August 2012

Thanks, Emily

The slogan of the advertising world, the out-of-control cult of celebrity and some Olympic hype seems to be, “I possess, therefore I am. I am famous, therefore I am. I win gold, therefore I am”, writes Good Samaritan Sister Patty Fawkner.

BY Patty Fawkner SGS

A defining image from Australia’s 2012 Olympic campaign will inevitably be that of the poolside interview with Emily Seebohm.

There she was vulnerable and distressed for all the world to see and, for the likes of me, to comment upon. Her disappointment at not getting a gold medal in her backstroke final was palpable.

Many of us were moved by her tearful interview because we have been there – not in the pool or on the podium – but we have all experienced the sense of falling short, of not fulfilling our dream, and believing that we have let ourselves and others down.

My heart went out to Emily and I wanted to reach out and hug her. I wanted to look her in the eye and say unequivocally, “Emily, you are precious and you are loved”. I wanted to borrow beautiful words from St Ambrose and say, “Emily, see how beautiful God’s grace has made you”. The Hebrew and Christian Scriptures tell us that we are made in the image and likeness of God, and that we are precious in God’s sight, indeed and pointedly, more precious than gold.

I am grateful to Emily. This fine athlete and her tears reminded me that my value and worth is in who I am, in my sheer existence, rather than in what I achieve, look like or possess. I am a human BEING and not a human DOING or a human HAVING.

Descartes famously (many would say ‘infamously’) said, “I think, therefore I am”. The slogan of the advertising world, the out-of-control cult of celebrity and some Olympic hype seems to be, “I possess, therefore I am. I am famous, therefore I am. I win gold, therefore I am”. To learn the lie of these claims is one of life’s painful lessons, sometimes only learnt on one’s deathbed.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved the Olympics. I loved the drama and the tension of the competition. I loved the focus, skill and dedication of the athletes, yes, and their toned bodies. But win or lose, the real truth is that, both at the Olympics and in life, I am not superior or inferior to any other person. I am lovable period. I am no less worthy a person than the many-time-gonged Michael Phelps or the saintly Mary MacKillop. It was, I think, Thérèse of Lisieux who rather whimsically said that God loves us best when we are asleep, that is when we’re not able to achieve, improve or impress.

Perhaps Emily Seebohm, James Magnussen and all the other athletes who had to “settle for silver” might receive a greater gift by not winning the ultimate golden prize. In “falling short” there is a larger meaning and purpose than that of gratifying one’s ego.

Success is seductive because a life dominated by doing and achieving hides our authentic self. When everything depends on performance and achievement rather than being, my self-worth is at the mercy of the accolades or criticisms, the brickbats or bouquets I receive from others.

Emily did not let her family or coach down. But even if they were disappointed in her, that would not alter her essential belovedness and incomparable value, one iota. Her worth is intrinsic and not bound up in the worth she has in the eyes of others.

The invitation from this Olympic setback might be to believe in and love herself irrespective of results. “The goal of life,” says the noted psychotherapist Fritz Perls, “is to move from environmental support to self-support.”

How does one move on from such huge disappointment? How does one regain perspective?

One way might be to move from a mentality of scarcity to abundance. If I only view my life in terms of lack – lack of recognition, success, fame or fortune – I will experience the scarcity of my life painfully. If I acknowledge the good that is already in my life, I will have a strong foundation for abundance.

Emily didn’t lose gold, she won a silver medal. Truly amazing.

The story is told of the great Indian philosopher and spiritual teacher, Jiddu Krishnamurti. I have seen him on YouTube exuding peace, grace and equanimity. At a lecture towards the end of his life, he gently teased his audience by asking them, “Do you want to know my secret?” Of course they did. They sat alert, ears tuned, pencils poised, waiting for words of deep insight.

“This is my secret,” he said. “I don’t mind what happens.” He didn’t elaborate.

I think Krishnamurti is saying, that whatever happens to us in life is of relative, not of absolute importance. I accept the givenness and reality of life. I honour and work with it but I don’t allow any life event – either success or failure – to define me. It – whatever the “it” may be – doesn’t matter. Thanks, Emily, for reminding me of that.

Patty Fawkner

Sister Patty Fawkner is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She is an adult educator, writer and facilitator with formal tertiary qualifications in arts, education, theology and spirituality. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality.

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