“Even now I want to keep my amateur spirit, to spend my time, to be in the sport with all my heart.” –Sergei Bubka, Olympic pole vaulter, former Soviet Union
“I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” –Psalm 139:14
My friend Jimmy raises tiny baby stingray sharks in thousand gallon saltwater tanks in his suburban basement. My colleague Barb spends her free time on the frigid slopes of a Vermont cross country skiing course, shushing away in a silent winter wonderland. My brother Ed straps on a backpack and hikes tens of miles up and down the hills and crags of the northern Appalachian trail. My fellow choir member Jackie practices her solo in the car, on the way to work, while other commuters look on with astonishment.
And me? I sit down in a chair, stare at a blank computer screen or an empty legal pad, and try to create from thoughts, ideas, ponderings, and words, a coherent and enlightening, piece of writing.
And we’re all just amateurs.
We are folks who embrace individual passions and pursuits, not for pay or prestige, not because we have to, but because we want to. We do it because we have found something that we absolutely love doing and so we do it with joy, with enthusiasm, and most importantly, with love. “For the love of it.” This is what amateur means—to undertake a sport, an art or a craft, to pursue a calling or an avocation, because when we do this ONE THING, it thrills our hearts.
This is why I spent the last two weeks of February watching the Winter Olympics, as 2,925 athletes from 92 countries competed against each other in the chilly mountains of South Korea. It was awe inspiring to see ski jumpers fling themselves through the air at sixty miles per hour and figure skaters jump with such grace, to witness the geeky precision of curling and the herculean stamina needed for cross country ski racing. But what I really enjoyed seeing was how much these athletes love to do what they do: how wide their smiles were; how sincere and authentic their efforts were; how committed and even brave they were, as they did their best, gave their all, and not because of a paycheck, not most of the time.
A myth of the modern Olympic movement is that these once “amateur athletes” are now paid for their “work.” The truth is that, save for a few high profile athletes who secure high-paid endorsements, the overwhelming number of Olympians receive minimal financial support for their efforts. Most make great life sacrifices to pursue their dreams of gold. And most went home this year without a medal, but with one truth to warm their hearts, to hold on to as a sparkling memory: they were doing what they love.
Most are still amateurs. They have discovered what makes their souls soar and their hearts sing, this gift that God gave them: to soar or slide or twirl or leap or glide, and push their bodies beyond the limits of most mere mortals like you or me.
Every human being needs to be an amateur, to discover and then embrace some “thing” that captures the heart and thrills the spirit. This pursuit connects us somehow to the deepest part of the soul. I think of folks who spend hours in the garden and find their place in the world among the flowers, the vegetables, and even the weeds. An amateur carpenter who takes a piece of wood and then lovingly shapes it into a family heirloom, a gift someone will cherish forever. The weekend artist who feels so free when she parks herself with an easel next to the waterfall and then just paints. A cyclist who loses himself in the thousands of circles that he turns on the pedals, with the pumping of his legs, as the world in beauty glides by.
It is the rare person whose full-time work is also their full-time bliss. No, most of us find our liberation, our happiness, in some “thing” else. Creating. Sporting. Playing. Competing. Performing. So here’s to the amateur in all of us.
As we move through this season of Lent, so often focused on the renunciation of activities or behaviors, perhaps we should instead embrace and practice the unique gifts God has given to each of us. This, too, can be a spiritual discipline. As Saint Ignatius of Loyola declared, “You have given it all to me. To you, Lord, I return it. Everything is yours’. Do with it what you will.”
What do you really love to do? Find that out, discover what God made you to do, to love. If you do that, you won’t even care about medals, gold or otherwise. The doing will be its own reward.