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 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 and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for 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 he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.
And that led me to one of my favorite poems by Marge Piercy...
To Be of Use
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
We live in a world of sound bites, instant gratification and momentary celebrity. But if we look around us, we see people who, every day, put their shoulder to the grindstone and move their world inches closer to wholeness and healing. As Roosevelt said, that work is as full of defeat as it is victory. But they keep on pushing. And as Piercy said, the work that is real is often as common as mud.
Certainly we need an uncommon vision and high ideals to strive for. But as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice." Its that relentless slow bending that requires work in the mud - sometimes defeating us and occasionally leading to victory.
I am reminded of a lesson some of my co-workers learned a few years ago when we started a program to work long-term with the families of young children who had demonstrated that they were on the path to delinquency before the age of 10. These children were growing up in poverty with family histories of criminality, abuse, drug addiction, and mental illness. The work was relentlessly discouraging and they needed to find the endurance to stick with it. What they discovered is that its important to celebrate the small victories - all while clinging to their high hopes for these children. As Brazilian theologian Rubem Alves says:
What is hope? It is the presentiment that imagination is more real and reality less real than it looks. It is the suspicion that the overwhelming brutality of fact that oppresses us and represses us is not the last word. It is the hunch that reality is more complex than the realists want us to believe, that the frontiers of the possible are not determined by the limits of the actual, and that, in a miraculous and unexpected way, life is preparing the creative events which will open the way to freedom and to resurrection.
But, hope must live with suffering. Suffering, without hope, produces resentment and despair. And hope, without suffering, creates illusions, naiveté, and drunkenness. So, let us plant dates, even though we who plant them will never eat them. We must live by the love of what we will never see.
Martin Luther King, Jr. never got to the mountain top and Elizabeth Cady Stanton didn't live to see women's suffrage. But they continued to pursue their hopes - amidst both the victories and defeats.
The great Maya Angelou shares her story as a way of letting us know that the defeats can be as important as the victories.
And sometimes its the small victories that are the real success.
To laugh often and much;
to win the respect of intelligent people
and the affection of children;
to earn the appreciation of honest critics
and endure the betrayal of false friends;
to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others;
to leave the world a bit better,
whether by a healthy child,
a garden patch
or a redeemed social condition;
to know even one life has breathed easier
because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.