Previewing an England international, a commentator was asked what England needed to do to win. ‘Score more points than the other team,’ he replied.
Sir Jack Hayward, owner of Wolverhampton Wanderers, interviewed about his plans for the club, was asked at the end of the conversation, what his plans for himself were. ‘Well, to keep breathing,’ was his response.
There is something to be said for having uncomplicated goals in our lives. Wider strategies have their place and long term objectives provide something to work towards but these need to be balanced by simpler short term goals. Something straightforward for each day, something that doesn’t need detailed planning, can give our lives structure.
The writer of the psalms came up with a phrase that has been a good guide for believers in God ever since. ‘This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.’ (Psalm 118:24). That is one possible, simple goal. So is to keep breathing or to do our best. Perhaps today, it’s worth remembering that simple things are enough to give the day a purpose.
Carnforth Railway Station has become a Mecca for Brief Encounter fans. The buffet, where the encounter between the Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard characters began, has been restored. To go there now, you feel you are walking into the film. It’s a monument to the kind of unrequited longing that the two lovers’ chaste and impossible affair epitomises. The passion the pair felt for each other was intense but it was in the final scene in the buffet that it became clear it could not be fulfilled. Even so, I suspect that even without the ending they wanted, the relationship was something they would not have missed.
The popularity of the film reflects the familiarity of that experience, not just in the context of sexual attraction, but in many areas of life. We long passionately for something to happen, perhaps even work hard towards that end. It doesn’t work out the way we wanted. Sometimes a different but unexpectedly satisfying outcome surprises us. But even if not, the longing, though unfulfilled, has its own value.
The Biblical prophets speak of a longing for a more just and peaceful world. They express the deep yearning we all feel for an end to human violence and self-destructive behaviour. The birth of a child in a stable was not the outcome the prophets expected. Because this child was special, his coming added new power to the hope. But it hasn’t, not to the human eye anyway, brought the fulfilment any nearer.
Today, even if our dreams for ourselves and our world seem far from becoming reality, let’s give ourselves with renewed energy to working towards them. There may be an outcome which is different from what we expect and the process, even without the fulfilment, might have a value all its own.
A Chinese schoolgirl has invented a pair of shoes that enable her to walk on water.
Wang Wenting, from Chengdu, says she got her inspiration from watching ducks.
It took her nearly four years, experimenting with different materials, to find a design which worked.
The story of Jesus walking on the water
has led to this phrase becoming a way of describing anything which seems almost impossible. When Jesus did it, his disciple Peter tried to follow suite and nearly drowned.
Most people sometimes have unrealistic aspirations. But there are times when what we or others decide to aim for, though apparently ridiculously ambitious, is achievable with application and imagination. Wang Wenting must have put up with some mocking from those who knew what she was trying to do but it didn’t deter her from persevering for years until she was successful.
Perhaps today we need to be careful before being either privately or publicly cynical about other people’s objectives for their lives. As far as our own are concerned, let’s take reassurance from Wang Wenting that determination and creativity can often justify aiming high.
Fifty three years ago yesterday morning, Roger Bannister had not even decided to go for the record. He did a normal morning’s work at St Mary’s hospital, Paddington and took the train to Oxford before deciding to attempt the four minute mile record while at lunch with his colleagues before the race. But there had been two years of meticulous preparation. It started when Bannister had failed to win the gold medal of his dreams at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.
The looked-for retirement from athletics was postponed and Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher were sufficiently inspired to help him attempt this new goal. They all wanted to be aiming at something. Roger Bannister recalls how the day after the race, he and his two pacemakers went for a walk. ‘I remember,’ he says, ‘how we said to each other then: “Well, what are we going to do now?”’
We benefit when we have an underlying purpose to our lives. The attitude of the three athletes whose achievement is still remembered more than fifty years later exemplifies this. Their experience suggests aspects of what's involved.
There was a balance in the way they viewed their goal. The rest of life went on alongside their current project.
Then, colleagueship played a crucial part in their achievement, an achievement in which it was always agreed that Bannister would receive the greatest glory, something neither of the others begrudged.
And, for Roger Bannister anyway, failure in one aim for his life did not make him give up but on the contrary was a strong motivation towards success in the next.
When we review the underlying objectives in our lives, perhaps we’ll be encouraged not to let the existence of unachieved goals stop us finding new ones. It may be that supporting others in the achievement of their aims might be a valid project for us. Certainly finding people who will work with us in whatever we decide to attempt will bring out the best in us.
Driving recently round country lanes in Yorkshire, we passed a pub called “Halfway House”. It really didn’t seem to be half way to or from anywhere. I suppose the centres of habitation that it had been halfway between, had now shrunk in importance and the “halfway” now meant nothing.
Sometimes the same is true in our lives. The goals we are travelling towards at one stage change, so that what might once have been half way there, ceases to have any importance at all. In response to new challenges life has brought, we are now going in a different direction.
The constant change and variety in what matters to us, as we move through the different stages of our lives, adds interest and vitality to our living. As we look back, it’s valuable to recall how our priorities have changed and, hopefully matured, as we’ve got older.
When Lord Berner built his folly in Faringdon, Oxford, in 1935, he said that the great point of this tower is that it will be entirely useless. Most of the buildings that will be open for this weekend’s Heritage Open Days (www.heritageopendays.org), on the other hand, were built for a specific purpose, e.g. as a factory, stately home, church, castle, town hall. One of the things that will interest those who take the opportunity to visit these buildings will be the way the architects have combined function and beauty and got the right balance between parts of the building which served a specific purpose and others which were there simply to be decorative.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, when he prayed, “God grant that I may never live to be useless”, reflected a fear felt by most people, not just Christians. We sense that beautiful lives are generally purposeful ones. But such lives also include, as do beautiful buildings, features that have no practical purpose whatever.
But if we feel pressure for our lives to be useful in every detail and are afraid of even one useless moment or activity, we shall lack the roundedness of the fully balanced life. Let’s today value those moments that feel useless and the things we do which have no obvious purpose. They are important components in the attractiveness and completeness of our lives.