29th July, 2021. Thoughts on Inspirational Words, and Marcus Aurelius, and the Olympics, and Eric Liddell, and Dancing Horses, and Where the Power Comes From.

I wake up thinking about inspiration and positivity. (Perhaps this is because I have been watching the Olympics.) I look at myself sternly in the glass, ready to tell myself galvanising things. I think, ‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’ Then I think that’s not quite right. Maybe I should be the light I want to see in the world, or be the laughter that I want to hear in the world. And then I think: actually, hold on a minute. All these dictums. Aren’t they just a little bit bossy and a little bit unrealistic? 

What if you have to walk twelve miles a day to get water or you have been sold into a forced marriage or you have so much depression in your brain that you can’t change a lightbulb, let alone the world? And then someone comes along and says, ‘Oh, be the change,’ as if you can do that through a sheer act of will? Isn’t that going to make you feel more hopeless, more exhausted, more despairing?

I don’t know. These are just the things I wake up thinking. 

I love a good maxim or an inspiring thought or a wise dictum. I’m always hunting them down and putting them over photographs of Scotland or the red mare, and posting them on the social media. But sometimes, when I do that, I have a tiny mouse-scratch in the back of my mind, a minuscule fret that the great words might not always be that helpful.

Let’s take Marcus Aurelius, for example. I often take Marcus Aurelius. He is one of my favourite boys. I read his Stoic sayings and I nod my head and I think I must try harder. Here’s one of my favourites: ‘The first rule is to keep an untroubled spirit. The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are.’

And you can’t beat that, really. Of course we humans should try to keep an untroubled spirit, and to know things for what they are. But that is so ridiculously hard. How do you keep an untroubled spirit if you have a child in pain, or if you live under a theocracy, or if your community is being devastated by wildfires? And you don’t have to go anything like that far. I always leap to the big horrors, but the small, everyday ones can trouble the spirit like crazy things. Maybe you’ve got a sick animal and a vet bill to pay; maybe your company is tottering and you are afraid you will lose your job; maybe every month is a stretch for the rent. Maybe you are useless at time management, like I am, and you’ve got the same menopause brain that I have, so you walk into rooms and have no idea what you are doing there or you are convinced it is Wednesday when it is Thursday or you have no recollection of a promise you made to someone only the afternoon before. 

(The menopause brain is fantastically odd. The intellectual brain is untouched by the fleeing oestrogen. It works harder and tougher and leaner than ever before. It feels incredibly happy and hungry for knowledge. It starts galloping every morning before I’m fully awake. The practical brain is buggered. It does not know if it is Christmas or Easter and it spends most of its time running around like a lost kid at a party, trying to find its people. I have no idea how to anchor it or how to help it.) 

So, I suppose what I’m wondering is: do all these inspirational words help or hinder? They are so fashionable now – all over Instagram, showboating on Twitter, setting the tone on Facebook. Everyone must listen to the inspirational words and be positive and be themselves and be the damn change. And I sometimes wonder whether that might make some people just want to give up. 

I genuinely don’t know. That’s just my question of the day. I’ll go away and ponder it. I’ll probably come to the conclusion that the inspirational words do more good than harm. I’ll probably type some more of them over a picture of the red mare and put them on Twitter, thinking that someone might see them and feel better. Because I believe in words and I believe in wisdom and we humans have to try to do something, don’t we? 

And then I think of the Olympians. They are beyond inspirational words. I do not know how they do what they do. I’m not even sure why they do it. 

It is hours and hours of physical training, every day. The swimmers will spend six or seven hours in the pool. The runners will run until their feet are blistered. The gymnasts will be in the gym at 5am. 

They will miss birthdays and family celebrations and holidays. (Do Olympians even go on holiday?) They will say no to parties and late nights and handsome men. They see only down the tunnel that leads to that podium and that slightly distorted national anthem and that surprisingly heavy disc of metal.

Yesterday, I watched the dressage and Charlotte Dujardin won a bronze medal she had no right to win. By which I mean – other people were favourites ahead of her to win it, because they had more experienced horses, and they were higher up the world rankings, and their time was right. But Dujardin appears to have read her Marcus Aurelius: her mind was not troubled by the fact her small horse was only ten, had never been to anything like an Olympics before, and had been competing at this level for about five minutes. She got her bronze medal because she believed in her funny little character of a horse, and he felt it, and he believed in himself, and he gave her every single thing he had, and it was enough.

