“John, you’ve prepared for this your whole life”

My brothers, dad and I got together to watch the BYU-Utah game yesterday. With only three seconds left, down by four and needing a touchdown, BYU called a timeout to plan their final play. Not since 2003 had a college football team won on the last play of regulation. Everyone at our party was too excited and anxious to sit down, and we publicly wondered at the intensity the players must be feeling. After the game, BYU quarterback John Beck was asked what he was thinking as he walked on the field after the timeout. “I took a deep breath and said, John, you’ve prepared for this your whole life.”

As I read Beck’s answer this morning, and felt the confidence recalling his preparation must give him, I wondered what it is that I’ve been preparing for my whole life. Nothing came to mind. Raising a good family? Of course, but that’s not really what I was looking for. Part of me wanted to dismiss the question altogether, and dismiss sports for creating artificial goals, or discount the value of Beck’s preparation since it was only a game, but though I’m conflicted about sports, I don’t resent an athlete’s attempt to perform with excellence. What I liked about Beck’s quote is its drama. Something mattered, Beck would either succeed or fail, and he had imagined last-second plays his whole life. He had dreamt of last-second plays his whole life.

As for me, I seldom know if I’ve succeeded or failed, and I’ve certainly never been able to find out within a few seconds. Some of my goals are to raise good kids, and to be a better person, but my success or failure won’t be known for years. And while my goals may be more consequential than winning a football game on rivalry weekend, my goals are harder to measure, and lack bursts of drama. Three lead changes in the final four minutes? Having the hopes of a million viewers hinge on your final play?

This morning, as I stay home from church to care for our sick twins, I wonder, Is there drama in real life, or do we invent drama, whether through sports or stories, to fill an unmet longing?

16 comments for ““John, you’ve prepared for this your whole life”

  1. Real life is full of drama! I just witnessed the birth of our first child about a month ago and that was drama! No, it didn’t require any special preparation on my part (other than making an occasional joke and holding my wife’s hand) but I felt my heart beating faster with each passing minute, watching my wife push time and again (women are truly amazing), and hearing the first cry of our new baby was my own little episode of (fill-in-your-favorite-hospital-tv-show-here). Now I suppose that had there been complications, that experience would have been chock full of pulse-pounding excitement set to excel that of any rivalry game, but there wasn’t.

    Our son also got to witness his first rivalry game this week from deep in the heart of Texas. And I’m sure one lesson I’ll have to pass on to him about real life drama as the years go by is: You don’t get refs calling phantom PIs during your sojurn on the earth, but if by chance you do, make that last second, completely improbably throw across your body, across the entire width of the field to the open man son! Oh Weddle, where were you on that last play?

  2. Matt — beautiful observation. This is essentially a question about the nature of consciousness. What is \”really\” there, as opposed to what we \”only\” imagine to be there? Like the question of the tree falling in the woods.

    Both have to be there, don\’t they — the observer and the observed — in order for any reality to exist at all?

    The fact is, as the Bard says, all the world\’s a stage, and we are both fortunate and unfortunate enough to be its players. All of us as we live our lives frame ourselves and others and events as part of ongoing narratives. Where do we get the narratives? From myth, scripture, tradition. From our past experience as well as the past experience of the whole human race as recorded in so many forms — songs, paintings, literature, history, sciences, nursery rhymes, ancestors\’ journals, primary lessons, general conference talks, TV, movies. Some of the narratives, I\’m convinced, we brought with us from pre-earth life.

    Is there drama? It depends on how good you are at crafting narratives and playing parts. Are you a bumbling domesticated man trying his best to live a Christlike life — or are you a knight on a grueling quest for the Holy Grail? Are you just an average Mormon guy keeping temptations at bay — or an embattled dragon-slaying Prince? When you look over at your wife as she stands there washing dishes, can she suddenly become Maid Marian and you Robin Hood, or she Elizabeth Barrett Browning and you Robert, or even she Cleopatra and you Marc Antony? (woo-hoo!)

