Passion, Voice, Parkland and the Olympics

by Lane Wallace on February 27, 2018

I‘m still on official book leave, working on my book about the power of authentic voice (hence the long spaces between posts on this site), but I’m expecting to have my manuscript done in the next 4-5 weeks, so posts should start coming more often soon!

But two things converged last week that seemed worth mentioning; two events that, even as they shared some characteristics, were also vastly different in tone and impact. And that’s what makes them interesting.

On one side of the world, the Winter Olympics were in full swing. Lindsey Vonn was fighting for last Olympic glory, the men’s curling team was hurtling toward unfathomable gold from hometowns in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and Jessie Diggins was defying a human’s need for oxygen on her gold-medal cross-country ski race. Not to mention the US Women’s hockey team, toughing it out through a sudden-death shoot-out round with Canada to eke out the team’s first first-place finish in 20 years.

There’s something remarkable about Olympic athletes, whom we all but forget about for the 3 years and 49 weeks in between Olympic competitions. Day after day, they get up, train, sacrifice, ache, hurt, and doggedly keep pushing themselves for a few seconds or minutes of glory, where they put it all on the line for the prize, with very little in between heady victory and crushing defeat.

In many ways, the Olympic athletes seem to personify the idea of passion; unimaginable sacrifice in pursuit of a dream from the heart that nothing can quench or stop. Their sport is their art; a real-world expression of an authentic passion, dream, and voice that demands to be heard in the world. Their determination and passion comes right through the television screen; breathtaking in its intensity, and almost envy-producing in its clarity. Who of us would be willing to make those sacrifices and bet so much on 90 seconds in a half-pipe or downhill racecourse? And yet, the end product is awe-inspiring not only in its audacity, but also in its beauty. This is passion draped in all the sparkle of sunlit snow, dazzling run times, and incredible aerobatics on thin blades of steel. No wonder we all dream of finding a passion that consuming!

Half a world away, there was also passion on display. But it wore a very different and grimmer face. One hundred high school students–survivors from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead–were boarding buses and traveling 450 miles to the state capital in Tallahassee, to demand that legislators pass stricter gun control laws. While the legislators seemed less than receptive to the students’ demands, the protest sparked other demonstrations and dominated the news cycles in a way other reactions to shootings had not. Part of the reason for that may have been timing: the many shooting deaths that had gone before, changing public opinion, and better-organized infrastructure to help spread the students’ impact beyond the borders of Florida. But part of it, unquestionably, was the raw, undeniable, and breathtaking passion that emanated from the students’ faces, actions, and words. This was not an act. This was authentic; passion from the heart.

How can passion wear two such different faces? Because the fire of passion is sparked whenever we have a vision of something other than what is, but which we feel is important, and we believe could be, if we work hard enough to make it real. For Olympic athletes, that vision is the vision of perfection; of being the best, and having that shining medal looped around their necks. Of being, in the words of the old Army commercial, all that they can be.

The Parkland students were also inspired by a vision of something other than what was, but which they fervently hoped and believed could be: a world where there was a different outcome to that nightmare day; where somehow that kid wouldn’t have had access to that weapon, and couldn’t have caused all that grief, pain and damage. The pain and suffering of the Olympic athletes takes place mostly before their public moment; the students at Parkland have most of their pain and suffering still to come. And yet, in that moment of action captured by the television cameras, we see their paths intersect: both groups passionate, authentic, dedicated, and inspiring.

There is, however, another distinct difference in the two types of passion. However hard Lindsey Vonn or her fellow athletes may have worked, sacrificed, and endured pain and hardship in pursuit of those Olympic medals, their vision and passion was focused primarily on their own dreams and achievement. Not that that’s a bad thing–I’m a big supporter of people pursuing their dreams. Dreams come true make us able to believe, even if only for a moment, that life can be about possibility, not limitations. And that gives us the hope we need to reach for the stars.

But the vision fueling the Parkland students’ passion is about something far bigger than themselves. There will be no shiny medals, no national anthem ceremonies, and no endorsement contracts, even if their fiercest dreams and wishes someday come true. There will only be the quiet exhaustion, but deep satisfaction, that comes with knowing that something they sacrificed for, and worked and struggled and shed tears and blood and sweat for … actually made a difference, and changed the world for the better. But that, too, can give us hope that life can be about possibility, not limitations. That change is possible. And so that, too, helps give us the hope we need to reach for the stars.

In the end, we don’t bring our passions, dreams, or authentic voices into the world as unconnected entities, or in a vacuum. We bring them into the world for a reason, and with a message, and for a purpose we care deeply about. After all, a voice can’t be heard unless it has something specific to say.

A purpose that’s about excellence and achievement is perfectly fine. And in many ways, it’s far easier, and definitely far more fun, to watch the superlative movements of trained athletes, in their finest, shiniest hours, than to keep our eyes focused on the grief, anger, pain and loss of the Parkland students. But two things struck me, in watching the two events, side by side. The first was, I didn’t feel compelled to send Lindsey Vonn or any other Olympic athlete money to aid them in their quest. But I was itching for my checkbook, watching those 17-year-olds speak their truth, bare their souls, and willingly expose themselves to pushback, ridicule and spurious accusations of ignoble intent, all because what they were fighting for was so much more important than all of that.

We all need a sense of purpose to fire our passion and determination. But there is an extra intensity to fires fueled by aims that reach beyond ourselves, to the communities we’re a part of, and to people who need our leadership. It is, in fact, one of the factors that helps us find long-term happiness in life. Meaning and fulfillment, as the philosopher Charles Taylor wrote, 25 years ago, come from committing ourselves to something we care about “beyond ourselves.”

In my fantasy dreams, I might imagine myself on that podium, getting a shiny gold medal draped around my neck. It would be an amazing moment. But I also read an essay a few days ago by figure skater and Olympic silver medalist Sasha Cohen, cautioning about how fleeting the satisfaction of an Olympic medal can be, once the race is over and there isn’t a medal to pursue. More than one Olympic athlete has struggled with depression and other emotional issues when the lights go out, and the training no longer has Olympic purpose to drive it. Survival, she concluded, depended on finding purpose and meaning in activities beyond the Olympics, without the spotlight and medals. Or, as psychologists might put it, in “intrinsically motivated” activities, where the reward comes from within us; from a sense of satisfaction that what we’re working on matters–either to us, or, even more powerfully, to people or a cause beyond ourselves.

And yes, I’m thinking of the Parkland students, when I say that.

No sane person would wish the pain and grief of the Parkland students on anyone. But the kind of passion that is fueling their efforts, while less shiny and fun than the kind that leads to gold medal ceremonies, is particularly powerful, and almost always more lasting. There is a particular kind of empowerment from being inspired to change the world, and then realizing that an authentic voice, raised in grief, indignation, or passionate, powerful belief, can actually make a difference.

We love the passion of the Olympic athletes. But there is also a kind of breathtaking, transformational beauty in the passion of the Parkland students; in young people refusing to be silent, and demanding to be heard–and somewhere in that process, reminding us of all we can be, if we but find the courage to speak our truth and heart to the world.

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