Yesterday a twenty-six year old man took off on a little run through the streets of Berlin. Twenty-six and two-tenths miles later (forty-two and one hundred and ninety-five thousands kilometers for those of you keeping score in metric-land) he had smashed the world marathon record by twenty-one seconds. Patrick Makau’s final time was two hours, three minutes and thirty-eight seconds – and average of four minutes and forty-three seconds per mile. As a marathoner myself (I am even embarrassed to say this after mentioning that accomplishment, but it’s too late now …) I am awed and intimidated by such a feat. At my best, which was my last race in May (pumping my chest out slightly, I tell you that) I clocked in at three hours and forty-two minutes … somewhat off of the newly established world record.
I will never come to close to that feat. I will never be the best at this marathoning thing that I do. There is a pretty good chance that I will never even be the best in my age bracket for a given race at this marathoning thing that I do. (Although, the longer I do it I imagine the smaller the numbers of competitors might become.) I realize that there are some factors that are going against me … my age and the natural evolution of my particular body; the ways my body may not be the perfectly wired machine that these elite runners may be and then there is the amount of time and energy it would take to even push myself to the elite level of my age bracket.
As I write that last ‘reason’, the line between ‘factors out of my control’ and ‘factors that I am just too lazy or undisciplined to do something about’ gets a little fuzzy. I could run an extra day a week. (Oh, but I so hate the morning). I could eat differently and enhance my body to do the work I am asking of it. (Oh, but eating is just one of my favorite things to do.) I could go on, but I won’t … suffice it to say not only will I never even run twenty-six successive miles at a four minute and forty-three second clip, but I will never even run one mile at that pace of insanity.
I could go down the list of unreachable, yet highly desirable goals/dreams of mine that Vegas would put great odds against ever happening: playing centerfield for the Cleveland Indians, being the beat writer for the Cleveland Indians, writing the Great American novel, etc., etc. It would be easy to examine these goals and see how I have fallen short of them … and feel like I had failed. Technically, it is ‘failure’, but I am really a failure because I will never run a world record in the marathon?
I worry that at times the entire experience of the High Holyday season feels like that kind of exercise in failure. We are continually thinking about how we missed the mark, how we messed up (and in many cases we seem to mess up on the same things each year), what we lack, recognizing our limitations, remembering the precarious nature of our very existence … it can be easy to worn out by this self-flagellation and feel like we continue to fail and fail again.
If we go down this path during these days … or the rest of the year … we are out of balance. Perhaps the goals and expectations are too black and white and not enough gray. Perhaps we get caught up in expecting to be world record holders in the human race and that is not really the nature of this kind of race. In those moments after I have crossed the marathon finish line, failure is the farthest thing from my mind. I feel joy, satisfaction and even triumph. I am not thinking about how far I am from a world record or even the other early forty year olds in my age category. I am reveling in that moment and (believe it or not) beginning to plot my next race – asking myself what can I learn from this one?
The Sage Reb Zusya had an idea as to the true essence of this human race we each run. The legend goes that as he was dying, his students came to tend to him. “There is nothing you can do,” answered Zusya. “I’m dying and I am very frightened.”
“Why are you afraid?” the youngest student asked. “Didn’t you teach us that all living things die?”
“Of course, every living thing must die some day,” said the Rabbi. The young student tried to comfort Rabbi Zusya saying, “Then why are you afraid? You have led such a good life. You have believed in God with a faith as strong as Abraham’s. and you have followed the commandments as carefully as Moses.”
“Thank you. But this is not why I am afraid,” explained the rabbi. “For if God should ask me why I did not act like Abraham, I can say that I was not Abraham. And if God asks me why I did not act like Rebecca or Moses, I can also say that I was not Moses.” Then the rabbi said, “But if God should ask me to account for the times when I did not act like Zusya, what shall I say then?”
Run your race. Be your true self – celebrate your triumphs AND learn from your failures.