On Christmas we sometimes ponder questions of God, whether it's a just universe, how can good things happen to bad people, etc. That question has been bugging me lately.
I've come to the conclusion that life is a test. It's like a long hilly race. Train all you want, it's still going to be hard and you may get derailed by random factors. Winning the race - taking first - is cool. Taking first doesn't mean you performed up to your potential though. What if you're one of life's sandbaggers, and doing well was easy? What if you could have done a lot better, despite looking like a winner?
No, winning in life's race is harder. It involves doing your utmost no matter what random problems may crop up. It is the moral equivalent of Fausto Coppi putting 25 minutes into the field at La Primavera. That is The Good. That is the purpose of it; to lap the field if you're capable of it. Mother Theresa probably could have been a pretty good cloistered nun, but she had more in her than living a quiet life of prayer and contemplation. She tried to live up to her potential.
Look, the hills are going to suck whether you're off the front, or in life's laughing group; cursing the fact that you can't hold on to the team car the whole way up the hill, or that maybe you weren't born with all the gifts of some other guy or gloating because you can win easily is pointless. Your job is to pedal your ass off until the race is done. The nature of the universe, even down to the molecular level, is that there are random factors we simply cannot control. It's up to us to keep pedaling, to hand teammates a water bottle, maybe even say a kind word to our rivals. But we have to do our best, and even if we're off the back never ever quit.
Christmas isn't the only religious festival of birth. Its precise terms are unique to judeo-christianity, but the crux of it, like the other religious festivals, is about the promise of life, and about higher meaning. You don't have to buy the particulars of my religion's belief, but even if you don't accept the notion of existence of a personal God or even a somewhat disinterested deity, the underlying philosophical propositions surrounding Christmas and the historical figure of Christ should move you.
Regardless of whether you buy the virgin birth, transubstantiation, the Chosen People, or any of the finer points of theology, historical Jesus's philosophical point is, I think, valid. It states that we should put other people first and act selflessly, and that this is the way to salvation. Some Buddhists might particularly agree with this, and I think you'll find most major religions treat the question in a similar manner. Even if you're only talking about living a better life here and now, the way to it, is to sacrifice yourself on behalf of others. Carry their water bottles. Give them a draft. Don't worry about how you ache. It isn't about you sitting there and hurting and feeling sad for yourself, and how could a good Director Sportivo have let you get dropped and left without support. It's about you, but it's not about you at all. Did you support your team, your fellow man? Did you give your all? That's what it's about. Cool if you win the race, but did you become the great champion you could have been, or did you just rack up some palmares and then wander off?
Life's promise is to make us struggle and suffer, to see what we're made of - you get chances all the time to see if you can do better than you did before. So what if you got dropped yesterday, blew your diet, or in real life snapped at somebody you love (or some random person) or goofed off at work. You must let it go; it's time to take a dig at the problem and try to do better, it's not time to dwell on what happened at last week's contest. There's no sag wagon here - all starters have to finish. It's your choice whether you finish as hard as you can, or lie down in a ditch and quit.
The cool thing about all the philosophical bits that are corrolaries to Christmas is there is even a training plan. Yeah, there's all sorts of rules. Depending on which edition of the plan you read, maybe there's diet restrictions and you aren't supposed to eat lobster and pork barbecue, or maybe you're supposed to take cold baths and wash your feet for recovery after you've gotten all sweaty and dirty or whatever. (Whoa... it's like being a Belgian bike racer, isn't it?)
But the main point, kind of like Friel's 3-on-1-off periodization, is pretty simple. Love one another. Or if you want the Training With [religious] Power version, "whatsoever you do for the least of my brothers; that you do unto me." Or as Bob Roll reminded us recently, "ever notice how homeless people look like Jesus?" Bob's right. They sure do. You're supposed to help take care of them. And everybody else you encounter on the course.
A good example of this that many of us saw this past year was the fight waged by Elden Nelson's wife, and by Elden. As Elden tells it, he did everything in his power to ease her path, filled as it was with terrible suffering. He also tells us that she went out of her way to be kind to her family, and to make her suffering and their sacrifices on her behalf not about her; no self pity, no whining, just holding on to the days and encouraging her family to live fully despite her dying. I've spent several months getting my head around this. It's remarkable, and profound. Iohannes Paulus Maximus discussed the purpose we can find even in our own suffering in an encyclical that he later put into practice as his own infirmity tested him in his later years. Yes, in life as in bicycling, the suffering is for a purpose. It is an opportunity we get to make ourselves better, even though it may make us ache terribly and seem senseless at the time.
Christmas is about the fact that on many planes, we are given a chance each day to do better. If you're reading this, you have a chance to do better. Give to others. Forgive yourself when you fail to do so (and forgive others too)* and resolve to do better. Each day is a gift. Use it.
I hope you all have an extremely Merry Christmas, even if you aren't of my faith and are just borrowing the holiday for a day off and to exchange gifts with loved ones. That's cool. But I also hope that the deeper meanings of the holiday, the sensibility that surrounds it, finds purchase with you and that you find solace and strength in it.
Here's the great Wagnerian, Kristen Flagstad, singing Silent Night. Enjoy.
[And yes, to those I've slighted this past year, I'm very aware that I've slighted you. Oh my, have I slighted you. I apologize, and will try to do better.]