Lighting the Match

It will be 50 years ago Tuesday that a 22-year-old boxer named Cassius Clay won the world heavyweight boxing championship. 

He was challenging Sonny Liston, who had never lost a match and was considered perhaps the best heavyweight boxer in history. In a poll of sportswriters before the fight, 43 of 46 picked Liston to beat the trash-talking upstart easily.

But it was Clay’s moment. Against all odds, he won.

Cassius Clay takes the heavyweight title, February 25, 1964.
Cassius Clay takes the heavyweight title, February 25, 1964.

The only reason I am mindful of this anniversary is that I came across it while researching a speech for a client who is delivering the talk to his company’s sales organization on Tuesday.

One of the benefits of being a speechwriter is the continuing involvement I have in the thought processes, experiences and ambitions of the intelligent and interesting executives I write for. These are successful people, and by vicariously getting into their minds, my own life gains added dimension.  

This time, a speech I was writing to stir a group of strangers was speaking to me.

In thinking about the way Cassius Clay seized his moment, I questioned why so many of us sleepwalk through life.

Marcel Proust recognized this common malady in his 1927 The Past Recaptured:

"In theory one is aware that earth evolves, but in practice one does not perceive it, the ground upon which one treads seems not to move, and one can live undisturbed. So it is with Time in one's life."

Didn’t I need to be shaken awake -- like the young men on the 1980 U. S. A. Olympic hockey team? They were thought to have no chance against the powerful Soviet Union team. But the U. S. A. coach told his amateurs:

“You were meant to be here. This moment is yours.”

I’m not going to hit the ball out of the park every time I’m at bat – I understood that.

Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees.
Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees.

The example is Mickey Mantle, one of the most revered baseball players ever:

“During my 18 years, I came to bat almost 10,000 times. I struck out about 1,700 times and walked maybe 1,800 times. You figure a ballplayer will average about 500 at-bats a season. That means I played seven years without ever hitting the ball.”

But my every action should be aimed at some worthy outcome, shouldn’t it?

Isn’t opportunity for achievement embedded in each day? Whether it’s career or lifestyle or love?

As I pass through my days, shouldn’t I be as alert to opportunity as a stalking cat?

Didn’t master American architect Eero Saarinen counsel us always to “think of the next larger thing?”

The act of identifying or imagining or fashioning the next larger thing in our lives is itself a form of fulfillment. A life can be a work of art, constantly being shaped and reshaped like a kaleidoscope that must be touched to bring forth its beauty.

Olympic Gold Medalist Mia Hamm.
Olympic Gold Medalist Mia Hamm.

Mia Hamm was the brilliant 2004 Olympic soccer Gold Medalist. I read and re-read the quote I had included in my client’s speech until Mia’s words sounded like a haiku:

I am building a fire.

And every day I train, I add more fuel.

At just the right moment, I light the match.

It’s not too late for me to start maintaining this kind of positive attitude in the game of life, I think.

Remember the old joke about the Little League team that was losing 10 to nothing?

One of the fathers who was sitting behind the losing team’s bench quietly called to his son, “Don’t be discouraged, Buddy.”

The boy turned and answered, “I’m not. We haven’t been up to bat yet.”

In my next blog, “Grandma’s Lost Jelly Donuts”


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  • published this page in Blog 2014-10-27 10:41:05 -0400