We live in a “gotcha” culture. Before we act, we second guess how our actions will be perceived. In a climate in which a misstep can end a career, or incite irreversible violence, we weigh our words, and self-edit our thoughts. We weigh the cost of failure and decide to act or to remain passive, often based on our chances of success or of approval. Approval by the dominant powers, it seems, is no longer the potential result, but a mandatory pre-condition, of our actions today.
In our trophy culture, fear of failure keeps us, all too often, from trying at all. We avoid confrontation and package our presentation. We photo-shop ourselves to perfection, and performance art replaces actual living. The result is a numbing paralysis. Approbation is the new definition of success.
But success or failure used to be determined in the arena.
In a speech given in Paris in 1910, now known as the “Man in the Arena” speech, former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt famously declared: “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.”
To be in the arena means to expose oneself to the spectators and the challenge. You stand or fall on your own merits. And falling is allowed. It often precedes one’s rising, redemption, and eventual victory. Success is a process, not a destination, and true success can only be wrestled from the real possibility of defeat.
In the Church and in the world today, we have a vociferous group of spectators. Those brave enough to enter the arena’s fray can expect to be castigated from any and every side, for winning, or losing, or trying, or even existing.
When President Trump recently visited the National Shrine of Pope St. John Paul II in Washington, D.C., witnessing to the right of citizens to freedom of worship, he was roundly condemned, even from the highest levels of the Catholic Church in America.
Amidst his public castigation, he received a letter written by a veteran of the arena, former Apostolic Nuncio to the United States Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, affirming, “It is important that the good – who are the majority – wake up from their sluggishness and do not accept being deceived by a minority of dishonest people with unavowable purposes. . . . It is a spiritual battle.” Credit to the man.
When Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI collaborated on a timely defense of priestly celibacy in his beautifully co-authored book, From the Depths of Our Hearts, he did not heed his critics, who cried foul: a pope emeritus is not supposed to make the game-changing goal by entering the match off the bench. Credit to the man.
When the dubia Cardinals submitted their questions to the Holy Father on the unchanging tenets of Catholic moral teaching, they fully understood the sophisticated game board upon which they placed their request. Not in the reception of a response, but in the asking of their questions, lay the checkmate. Credit to those men.
And credit belongs to the man willing to voice concern for the disintegration of our social fabric and to call the Church to greater witness. As Pastor Eugene Rivers declared in the recent Napa Institute Panel on Racism in America, “when the Church stopped being the Church the hoodlums came out. What is needed is Christians and Catholics coming together to pray in the streets. In the transformational time of Dr. King, the Church, young Catholics, Christian ministers, religious, were the salt and light.” Catholic social teaching, he noted, is the undiscovered and much-needed path to heal our deep societal wounds. Education is vital and urgent mission territory.
Great works arduously built are also easily torn down. But the destruction of a statue of George Washington, set aflame and pulled to the ground, does not redefine the man or the nation he helped found. The violence only perpetuates the very hatred the destroyers purport to condemn. Credit, rather, to the man who entered the arena, and who, defiant at the helm of an unsteady vessel, plunged through an ice-filled Delaware to forge a more perfect union founded upon an untried ideal. Only if he had failed to try would he have failed as a man. The ultimate success of our nation’s founders is entrusted to each new generation to safeguard and carry forward.
And as in the secular landscape, so in the eternal arena, success is not the final word. Christ Himself lost in the arena. He ended up on the Cross, his enemies gloating over his downfall and dividing up his garments. Apparent victory, the acceptance of the moment, is not what ultimately matters. The battle is not of this world, and the present arena is but the threshold to eternal reward.
Do not cower before the naysayers. Theirs is a limited influence. Do not let your life be defined by anything but your witness, the content of your character, and your reliance upon Almighty God. Your face may be bloodied, your life’s work in pieces, you may end up seemingly defeated, but yours may be the effort Our Lord needs most.
The call to fidelity means standing firm in the arena of Christian witness and to offer the more perfect love which casts out fear: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).
Be the man or woman who steps forward in faith. The ultimate victory, which He awards to those who spend themselves on the field of valor, is assured.
*Image: The official White House portrait of Theodore Roosevelt by John Singer Sargent, 1903 [The White House, Washington D.C.]