It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
This is probably one of my favorite quotes of all-time. I love the imagery. Blood, sweat and tears. Standing alone in the arena to the cheers and jeers.
Falling. Failing. Rising. Winning.
It speaks to courage, risk, vulnerability and persistence.
If you’re going to get in the arena with the wolves, bears and lions, you better be ready to get mauled, gouged, punctured and torn to pieces. That’s what happens in arenas. They aren’t for the light-headed, tender-hearted or soft-boned. The arena is more than a game. It’s a fight for life. A battle for survival.
The lone advantage to arenas: you’re fully in the spotlight.
Most people, I think, would love to be famous…if only for a day…just to feel important, wanted, special. What we don’t realize is that fame costs a fortune. Popularity steals your privacy and pilfers your time. Everybody wants to be recognized until you learn that public recognition carries a vicious consequence. When you’re famous, you can’t go anywhere without someone wanting a piece of you…and most people aren’t interested in you anyway. What they want is what you have: fame.
That’s why the arena is a dangerous and desperate place.
It’s also a place where the critics speak their loudest. At a recent World Series game, President Donald Trump and first lady Melania were booed by the fans. It wasn’t a polite boo either. It was loud, raucous, even mean-spirited. That’s what happens when you step into the arena. You face the critics without filters. In those moments of truth, no tweet will save you.
It’s a moment when we either ignore what people think, become defined by their judgments, fight back or go crazy. There’s a fine line between discerning constructive criticism and believing destructive opinions. One will save you and the other kill you.
Dr. Brene Brown, an expert on shame, writes: “When we stop caring what people think, we lose our capacity for connection. When we become defined by what people think,
we lose our capacity to be vulnerable.”
For many years, I used to think I needed to “stop caring what people” thought of me. It seemed reasonable on the surface. When students, peers, administrators, bosses, family and other people criticized me, the most natural reaction was to ignore them and grow apathetic. But that didn’t work. The truth is I do care what people think of me. I want to have a good reputation. I want to be known for my creativity, insightfulness, joy, courage and other personal qualities that make me who I am. And I bet you do too.
As I considered Dr. Brown’s statement, I think she’s right. When I stopped caring about my critics, I only disconnected myself from their critique. Instead of finding the grain of truth in their jeer, I put up walls, built fences and dug holes to protect myself from the fiery bombs. I erected a mote around my soul’s castle and filled it with gators and snakes. I did disconnect and that’s not a good thing.
Connection is our deepest relational need. If we don’t belong, it’s so long. Insulation can easily become isolation.
Similarly, whenever I allow myself to be “defined by what people think,” I lose my capacity for transparency, risk and vulnerability. It’s hard to stand “naked” before the crowd in the arena and courageously share my ideas. It’s even harder when I think (they think) I’m stupid, out of touch, incapable or crazy. And don’t forget the worst critic of all: yourself. Who hasn’t felt paralyzed by the self-criticism and self-condemnation that we freely let speak? We tell ourselves junk that we’d permit no one else to say.
Shame keeps us imprisoned to our fears. And fears shackle our courage to risk.
How many opportunities in life have I steered away from…just because I was afraid? How many times did I miss the brass ring because I feared jumping into the unknown? How often did I lose a good friend or short-circuit a relationship because I was unwilling to commit, be open, risk my heart or sacrifice my time and energy?
It takes courage to be in the arena. We need the heart of a soldier.
In November we celebrate Veteran’s Day. We take some time to cheer, affirm and thank our military personnel. We remember our own family and friends–many who are no longer alive–and the service they gave our nation. We hold parades, ceremonies and other gatherings to appreciate our military veterans.
Why? Because they had the courage to do what we could not, to go where we would not, to sacrifice, serve and save. When you join the military, you know that your life is no longer your own. You are now the property of the United States of America. Your personal desires, interests and will no longer matter or apply. Only one thing matters: doing your job. It’s all about completing the mission, no matter the cost…including your very life.
I sometimes wonder what would happen if we approached life with that same resolve? If we chased our dreams like an army pursues a foreign enemy? If we were willing to sweat, cry and bleed to accomplish the Plan that God has carved for our lives? If we fearlessly dug a foxhole and trenched our lives in a never quit fire-fight to the very end.
The poet Alfred Lord Tennyson once penned:
“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
Someone had blundered.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
It’s not ours to wonder why. It’s only our duty to do or die.
That’s the courage we need today.
That’s the courage that will strengthen a home, a classroom, a workplace, a church, a community or even our country. Do or die. It’s the “I can” in American. I can do it. I can work harder. I can last longer. I can live better. I can love deeper. I can go further.
When we hitch our courage to the Divine and not to the critics in the arena, that’s when we enjoy supernatural strength to accomplish the impossible and change the world.