My friend Jason and I are standing on deck in Pleasant Hill, California, working the Summer’s End meet. Both of our sons are a thousand miles away, in Federal Way Washington, swimming in another meet. Jason looks up from his smartphone, just as I do mine. Now we both know. “Swimming is a mean sport,” is all he says. Then silence…
I know exactly what he means. These kids, our kids, work so hard for so little. A saving of a few ticks of the clock here and there and hardly anything else. There is no money in it. Their classmates certainly don’t understand it. Worse, the kids only get a few chances each year to perform at their very best. Hundreds of training hours distilled into races that last maybe minutes.
Meet Mobile has just reported the time of the last 400 free that Jason’s son, Jake, will swim this summer. The news is bittersweet. It’s close to the best time he swam a week earlier, and he placed well, but it’s still just short of a Junior National cut. I received the same news about my son, Zach, in the 200 back about 20 minutes earlier.
For Zach, the splits indicate a courageous effort. Holding pace through 150 meters, and then a painful die-off. It’s a near best time, a bonus time, but it’s not a Junior National cut time. And now, both Jake and Zach are out of chances. Having lived though nearly the same scenario at their targeted taper meet in Clovis just a week earlier, I already know how deep the emotions run. Only this time there isn’t another meet “next week” to forestall some of the disappointment. This time there’s a break for a few weeks and then the Fall short course season, climbing the mountain again, getting back into shape…And while life shouldn’t be this way, it will be hard for Jake and Zach to watch some of their teammates, the guys they train next to and push every day, preparing to leave for Juniors when they won’t be getting on that airplane…
Just to clear up any possible misconception, I’m proud of Zach. I’m proud of how hard he works, the effort and caring he puts into his swimming. And, I’m pleased with his improvement. I think he’s had a great season. I also know Jason feels the same way about Jake. But still, I’m sad…but not about Zach’s swimming. I’m sad simply because I’m a dad who knows his boy is sad, and there’s not a lot I can say or do. And worse, he’s far away, and I can’t even give him a hug…
I look up just as a high school age swimmer passes by. His shirt reads “Attitude, Action, Achievement.” I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something about this shirt that ties into this precise moment. I just don’t know what it is, and it nags at me for the rest of the afternoon…
A couple months ago in Swim Swam, I described a game I invented while spending time at swim meets. I call it the T-Shirt game. It’s a game that combines both my love of swimming and my love of philosophy, and which forces me to slow down and reflect. The aim is simple: it’s to pick out a T-Shirt that someone in the mass of humanity is wearing, read it, and contemplate its deeper meaning. My current working theory is that taking a little time out of our busy and hectic lives to ponder the nature of wisdom nudges us toward the thing itself. (READ THIS PIECE HERE).
I could use a little wisdom right now.
When I get home, I’m still wondering about the connection between missed Jr. cuts and the T-Shirt: “Attitude, Action, Achievement.” I remember reading about this saying in the Michael Phelps book: No Limits. It was a favorite slogan of Michael’s coach, Bob Bowman. I decided to look up the passage again. Michael writes:
“’Attitude, Action, Achievement.’ That was the order in which you could expect things to happen. You could see every day’s practice as an ordeal. Or you could see it as an adventure.
To that end, Bob would always tell me when I was younger: We become what we think about the most.
Bob also used to give a talk that went something like this: Are you going to wait until after you win your gold medal to have a good attitude? No. You’re going to do it beforehand. You have to have the right attitude, and go from there. You’re going to be an Olympic champion in attitude long before there’s a gold medal around your neck.”
Swimming achievement, Bob Bowman tells his swimmers, begins with attitude. Sportsmanship, accountability, responsibility are all important, but the prime mover in all of it is attitude. Attitude is where the process toward excellence begins. Attitude is the energy that allows a swimmer to meet the challenge of the daily grind of thousands of yards staring at a black line, by taking pride in perfecting ones stroke, hitting split times, pushing one more repeat, and seeing ultimately how all these little daily actions add up to ultimate achievement…
Bowman, of course, is probably right. But what happens when someone does have a good attitude which feeds into right action, and still the desired achievement falls short? What then? Does not realizing ones goals circle back and erode ones attitude?
And then I remember. There’s a story all about attitude that I want to tell my son. It’s an essay by the French philosopher Albert Camus called the Myth of Sisyphus.
Sisyphus, as many of us probably recall, is the man condemned to roll a boulder up a mountain in hell for all eternity. His is the most ridiculous of fates. But Camus sees Sisyphus as one of the first rebels, what he called ‘the absurd hero,’ a man who learned to overcome his fate. Camus writes that Sisyphus was paying the price for a life of passion, and he had learned to accept his ordeal, he had learned to love the struggle.
The great myths are a metaphor for the dramas of our inward life, and the story of Sisyphus is a metaphor for struggle itself. On the outside, it’s a tale of betrayal and retribution, but on the inside, it tells us something about our attitude toward struggle that we can’t seem to learn any other way.
