We've been watching the 2018 Olympic games. I've been amazed by these athletes. Some of them are thrill seekers, riding on a tiny sled, face-first, down a sheet of ice at crazy speeds. Or they are intentionally skiing off the end of a ramp designed to launch them into the sky and seeing how far they can fly before they hit the ground. Or strapping their feet onto a plywood board and seeing how many twists, turns, and tricks they can do, mostly for their own enjoyment and all the better if they happen to win a medal.
Some of the athletes are more my style: the ones who very slowly slide a big rock down a perfectly flat sheet ice, then shout at their teammates. There is always shouting.
The athletes who capture my fascination aren't the ones with nerves of steel, dazzling aerobatics, or a penchant for putting the rock in the house. The ones I can't stop watching are a different set entirely. They are the ones who compete in a grueling event, cross the line, then collapse… many of them literally face-down just a few feet past the finish. Gasping for air. Spent. A few, crying because they've won. Many more, crying just because they've made it. They finished, and did their best. They have pushed, trained, conditioned, and focused for years, or their entire lifetime to this point—focused on this moment, this event, this race. And they gave absolutely everything they had.
If you're like me, you can't help but be inspired by their discipline. Their commitment to push, train, condition, and focus—not just their bodies, but their minds. Probably their finances, relationships, and a dozen other things. While I'm in a recliner wondering what kinds of snacks we have in the house, they are on the other side of the world pushing themselves to do more than they once thought possible.
This happens elsewhere in life, too. Have you ever admired someone for his capacity to care? For her generosity? For compassion, or humility, or judgment-free acceptance of others? I think we all have. You are probably thinking of someone right now whose character inspires you.
When we witness it firsthand, it can be as striking as watching an Olympic athlete. When we see the best of humanity in other people, it's like someone turned on a bright light in a dark room. We might notice it because it's all too rare. But we also notice because it resonates deeply with something inside of us. It shows us what humanity is capable of, when we are our best selves. And when we see it in others we can't help looking for it in ourselves.
The problem, for me at least, is that when I look for this kind of greatness in myself it can be hard to find. I'm less generous than I want to be. I'm often less kind. Just less… less than I want to be, and certainly less than I see in so many great people around me. When's the last time I listened and changed my mind because someone helped me see things differently, instead of immediately getting defensive? How frequently do I judge someone (for good or ill) based on appearance or ability? I have much to learn and lots of room for improvement.
Great athletes don't just become great. They work. They train. They take losses and celebrate wins. They listen to coaches. But I've been personally challenged by one aspect of their pursuit. I call it the theory of the clicks.
Last summer we decided to fill in a flower bed in our back yard with topsoil and grass seed. So we ordered some soil, had it dumped in our driveway, and asked some friends over to help us move it one wheelbarrow at a time. It was grueling work, and more than we expected. In fact, after several hours, our friends were exhausted and we gratefully sent them home to rest up. (Yes, we fed and hydrated them.) But my wife and I still had more topsoil to move. As exhausted as we were, we had to find a way to do just a little bit more. We kept saying to ourselves, "only ten more loads." Then we would complete ten loads, and still had some more left to move. So we'd say it again. Ten more loads. Eventually, we got it done. If we had admitted to ourselves that it was really going to be 50, 60, 70 more loads, I think I would have quit. But I could do ten. Just ten more, then we'll see where we are.
I think every athlete in these Olympic games knows that feeling of pushing yourself to the very limit, then a little bit further. A biathlete who just can't push her skis any faster. A speed skater whose legs are burning with every stride. A figure skater who has fallen hundreds of times. But these athletes also have an ability to push themselves just one more click. One more jump. One more kick. One more stride. One more trick. Over time, those clicks, those incremental stretches and efforts become greatness. One click at a time.
You can see where I'm going with this. The secret to becoming our best selves isn't to hold ourselves (or one another) to some ultimate ideal, a nearly-impossible standard. It's also not to measure ourselves against a success we had a long time ago. It's found in pushing ourselves as hard as we can in this moment, and then finding a way to go one more click. I can max out my capacity for generosity in this moment, and then go just one click more. I can show love and forgiveness in this situation, and then one click more.
One thing I love about the stories we read about the life of Jesus, is that whether someone was part of the religious establishment or completely unattached to any kind of faith, he challenged them to one more click. To a religious leader who thinks he's "arrived," Jesus challenges him that his heart doesn't match his actions, and he can do better. Someone makes a large donation to a good cause and thinks he deserves an award. Jesus points out that he's been out-given by a poor person who gave much less but sacrificed much more—without any desire for credit. And to someone society has rejected, forced to sit at the margins of life as an outcast, Jesus says, "I'll include you. I'll see you as a person. And I'll challenge you to start a new life today, extending the same grace to others." Jesus could always see the limits people placed on themselves, and challenged them to more than that.
Physical therapy teaches us that the theory of the clicks is the only way to heal, and that it's not helpful to focus on what we used to be capable of, or what others are capable of. When we focus on our own capacity today, and push ourselves to go one click more, we can sing along with my favorite commercial these days. It's a rework of a classic song, modified to say, "Anything I can do, I can do better." Not to the point of perfectionism, nor to an unrealistic standard. Just one more click. That's something worth cheering for.
This is a written version of a personal reflection shared at The Gathering, an informal event at Abandon Brewing in Pen Yan, New York, featuring live music, good times, and heartfelt conversation.