Charlotte Dujardin rides twelve horses every day, starting at 7.30am. That’s what you’ve got to do, if you want to get to that podium. And it’s not romantic riding, charging across some hill or moor with the wind in your hair. It will be going over and over and over intense and basic movements, probably involving poles laid out in intricate patterns on the ground. (It’s the kind of stuff that I have vowed I shall never do again, because I’m not an Olympian and I don’t have to and it bores me witless and the red mare loathes it. She likes the hills and the moors, and I am with her.) 

Where does all that determination come from, I wonder. Where does the motivation come from, that gets those athletes through the hours and hours and hours of practice and work and effort? There’s a lovely line in Chariots of Fire, my most adored sporting film. Eric Liddell, the mighty Scottish runner, says, ‘Everyone runs in her own way, or his own way. And where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within.’ 

I don’t know if Liddell actually said that or whether the clever filmmakers invented it. I am sure it is what he believed. He was a man of beliefs. He had a lot of power from within. And he won his gold medal and he went to China to do missionary work and he died there, before his time, and Scotland grieved his loss.

But Liddell left a question behind the question. If the power to see the race to its end comes from within, why do some people have that and some people don’t? What is it, that power, and can you dig for it with a spoon? Can you locate it even if you think you’ve got no power left in you? Can you read a bit of dear old Marcus and suddenly get up at five every morning because winning that gold means more to you than anything?

That’s the bit that mystifies me. 

And it’s not just the power to see the race through, it’s the resilience to come back. Some of these athletes have been trying for years; they are still chasing their dream even though that dream keeps eluding them. I saw an interview with Dame Kelly Holmes yesterday which startled me. I think of her as an inevitable champion, because she is so stitched into the fabric of this country, but I had no idea that she was tormented by injury and went through periods of hating herself and had times when it seemed as if she would have to give up. But she didn’t give up. She fought and fought and fought and finally she caught that dream, and held it, and did not let it go. Where does that come from? What power is that, within her?

Someone should do a study, on the believing people, the power from within people, the Liddells and the Holmeses. I’d love to know what the galvanic common denominator is. 

Because the other odd thing is that there appears to be no common denominator. Some of these strivers, these grafters, these refusers-to-give-up are religious people; some are heathens. Some are women; some are men. Some come from broken homes; some have incredibly supportive mums and dads. Some are very young, fiery with ambition; some are really quite old, seasoned with experience. Some grew up in poverty; some are relatively comfortable. 

The class thing always gets dragged in when it comes to the British team, because we Britons have had class inculcated into us from the moment we entered the world and, even now, years after Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh were in their pomp, there are Britons on Twitter shouting, indignantly, ‘But dressage is for posh people!’ as if that renders the entire enterprise a joke. And I think that pointing out that Carl Hester and Charlotte Dujardin aren’t at all posh misses the point. The point is that very, very few posh people are willing to do seven hours in the pool or ride twelve horses a day over poles, and I don’t know whether that’s a cultural thing or just a basic numbers thing – there aren’t many posh people, after all – but it is a thing. And of course there are exceptions, but you know they are exceptions because you can pretty much name them, starting with Lord Burghley winning the hurdles in 1928. That’s how exceptional they are. 

The class thing also misses the point because there’s no overwhelming Olympic demographic, at least not in this country. You can’t say it’s the Yorkshire water or having parents who were immigrants or going to a certain school. Look at our Olympians, and they are all so different: they are such shining individuals that to try and trace a unifying theme between them feels pointless and reductive. They just are, up there, in a gently different universe from the rest of us workaday mortals.

But they are united, because they all have Liddell’s power from within, they all have the same unquenchable belief, they all have a dauntless faith in their dream. And I don’t think they got that from reading Marcus Aurelius and I would really, really love to know what it is and where they got it. 

And that’s my thought for this morning: a little bit mazy, a little bit wandery (and wondery), but something that feels urgent to me; something I would love to know. 

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