In briefest summary, Sisyphus was the ruler of Corinth and he needed a source of fresh water for his city. One afternoon, he chanced upon Zeus en flagrante delicto with the lovely maiden Aegina, the daughter of the river God Asopus. Later Asopus, inconsolable over the disappearance of his daughter, approached Sisyphus for help. Sisyphus was torn between his loyalty to the Gods and the truth he witnessed, but the cisterns of Corinth were dry. So Sisyphus risked everything by trading his divine secret for a perennial spring, chancing retribution for an act of compassion for his own citizens.
Naturally Asopus is enraged. Zeus’s wife Hera finds out and is on the warpath. And Zeus is furious with Sisyphus for betraying his pawky little secret, so he sent his brother Hades to personally escort Sisyphus to the underworld and administer punishment.
A lot more happens. Sisyphus outsmarts the Gods many times (in Greek Sisyphus translates as “the crafty one”), he even escapes from Hell, and the embarrassment for Zeus escalates. It’s all very exciting and scandalous, but in the end Sisyphus is condemned to suffer the seemingly most futile and hopeless of labors. In a shadow world of skyless space and depthless time, in a place echoing with the cries of the damned, the greasy smell of brimstone wafting through the air, Sisyphus was given the sentence of shouldering a stone for all eternity, up a forlorn mountain slope in Tartarus.
In the Odyssey, the blind poet Homer describes the scene:
“With both arms embracing the monstrous stone, struggling with hands and feet alike, he would try to push the stone upward to the crest of the hill, but when it was on the point of going over the top, the force of gravity turned it backward, and the pitiless stone rolled back down to the level. He then tried once more to push it up, straining hard, and sweat ran all down his body, and over his head a cloud of dust rose.”
Imagine, condemned for all of eternity to shoulder the boulder up the mountain of hell, and all the while Hades would be watching for the look of despair that would mark the defeat of another mere mortal. But Sisyphus resolved never to allow the gods to see him defeated by despair. He silently vowed that because his fate was in his hands he could be superior to it.
On the surface, the tale of Sisyphus is the usual dish of deceit and retribution, but I’m convinced that it is far more, a fable about the acceptance of one’s burden, as fresh today as it was three hundred centuries ago. Camus writes about the moment that Sisyphus watches the boulder roll to the bottom of the hill and turns to slowly walk back down:
“That hour is like a breathing space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of these moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.”
Camus then observes that “the price exacted from him for the betrayal of the gods was fair.” Which, if Zach is anything like me, he will find hard to accept. But, if indeed Zach is like me, he might also be able to accept what Camus is implying –That there is always a price to pay for our passionate convictions, whether we are pursuing love, art, political change, or athletic excellence. In the end, what matters is our attitude toward our burden.
Camus concludes his essay with the famous and astonishing conclusion: “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
In the immediate throes of his current personal disappointment, I imagine Zach’s protests now. “Happy,” he’ll say. “Ha! How in the world could Sisyphus possibly be happy? He can’t even look to death for relief.” And then at this point, I further imagine that skeptical look Zach shoots at me sometimes. Then he’d probably add something like “Dad, swimming is really hard, it hurts and it’s a lot of work. If you can’t reach your goals, what’s the point of all the effort and pain? Why shouldn’t I just go spend more time with my other friends instead? Doesn’t the story of Sisyphus just ennobling suffering?”
“The story of Sisyphus,” I’ll tell him, “doesn’t ennoble suffering. It ennobles struggle. There’s a crucial difference. Sisyphus got into this predicament because he was willing to risk everything for his people so they could have fresh water. The same is true for a swimmer who dives in even when he doesn’t feel like it. A swimmer does this because he wants to live a life of passion, of commitment, of excellence, and of meaning. Struggle is inevitable in life, and those who learn to perceive it as an obstacle rather than a burden make life a lot easier for themselves. The secret of a life of creativity, passion, and excellence consists in taking the next step, doing the next thing you have to do, but doing it with all your heart and soul and finding some joy in doing it…”
The great stories work on multiple levels, and we see new things in them every time we revisit them at different stages of our lives. Reading Sisyphus again for the first time as a parent, I can see the story is a great antidote to the reigning myth in our culture that there is only one ascent up the mountain – to marriage, money, or success. That’s the kind of fairy-tale thinking that makes it difficult to accept the inevitable descents back down the mountain. Isn’t learning to overcome setbacks one of the life lessons of sport I hoped Zach would learn when we first signed him up for swimming? Don’t we all want to raise kids with the grit, and the determination, and the character to pick themselves up and start the climb again? And truth be told, I’ve already seen mine do this many times. Once he gets past the initial disappointment, he’s going to be okay.
During the offseason, instead of having him read Camus, I think I’ll encourage Zach to write down all the reasons he can think of as to why he loves his sport. Then he can refer to it in the middle of next season when he’s got a morning practice he’d rather skip. Maybe it will help him to embrace that boulder a little more fondly…Attitude, Action, Achievement.