The Man in the Arena

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.

—Theodore Roosevelt, “The Man in the Arena,” from a speech entitled “Citizenship in a Republic” delivered at the Sorbonne, 23 April 1910.

Fighting words there, Teddy. There’s an obvious tension between these lines and the tone of many posts on this blog. I am often a critic, and rarely go overboard for particular causes. It sounds inspiring, of course, but when you think about it, the chivalrous attitude one sees in TR and his European contemporaries rubs thin. After all, it’s exactly what kicked off the First World War just a few years later. It drips of hubris. It carried with it the seeds of its own destruction, breeding resentment and fueling the collapse of the old world order. And while I think there are obvious things to admire in Teddy’s politics, whether he knew it or not, his machismo and controlling demeanor contributed quite a bit to America’s imperial ambitions and gradual centralization. It’s the blustering bravado of a man who can’t accept the fact that there’s a dark side to everything, even in the seemingly most enlightened projects. It turns life into a roller coaster of victories and defeats, a bipolarity ill-befitting of anyone just trying to get by.

And yet, despite that withering dismissal, I’m still on board with TR. My favorite people are those who are in the arena: the star athlete, the charismatic leader, the far-reaching visionary. It’s not that I can’t enjoy the company of other critics, but after a while that life wears thin, and it’s not uncommon to find people using cynical detachment as a cheap excuse for not doing anything. Just as wholesale commitment to life in the arena fails to provide any perspective, so too does a life that never enters it come up short. Call it ambition, eros, transcendence, whatever you like: cynical detachment alone denies an unavoidable part of human nature that we cannot suppress or wish away.

All this talk of arenas reminded me of a David Brooks column that is now several years old, but has stuck with me ever since I first read it. Here it is—and to my pleasant surprise, upon rereading it, I found it was based around All Things Shining, a book that I read last spring, and blogged about here and here. Anyway, Brooks’ point is that, in the modern world—and especially for those of us who struggle with religious truth—it can be hard to find transcendent, unified meaning in the universe. Instead, we have to look for it in the fleeting moments of daily life, and in communion with other people in those institutions that bind us together. That is, in arenas.

This is pretty much how I’ve lived for the past few years. I’ve outsourced much of my emotion to, in Brooks’ words, “activities often dismissed as mere diversions [that] are actually central.” I am, obviously, a big sports fan, and use that as a main channel. I also get the “wooshing” sensation in plenty of other places—in nature, in the company of family and good friends, and so on. Most of my pleasures and ambitions are not all that grandiose, and I intend to keep it that way.

Politics, however, occupies a somewhat more complicated place. Most of those other things I get swept up in have no vast consequences, but as Brooks writes, the excitement of politics offers no “satisfying basis upon which to distinguish the whooshing some people felt at civil rights rallies from the whooshing others felt at Nazi rallies.” Lives and livelihoods are at stake here, and anyone who thinks deeply about these things probably fears becoming too partisan, since they know that virtually all political platforms oversimplify. From there, it’s not too big of a leap to head into political ambivalence. It’s all too complicated, too distant; why bother?

Since the moment some three and a half years ago when I realized my happiness is not tied to politics, I’ve reveled in the resultant freedom. Yet somehow, I can’t tear my eyes away. I play the detached observer, parsing the rhetoric and shaking my head at all these yelling and screaming politicians, sometimes letting an emotional outburst or two slip through. I couldn’t retreat, even though part of me wanted to do so completely. I’ve re-focused my energy on the areas I can have an influence, and I’m still motivated by a sense of duty; perhaps the word “stewardship” would be an apt one for the compulsion I feel toward political action. I plan to have kids some day, after all, and I want them to inherit a world—or, at least, one corner of it—that is worth inhabiting. So long as I’m a part of this world, I can’t get rid of that pull, no matter how much I claim disinterest.

I say all of this because I am re-entering the arena right now, after a fashion: an old college friend has asked me to reprise my role as his PR man, this time on a campaign he’s managing for a school board candidate in Phoenix. It’s hardly a daring leap into the gladiatorial ring, and my decision was driven more by loyalty than by an ideological commitment to a cause; I haven’t met the candidate yet, and will be doing my work from 1800 miles away. I’m intrigued by the situation in Phoenix, but I’m at some remove from it all, too.

Clearly, this isn’t a rush into the center of the arena. I could probably get there if I put everything I had into it, but instead, I’ve slowly come to accept that I am better suited for being the guy behind the scenes. I may point out where the strong man stumbles, but I don’t do it out of spite; I do it because I don’t want to see him make that same mistake again. I want to make sure he doesn’t become blinded by all the dust and blood and forget what it is he’s fighting for, or how to conduct himself while doing so. And if he needs to lose a battle to win a war, I want to be there to talk him through it. Why would anyone enter the arena if he doesn’t have someone behind him?

There needs to be a bridge between the arena and the world beyond it. What I aim for is balance, or a smooth cycle between two poles, both essential, but incomplete on their own. When one finds that perspective, it’s not too hard to see that all things really are shining.


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