    Here, of course, I\’m appealing to the hero narrative that is so much a part of the male psyche, and which underpins the psychology of sports. But there are all kinds of narratives, and endless ways to play them.

    As any writer can tell you, what drives drama is this — suspension of disbelief. You have to believe it, or suddenly you look down and your diamond-encrusted sword has turned into a wooden spoon and you\’re stirring the soup while your wife changes the baby\’s diaper. Faith is the operative power; according to Joseph Smith, the same power that created worlds. It ain\’t child\’s play.

    Creativity is a large part of Godhood. Sad that not many of us have taken that fact seriously enough to prepare our whole lives to create narratives and play in them. Sad that American Mormon culture hasn\’t valued play more. But as George Bernard Shaw said, we don\’t stop playing because we get old, we get old because we stop playing.

    I recently saw a course offering at Notre Dame on poetry writing for medical doctors — the doctors wanted to learn to use their right cerebral hemispheres more. I read some quotes by doctors who have taken the course — they said it was challenging to the point of scary, but well worth it. Culture can be changed. My guess is, the people out there reading this kind of blog are the ones who will do it. Who are already doing it, in fact.

    So, don your helmets fellas, mount your steeds and so on — what an adventure!

  3. I’m thinking that singlehandedly taking care of two sick baby twins would be more than enough drama for one day.

  4. Matt, great question!

    As I have pondered the matter there are applications on two levels that come to mind. First is that, as we all know, there is a great battle that rages from before this earth for the souls of men and women. We are in the 11th hour 59th minute of that great contest. As we look around us we see that the forces of evil are winning, big time.

    But we know that someone, even Jesus Christ, will come and rescue us and the forces of good will prevail!!! We know that He has prepared for this from the beginning of time. And we each have a part that we can play to prepare for that Great Day. This is exciting and gives purpose to our own struggles that at times do not seem all that productive or exciting.

    But on a second level I suspect that many of us would have to acknowledge that there are times in our lives when we have responded to a call of distress and have been uniquely prepared to help some poor struggling soul out on the plains of life. I am reminded of Elder Jeffrey Holland’s talk in the recent conference. The rescue of the Willy and Martin handcart company was a great example of rescuing some people in need. That rescue for us may be someone in our own family, someone less active, or some new member about to fall into inactivity. And we can be the John Beck in their lives. And we are often uniquely prepared to save a particular individual.

    I recall a story told by Truman Madsen about a relative of Heber J. Grant, who was a real reprobate and one who lived in the bars with his fellow reprobates. But he was greatly touched by a talk in the Tabernacle by Elder Grant. It completely changed his life. And Brother Madsen said, “There was no greater missionary than this man in rescuing his friends from the downward path that they were on.”

    As Elder Holland stated so beautifully, “As surely as the rescue of those in need was the general conference theme of October 1856, so too is it the theme of this conference and last conference and the one to come next spring. It may not be blizzards and frozen-earth burials that we face this conference, but the needy are still out there—the poor and the weary, the discouraged and downhearted, those \”[falling] away into [the] forbidden paths\” we mentioned earlier, and multitudes who are \”kept from the truth because they know not where to find it.\”6 They are all out there with feeble knees, hands that hang down,7 and bad weather setting in. They can be rescued only by those who have more and know more and can help more. And don\’t worry about asking, \”Where are they?\” They are everywhere, on our right hand and on our left, in our neighborhoods and in the workplace, in every community and county and nation of this world. Take your team and wagon; load it with your love, your testimony, and a spiritual sack of flour; then drive in any direction. The Lord will lead you to those in need if you will but embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ that has been taught in this conference. Open your heart and your hand to those trapped in the twenty-first century\’s equivalent of Martin\’s Cove and Devil\’s Gate. In doing so we honor the Master\’s repeated plea on behalf of lost sheep and lost coins and lost souls.”

