The Arena

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Teddy Roosevelt’s famous quote about “the man in the arena,” which has been repopularized over the past decade by Brene Brown’s use of it in Daring Greatly. It goes:

“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.”

It’s a good quote. There’s a reason it’s stuck around for 110 years. But it’s been on my mind lately because I think it says a lot about our present moment.

I don’t mean that we all should be taking advantage of this time to “dare greatly” and strive for “great enthusiasms” or “great devotions.” Far from it. It’s a time when we need to be taking care of our basic needs — food, shelter, health and safety — not our self-actualization or lofty goals.

Rather, what I mean is that, like or not, we are all in the arena right now. No one gets to opt out of this. There are no sidelines from which to heckle or seats from which to enjoy the view. We’re all in it, alone together.

I know I’m repeating myself, but it’s important. Over the past two months, we have all been asked to upend how we do life. We have ongoing, legitimate concerns about the security of our food supplies and stability of our economy. And, we live in the constant shadow of potential illness. We are restless, we are uncertain, we are confused, and we are concerned. We are all fighting the battle; we are all in the arena.

At the same time, as the saying goes, “We aren’t all in the same boat, but we’re in the same storm.” We are all in the arena, but we aren’t fighting the same fight. As much as we’re all in this, we each have our own individual battles. And this is where I need to unsay my rather flippant remark from last Sunday when I joked, “It’s a great testament to human narcissism how a global pandemic can feel so darned personal at times!” Because, while, yes, it’s always a good thing to see the bigger picture of things. And, yes, in that bigger picture, the daily struggles of my life or your life are barely a drop in the bucket in the face of a threat that is, as I type this, responsible for 3.52 million illnesses and close to 250,000 deaths around the world (and counting). But — and this is an important but — our daily struggles are the arenas where we have to fight. They are the place where we need to stand up and wrestle with whatever it is we’re facing. And that means that it isn’t narcissistic to acknowledge the hard things in our particular situations.

‘All of this’ hits us each individually in different ways, big and small (and small that feel big). I have friends who are suffering severe social isolation right now; I have other friends who have to hide in the bathroom to get two minutes to themselves. I have friends who are bored and without work; I have other friends who have too much work. I have friends who long to leave their homes; I have other friends who work in essential services who would give anything to stay at home. And no matter what our particular psychological wounds may be, this experience triggers all them. Old struggles with substance abuse, eating and body image disorders, deep wounds about loneliness and isolation, and on and on it goes, are all resurfacing for people. The constellation of particular elements will be different for each of us, but we are all fighting on a lot of fronts right now.

The point of all this is simply this: We’re all in the arena. We’re all fighting battles. So, it’s okay to feel tired. It’s okay to feel bruised and battered. And at the same time, we need to support one another, even though (especially because) none of us are at our best. And it’s so easy to look with envy at a friend’s battles that seem ‘easy’ compared to our own. We need to silence those voices of comparison more than ever and keep our eyes on our own plate. We need to forgive and ask for forgiveness more than ever. We need to be kind to one another.

We’re all fighting battles. We are all in the arena. We are all in this, alone together.

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