At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Sunday, March 24, 2013

A Lesson From the Palestra: Work, Life and Love

In 1980, one Sunday in March after a post-church dinner, our family turned on the television to NBC and my nine-year old self was soon caught up in the Iowa-Georgetown basketball game. A trip to college basketball's Final Four on the line. The game, an 81-80 Iowa win, was exciting enough, but the game's location turned out to be the memorable item. Both teams clashed at the Palestra in Philadelphia. Now, in this age of luxury boxes and multimillion dollar arenas, the Palestra is a throwback, and I'm a sucker for old-school gymnasiums. For one thing, the Palestra is now over 85 years old, having opened in January 1927. When it was built, it was one of the first arenas constructed without any interior pillars blocking spectators' sightlines, so that was modern for that time. But its capacity of 8,722 makes it on the smallish side now, which explains that you see few televised games from there. Yet I have never forgotten seeing that game on TV and taking in the interior steel arches, the stained glass windows, and the bleachers that came right down to the floor on top of the action.

Still, the most memorable item about the Palestra sits in the lobby of the old barn. It is a simple plaque bearing a Greek proverb.

To play the game is great. To win the game is greater. But to love the game is the greatest of all.

Simple, profound, and right to the heart of things. Because those truths are not merely applicable to athletics, which is a small part of existence. They cover all of life.

You could transpose those words just as well: To have a job is great. To succeed in your career is greater. But to love your calling is the greatest of all.

That works for me as a writer. To tell a story is great. To be published (very soon) is greater. But to love writing is the greatest of all.

But back to work. It is true that in this economy, it's a good idea to have a job and to be thankful for a regular paycheck. Believe me, I've faced the axe before and it's no fun feeling unproductive and hoping you land something else before the severance package runs out. So yes, to have a job is great.

Of course, diligence and honor calls us well beyond this. I don't just want to draw a paycheck; I also want to succeed in what I do. I'm not content to be a Homer Simpson-like chair-moistener and watch the clock go by each day. I teach (which is what I do to put food on our table) because there is also a drive within me to do it extremely well, as creatively as possible, and to positively influence the students I can in the quality relationships I enjoy with them. So yes, to succeed in your career is greater.

But there is a higher reality still, and this can sustain you even during the greatest obstacles, uncertainty, and tribulation. To have a job is not enough, and success can be tracked by different measures. But what really counts?

Dr. Lou Voskuil, my history professor at Covenant College and one of the dearest, wisest people I have had the privilege of knowing, once summed it up well during a talk he gave in 1990. In short, he said, "If you have a job and go out there and make a lot of money, that's fine. But you don't have to. If you move on to graduate school and garner many accolades, that's fine. But you don't have to. If your labors are such that your success is lauded publicly, that's fine. But it doesn't have to. The only thing God requires of you is to be faithful, and He will take care of the rest."

And that's where love for what we do comes in. If you are determined to be faithful in your work--be it wherever you are called--I do believe that somehow God will instill an increasing love for your vocation. That's right. Not "job", not "career", but "vocation", a calling. To know you are doing something that God has crafted you for and it for you is truly thrilling. Who couldn't help but love that?

So with full inspiratory credit to the Palestra, "To have a job is great. To succeed in your career is greater. But to love your calling is the greatest of all."

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