Daily Olympian Balancing Act
Joanne Sales –April 2010
The whole world was watching as one Olympic skier set off down
the mountain, took a wide turn - and crashed miserably within
seconds. That was it. Game over. No more chances. But this young
skier impressed me more than anyone else at the Olympics. His
dreams went up in a powdery puff of snow. Puff! But what did he
do? He got up off the snow, gave a thumbs up to the world, smiled
and waved. I’m OK everyone. I blew it, but I’m fine.
We are all involved in a major Olympian balancing act every day,
whether we know it or not. In this mandatory sport, we have to
find the balance between willfulness and surrender, between striving
and letting go, between desire for more and contentment with what
is. Striving for our best is a worthy goal, and so is contentment
with the situation in which we find ourselves. Both are good.
But there are dangerous turns in our sport as well - laziness
and perfectionism. Either one can ruin our day.
Acceptance slips into laziness. Not taking responsibility and
not striving for anything. Cruising without question down the
easiest path, or not cruising anywhere at all. No ambition. No
commitment. No passion. The Religion of Chill.
At the other extreme, is the perfectionist who is never satisfied
with anything because everything is always short of some imaginary
standard of perfection. This dangerous mindset erodes our lives
and relationships with a constant undercurrent of unhappiness.
Voltaire’s said, “The perfect is the enemy of the
good.” Good is no longer good enough. An obsession with
perfection turns us into micro-managing maniacs - or discourages
us from trying at all. (If I can’t win the Gold, why ski?)
Our habitual home on the “perfectionist-lazy slob yardstick”
affects everything we do, from washing dishes and growing a garden
to setting career goals and choosing a life partner. At one extreme
we throw in the towel before we’ve even worked up a sweat;
at the other extreme, we spend our lives in a sweat, obsessing
over meaningless details and driving ourselves crazy.
See what an Olympic level balancing act we are engaged in?
“Big frog, small pond.” That phrase implies a slight
insult. But think about it. The world used to be made of many
small ponds, with millions of triumphant frogs who climbed the
ladder to the top in every arena. Today’s world is different.
All our ponds are now connected by satellites - or sewage ditches.
There aren’t many rungs at the top of the ladder anymore,
and only a few gold metals.
This global connectedness both expands and shrinks our playing
field. If we’re looking to be “the best” - like
the Olympic athletes, we have a frustrating fight ahead of us.
If we’re looking to be “our best”, the opportunities
are greater than ever.
So if we just want to be happy, where does this leave us? In the
place recommended by the wise teachers of every tradition since
the beginning of time.
It isn’t fame or riches that will make us happy. It isn’t
perfection in the world of form, or accumulation of gold or gold
metals. An easy life does not mean a happy life. Doing nothing
is not necessarily fun.
Psychologist Dan Gilbert of Harvard makes a study of what makes
us happy. Gold metals deliver us level one of happiness. Deep
engagement in life gives us level two. The highest level of happiness
comes from meaning.
Thirty years ago, I saw a tiny little ad in a magazine. “Couple
looking for 20 damaged acres to restore.” I hope that they
found those damaged acres, for by now that little piece of earth
will be prospering. But from the onset, that couple was prospering,
because they sought their happiness not in perfection, not in
a free lunch, but in meaningful involvement in making something
better, of healing something that was hurt, and caring for something
bigger than themselves. Meaningful engagement.
Having this greater perspective allows us, like the skier whose
goals were dashed, to get back up, wave to the world and smile.
Thumbs up. I’m OK. Yes, I’m bigger than this goal
that I failed to achieve.
There is a time to try to change things, and a time to accept
things as they are. The wisdom of our skier was knowing “when.”
When to take risks and push harder, and when to brush off the
snow and wave.
A meditation teacher explained, “To some people I say, relax,
kick back, don’t try so hard. Take it easier. To others,
wake up, try harder, pay attention - be more alert!” It’s
all about finding the right response to the current situation.
Finding balance. The Middle Way.
Note: Watch intriguing Dan Gilbert videos on www.ted.com