Monday, June 10, 2013

Running for Jim: Love in Action

This year, my favorite unit to teach in the Foundations of Ethics: Morality and Justice course was on human sexuality.  That's because a few minor adjustments made the conversations and subject matter--although challenging--much more truthful, open and engaging.  One change was beginning with the classical definition of love.  For juniors in high school, defining love should seem unnecessary, but the world today defines it differently. According to Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, to love is "to will the good of another."  Notice it does not say anything about oneself, there are no "I" or "me" statements to be found.

My students read it, but it didn't stick until I gave an example I learned from my sister.  Anne Frank was sent to the concentration camp with her mother Edith and sister Margot.  Edith did not eat so that her two daughters could get enough food.  She willed the good of another--her two daughters.  She loved them to her death...and theirs.  

An example of men and women who love in this way are necessary.  Fortunately, I found an extraordinary one in Jim Tracy, the boys and girls cross country coach at University High School in San Francisco and the subject of a new documentary "Running for Jim."  

Jim's story came to public attention when one of his athletes Holland Reynolds completed the 2010 California state cross country meet in a very dramatic fashion.  She suffered severe dehydration and collapsed but a few feet from the finish line.  Her sheer will to win for her teammates and for her coach, secured University's 8th state championship title.  This documentary chronicles the effect that desire and determination has had on other athletes; Coach Tom Coughlin of the New York Giants showed it to his team who went on to win SuperBowl.  

But "Running for Jim" also tells the tragic love story of a man and running.  It shares his  upbringing that exposed him to the sport in a unique way, how it shaped his life-the friendships he made, the path is forged in high school, college and beyond and how it was slowly yet surely taken from him by Lou Gehrig's disease.  Well, almost.  

As said in Outside the Lines: The Finish Line, Jim Tracy never married.  His athletes are his children; his team is his family.  This family has not left his side as his illness has progressed nor has his sense of humor and optimistic spirit.  Today, he coaches from a motorized wheelchair.

And you better believe he coaches them.  Several of his runners repeat his motto: 
We train farther than we race, so the race seems short; and we train faster than we race, so the race seems easy. He challenges every athlete with immediate and authentic feedback.  One athletes recalls having a bad race; she said "that might not be one of the best times you've had, but at last you got a good workout."  In that moment, athlete and coach know the truth.  The only thing to do is be honest and stay positive.  Jim does both.

He never boasts about the relationship he has with his runners. He loves them in the way that St. Paul describes in his first letter to the Corinthians (3:14).  Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude.  In a humorous scene  Jim says "I figure they get enough love from their parents and teachers.  So I don't give them much.  Rather, I push them harder."  The audience knows he's lying.  
And we know they love him because as St. Ignatius of Loyola says "love is shown in deeds."  Much to his chagrin, Jim's athletes discover and decide to celebrate his birthday.  They sing to him, bring him a cake and are overjoyed to celebrate a life that is now battling ALS. He doesn't want the attention.  He smiles, gives thanks and says that everyone gets to have his cake and eat it too.  As the scene unfolds, the voice over from Jim reveals a very personal testimony.  "When they achieve what they have set out to do, when they improve, when they realize what their true potential is and when they excel--I feel good."  Even though it's his birthday, nothing in the scene is about Jim.  

His remarks shouldn't be counter-cultural, but they are.  Too often I hear (and it may be true) "When I improve, when I excel...I feel good."  This is valuable and worthy, but that feels much different than what I was looking at and taking in from the movie screen.  I saw a man who has found through his life's work to "will the good of the other."  It doesn't get more loving than that.

John Paul II said time and again "Man finds himself only by making himself a sincere gift to others" (Gaudium et Spes, no. 24).  The world might see all that Jim Tracy has lost with his disease, but to watch this documentary is to know and be a witness to all that he has found...and been given.  All of which has been made possible because of his two great loves: running and his athletes.  I hope you are able to see love made flesh, love in action: "Running with Jim." 


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