Exhibit A: The ubiquitous Yoda quote, “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”
Exhibit B: The ubiquitous quest to do (X thing) for/in honor of/in memory of (X person).
I probably don't go a day without encountering a true story – in a newspaper, on a web site, on Twitter, on Facebook, in person – about someone who accomplished a challenging goal with a person as inspiration. People run races for friends who are ill, climb mountains in honor of lost loved ones, lose 50 pounds for the sake of their family members who depend on them, and on and on. These stories inspire us to make things happen. They promote the idea that with meaningful inspiration, we can accomplish anything. They shine out, beacons for us.
However, hanging around each of these bright shining stories are so many other stories, often cowering in the shadows although they shouldn’t be, stories that we don’t hear, stories that, when they are ours, we often file away quietly. These are stories of almost, of not quite, of didn’t entirely make it. Didn’t do it, actually…but tried. Tried really hard. Maybe even tried several times.
I am compelled to write on behalf of those stories, and of the people who lived them.
More than once, I have been determined to accomplish something in particular and have called to mind someone I love to inspire me. When I started chemo, I listed on a Post-It note everyone I knew personally who had gone through breast cancer. I kept this scribbled list stuck on the bottom of my computer screen where I could stare at it when I was feeling exhausted, crappy, and low on hope. I told myself I was going to get through cancer treatment in honor of all those women who did it before me. And I did get through it. I believe that thinking of them helped.
Other times over the past year, many times, I’ve invoked my brother’s name in my attempts to accomplish tough goals. Frank would want me to get this difficult work task done, I would say to myself. I should exercise and stay strong because Frank would want me stay healthy for my family and his, and he would have done the same if he were the one left here alive. I’m going to DO IT FOR FRANK.
Sometimes I would accomplish what I set out to do, and feel that invoking my brother got me there. Then sometimes I wouldn’t – I would fall asleep before I could get back to my computer to work toward that deadline, I would dig into my energy reserves and not have enough to get out running, I would fall short of my goals. Those times confused me. What does it mean if I'm determined to do something in Frank’s honor and I can’t get it done? What did I do wrong? Did I not give myself a strong enough motivating idea? If the memory of my beloved dead brother isn’t enough, what is?
Looking online for stories of “didn’t quite get to done,” I started searching for people who didn’t finish a marathon and talked about it. There are very, very few such stories published. But in my search I found something to consider: Donna Deegan, an on-camera journalist in Florida and a three-time cancer survivor, started The Donna Foundation to support local women living with breast cancer who are struggling to make ends meet. Her foundation is linked to 26.2 With Donna, a foundation that runs a marathon in Jacksonville every year that donates all net proceeds to breast cancer research and support. The marathon weekend, which includes a full marathon, half marathon, and marathon relay, drew about 12,000 registrants this past February. I couldn’t find the numbers on how many of those registrants ran the full marathon. However, I did find marathon results: There were 871 finishers. Somewhere between 871 and 12,000 I imagine there were more than a few people who were unable to finish – people highly likely to have been running this particular marathon in honor of or in memory of someone dear to them who had struggled with breast cancer.
What can be said about such people? That they lacked motivation to overcome whatever struggle they encountered during the race? That their loved ones did not inspire them quite enough?
I don’t think so, at all. I can’t rank their efforts as less inspired than the efforts of those who finished. I believe they were highly motivated and driven, as much as I have been with anything I set out to accomplish in my brother’s memory. I believe that their attempts, their trying, has as much value as finishing. This is where I disagree (as I said, respectfully) with Yoda. I believe that is there IS try, and that we need to honor and value try, especially in a modern world so obsessed with achievement that people splash evidence of their achievements across every possible communication channel. There is often a long, arduous period of try before we get to done, and if we only value done, then we deny ourselves some awfully necessary support and kindness in that long period – perhaps with the result that we make it harder to get to done. Plus, if we value try only inasmuch as it gets us to done, not getting to done invalidates all the effort we’ve put in.
I find it devastating to think of all that effort disappearing into the ether. That effort is real and it shows determination and inspiration. Attention must be paid.
I have come to understand that any effort I make in Frank’s name or in honor of anyone I care about is greater than I would have been able to make without invoking him. When I set a goal with someone in mind, whether I achieve the goal right away, over a longer period of time than I would wish, or never, I know that I am doing more and going further than I could have without my inspiration. In a way, try IS do. Wherever try gets you is progress from where you started, progress that holds value no matter its size or scope. And if try gets you to done, that’s icing on the cake.