  5. Not since 2003 had a college football team won on the last play of regulation.

    [Not to be a wet blanket, but teams win on the last play of regulation all the time. In 2005, you had Michigan beating Penn State and SMU beating UAB with TDs on the final play, and those don’t count the countless other game-ending field goals. I haven’t watched much football in 2006, but I’m sure I could find a few games won with a score on the final play.]

    There is enough drama in real life, but we prefer to think in fantasy terms. Why else would people participate in fantasy football, as if the real drama of football isn’t enough? [Full disclosure: I’m a recovering FF addict.]

  6. I love being a wet blanket. Acutally, the touchdown wasn’t the last play. There was one more in which the team lined up in the victory formation and Beck put a knee down for the win instead of kicking the PAT.

  7. I was actually thinking about just this the other day–how much drama there is moving through the world trying to emulate Christ. Seeing how many times a hand, an offer to help, an appreciative noticing of what someone else is facing or attempting can have real, though usually quiet, effect.

    I was watching families in church and thinking how distracted we are from the real important dramas in life by all the unimportant but celebrated issues swirling through the mediascape.

  8. Thank you everyone for your thoughtful comments.

    WBs, the broadcasters on KSL said that the last Division 1A college football game to be won on the last play of regulation was in November 2003. They said which teams played the game, but I don’t remember which they were. Like you, I couldn’t believe that there was time on the clock after the last lead change since then, requiring a kickoff, but becuase they knew the date and teams in the last one, I trusted they weren’t pulling the fact out of the air.

    Jon in Austin, the PI calls were painful, sure, but both were legit. In neither case was the defender looking for the ball, as required. One put a hand in the face of the receiver, the other just tackled the receiver as he was going for the ball. The most important non-call of the game (visible on TV) was on the fake punt, where the BYU defender about to tackle the punter was clipped by one U player and held by another.

  9. I’m probably reading too much into the quote, but my first reaction was that it seemed like rather pathetic statement. Not that I’ve accomplished anything monumental, and not to demean athletes, but the statement seems to denote a life devoted to the trivial.

  10. a random john:

    “the statement seems to denote a life devoted to the trivial. ”

    Or you could look at it as a life devoted to cultivating his God-given talents. While you may look at football as trivial, other people don’t. John Beck is obviously one of them. He was born with an ability that few people have and he has worked hard to meet his maximum potential. It doesn’t seem so pathetic to me.

  11. My understanding (not having watched the game) is that the winning play was a pass to a guy who found himself in the open in the end zone. I wonder if the receiver had been preparing his whole life for that moment as well.

    Drama is certainly enhanced by the presence of a ticking clock. It’s hard to imagine a successful music composer finishing a piece of music and announcing at the end that he had been preparing for his whole life to write that last chord.

  12. ARJ, you raise an important issue, but I’ve come to a different conclusion. We naturally focus on Beck’s potential opportunity costs, but while Beck was practicing football, winning college scholarships and preparing for a big football games, we know most of his peers were practicing John Madden Football and preparing to be mediocre shift managers at Target. If Beck could have discovered a cure for cancer if only he’d foregone his football career, then I’d agree it’s been an awful tradeoff. Beck’s Wikipedia entry does say he won his high school’s Outstanding Athlete Scholar award, which shows he wasn’t one-sided, but not necessarily a lock for a Nobel.

    I’d guess Beck is just as good a husband, missionary, student, and home teacher as his peers, and that his “opportunity costs” are what are trivial — less TV and video games, probably. I don’t suppose excelling at football, or anything else, costs as many worthwhile opportunities as those of us who’ve never excelled at anything tell ourselves. Beck will no doubt be as good a (store manager, office clerk, doctor, EQ pres, whatever) as his peers who have never excelled at anything. The choice to excel at football is respectable, and seems comparable to me to excelling at other forms of entertainment like art or music, and certainly better than dedicating your life to XBOX and Target housewares.

