leave me on?

Well, bring forth my hockey theory, the one I was thinking about while watching the finals of the Olympic hockey, and which has crossed my mind a number of times since then.  It's a pretty basic theory, actually, neither new nor profound in this day and age, but here it is:  I think you're either a fan in the stands, a spectator watching others play the game; or you're a participant in the game of life, trying with everything in you to work towards the desired outcome...whatever that desired outcome is...success, according to this theory is to be defined in whatever way the player wants to achieve in life. So, the desired outcome might, in fact, be material wealth, but might as/more likely be one or more of the following: to have a happy family life; to find career fulfillment; to try to be a contributor to community; to live life according to one's principles of faith; to live a life of no regrets; to circle the globe twice over; to maintain a wide circle of friends; to win the get the idea.  The outcome could be various goals that one sets for oneself...goals that really matter to the individual.

Remember how the Canada-U.S. game got tied up in the last twenty seconds and then got won by Canada in overtime, after herculean effort on both sides?  Every person on those two teams was trying with everything in them to accomplish the desired result; I suspect that, even for the team that eventually lost, what those players will remember every bit as much as the final outcome is the blood, sweat and tears that went into trying to get to the final moment.

I'm not sure precisely where I'd place myself on my life's continuum, marked by "Spectator" on one end and "Player/Participant" on the other end.  All too often, though, I fear, I'm an observer in the bleachers of my own life, relegated by choice or circumstance to watching someone else put everything out there as we all move relentlessly towards the last moments of our lives.  Too often, I'm the onlooker, the observer, the non-participant.  I have caught glimmers of what it's like to be the one fully engaged in the game, I've experienced enough myself to know how exhausting and devastating and exhilarating it can be to be in pursuit of the end moment....but not often enough.

So...I don't want to be pulling myself up by my bootstraps - I disagree with the assumed end goal and, besides, I don't want to be pulling anywhere on my own; I want others in the game of life along with me.  Nor do I want simply to choose one chocolate, when a variety would taste even better.  No, one of the things that has become clear to me in the past number of months is that, regardless of where I'm at right now on the spectator-participant continuum, I want to be moving constantly in the direction of being engaged in life as a full participant, towards the outcomes I desire, for the days I have left.  I want to be a player in the game of life!

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