Several years ago, when our family lived near Portland, Oregon, we decided to take a road trip vacation down the Pacific coast, through the redwood forests all the way to Bay Area of California. The trip was memorable in most every way: the beauty of the coastline, the enormous trees (yes, we drove through the famous giant redwood), the isolation of some of the off-the-beaten-path mountainous towns, the Peanuts museum in Santa Rosa, the hippy-weird fun of San Francisco, and even a tour of ATT Park.
We saw lots of sites along the way, but the most talked about, laugh-inducing and overall unforgettable encounter of the entire vacation came less than a day into our road trip. Somewhere in southern Oregon, near the place where Interstate 5 flirts with the Rogue River (what a great name for a river!), we ended our first day of driving a bit early and enjoyed stretching our legs at a local park. As we strolled along the river trail we happened upon a wedding reception with a mariachi band, noticed some teens smoking pot, bypassed some very hungry and overly aggressive ducks, and then made the acquaintance of a championship boomerang thrower.
Our three kids, who were between 8 and 12 years old at the time, wanted to test out a new Frisbee, but there were a bit scared and intrigued by the other occupant of the park's wide-open field. It’s not every day you see a balding fifty-something guy in a bright tank top shirt throwing sticks in a local park. When one of his throws didn’t complete its loop with perfect precision, and instead nearly decapitated our youngest, we picked up the boomerang and happily returned it to him. Little did we know we were about to talk to one of the greatest boomerang throwers in all of southern Oregon.
Mr. Boomerang (as we have since referred to him) was quite excited when we asked about his hobby. Not only was he a champion thrower, but he also proved to be an eager ambassador for the sport. Yes, it’s a sport; that’s the first thing we learned.
We also learned that it’s a competitive sport, with associations and tournaments held throughout the world (not just in Australia as Mr. Boomerang made very clear). While not yet recognized as an Olympic sport, he assured us that the Euro-centric dominance of the games would surely give way to other cultures and open the committee’s collectively closed mind to sports like boomerang throwing. He was pretty sure the sport would at least be a demonstration sport by the 2016 games and a medaling sport by 2024 (mind you, we were talking to him in 2012). I think his exuberance for the sport might have thrown off his accuracy with that prediction just a bit.
The standout lesson from Mr. Boomerang came when he asked our kids about their preferred sports and heard them share about their love for baseball, swimming and basketball. He observed our average-looking kids and said with all sincerity, “Becoming a championship swimmer or baseball or basketball player ain’t gonna’ happen for most people – pretty much nobody because it’s just not in your genes and the odds of making it pro are just astronomical. That's what's so great about boomerang throwing: just about anybody who works at it has the potential of becoming a world-class, even championship boomerang thrower. Any one of you, if you started now, could become a professional boomerang thrower.”
While we appreciated his sincerity, we also kind of laughed. After all, baseball and swimming and basketball are competitive because lots of people like those sports, but who would want to become a championship boomerang thrower? Talk about a big fish in a small pond, right?
Over time, our initial amused dismissiveness toward Mr. Boomerang has evolved into a quiet appreciation for his perspective (if not for his sport). To switch metaphors a bit, he knew that few people get to the top of the highest mountain, but that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t climb the mountain you’re on. It’s the act of participating, competing and earning whatever victories you can achieve that bring a great deal joy to life.
Mr. Boomerang’s wisdom reminds me of another piece of wisdom. On the eve of a wedding in the middle of last century, the Jesuit priest and all-around Renaissance Man Pierre Tielhard de Chardin penned a classic statement on happiness in which he used climbing a mountain as a metaphor for engaging life with passion and with a heart for accomplishing something meaningful, or not. Tielhard described three types of people in terms of how they approach life:
· The Pessimist says the effort and risk one needs to put forth is out of proportion to any good that can come from climbing the mountain, so it is best just to stay at the base, cozied up in the cabin, while others waste their time climbing. From the comfort of the lodge, the Pessimists can mock or mourn those who foolishly expend the energy to climb and who risk the journey to the top. These are the kinds of people who take a pessimistic and perhaps cynical approach to life; they don’t try, they don’t accomplish.
· The Hedonist says the joy in being on the mountain is just as rewarding as reaching some mythical summit, so it’s best to hike while the hiking is easy and to then enjoy the view from wherever you are mountain, but certainly don’t risk or stretch or exert yourself. In other words, engage that which brings pleasure, but don’t go through the trouble or the risk to attempt something grand. The Hedonist says achievement isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, so pursue pleasure instead of purpose.
· The Enthusiast says the highest joy comes in climbing and achieving, so go for it. These are the people “for whom living is an ascent and a discovery.” This is the attitude of growth and courage and determination. For the Enthusiast, “not only is it better to be than not to be, but they are convinced that is always possible to attain a fuller measure of being.” These are the conquerors, the adventurers, the champions. These are the people who dare greatly and sincerely believe they can change the world (or at least a small part of it).
Mr. Boomerang was an Enthusiast. He was having a blast in the park that day, perfecting his technique and spreading the gospel of boomerang throwing. And while no one who met him would debate the fact that he was a bit eccentric, maybe you need a bit of eccentricity if you’re going to strive toward the top of whatever mountain you’ve chosen to climb.
Pessimists don't play the game. Hedonists only play the game while it's fun and easy. Enthusiasts play the game with passion and commitment that carries them through the not-so-pleasurable times.
In the game of life, which are you? Are you an Enthusiast?