    Beck’s quote has forced me to again reflect on why I’ve never excelled. I like to believe that I’m well-rounded, but fear that may be the cop out of everyone who’s never had the discipline to focus on one thing, even when it’s hard and monotonous, until they’re among the very best. It’s a thought I grapple with all the time — how much should I push myself to excel, and how much should I coast, doing whatever I want at the moment, even if it’s fruitless?

  13. One thing I enjoy about the Olympic games is the fact that individuals have worked so hard to excel at something, and I am seeing them at their best. It’s awe-inspiring. I never stopped to think that they might be wasting their lives. I merely reflect on their accomplishments, and wonder about where I am.

  14. Matt — As I read what you say about feeling a lack of accomplishment, I hear the echoes of many of my best male friends.

    My brother spent the first couple of years of college trying to force himself to do electrical engineering. He was expelled for drunken acts of vandalism. He ended up switching colleges and graduating with a bachelors in fine arts. But he couldn’t feed himself with painting. Today he is 43, depressed, divorced, and works in a factory making bumper stickers. His paintings are stacked in his garage.

    Another close friend went from menial job to menial job, did a stint in the army. Finally in his forties he finished a BA in religious studies. He never married. Today he is a 57 year old depressed ex-alcoholic janitor. Why? Because he was born to be a poet and couldn’t find a way to fit his soul into the modernist box. He says, “I’m just not an alpha male.”

    Sometimes I think the most brilliant among us are the ones who succeed least. Society rewards certain talents and personality types and penalizes others. Glory is way out of keeping with effort and ability. The value system of this world is way out of keeping with the talents God gave us.

    Sure there are lazy people. But I think sometimes guys who berate themselves for not feeling inspired to bust their butts are just missing their calling. It’s spirit-crushing not to know what your personal mission is, or to have a sense of what it is but feel at a loss as to how to pursue it in practical ways. It kills when what we have to offer doesn’t appear on the hero list.

    I repeat what I said above — as Mormons we need to learn to value play more. In my mind, truly creative play is one of the most heroic and eternally fruitful things we can do.

  15. Another thought about excelling — my husband is into body building. He gets flack from people for pursuing it, they think it’s gross and narcissistic. (I think it’s ooo-la-la!) He doesn’t see any difference between himself and somebody pursuing a PhD — just developing different parts of themselves. No one thinks its gross or narcissistic to be a rocket scientist.

    A friend in academia says yeah, but the rocket scientist is serving mankind. I asked my husband how body building serves mankind. It came down to two things: offering an example of excellence that others can look up to that will hopefully inspire them to better personal fitness; and providing aesthetic pleasure.

    Aesthetic pleasure is a real human need. I realized just how deep a need when I read about starved and tortured concentration camp prisoners staging plays and making musical instruments from scraps of board.

    We got to talking about the history of the sport, and how ugly Ronnie Coleman is — he was recently ousted from the Mr. Olympia title by Jay Cutler (check out the recent issue of Flex magazine.) Coleman exemplifies the monstrous ugliness of excellence taken too far — muscle striation so deep and veins so gnarled and prominent that he looks like a flayed corpse. Somehow we have gotten the idea that more is better and that extreme equals excellence.

    In order for body builders to look that ripped, or shredded as they say, they eat nothing but lean meat for weeks and purposely go into a state of dehydration — that’s not an example of health. Not to mention the unhealthy drugs many of them take that end up ruining their internal organs. And they don’t look aesthetically pleasing.

    In my mind, Schwarzenegger and Franco Columbo and Lou Ferrigno and that generation represented the pinnacle of excellence. Their physiques were beautiful to behold, they were healthy, and they were genuinely strong. Some of these shred-dudes today are so bound up with overgrowth that they can’t even do normal activities. I once saw a film clip of Franco Columbo at a party — somebody’s car was blocked in, and Columbo went out to the driveway, picked the offending car up by the bumper and moved it out of the way.

    I agree that excellence is a balance. More is not always better, and that means we have to be self-regulating and know when to say enough — enough church activities, enough scripture reading, enough video gaming, enough studying, enough cloning, enough fossil fuel use, enough Christmas presents, enough blogging…

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