Reaping the Whirlwind and Looking for Hope

I quoted Theodore Roosevelt  back in the dim reaches of my “He Said/She Said” collection, but anybody can do that. Recently on Grantland, I read a piece on Don King, the once-dominant promoter in

Teddy was no saint, but I like his attitude.

professional boxing, in which he pulled the Man in the Arena passage that I love so well out of his well-worn pouch of salesmanship. (Heck, maybe he loves it like I do, but after all his flim-flams and showmanship and indictments, it’s hard to tell.) This isn’t about Don King, though he did get me thinking back to a November 2010 piece I wrote about wanting to be on the front lines of life, wanting to have that “face marred with dust and sweat and blood”, as Roosevelt put it in a 1910 speech, to be an embattled veteran of causes worthy and noble. At moments, sports have given me that taste. So have wild-eyed efforts as an educator. So has Shakespeare, and a growing mid-life consciousness of ecology.

Being in China helps, too, and not only when I’m bombarded by cultural noise that I still can’t get my head around, not to mention fireworks or the adrenaline rush of getting across a busy street. The Baha’i teachings I battle to live by find many responsive ears here, and its community-building processes are of blatantly obvious value. The response to both is routinely gratifying, yet given the frantic movement and

Can a threatened planet become a cliche? (This is OURS, btw.)

incredible size of this population, it’s all pretty darned humbling, too. I am surely not patient enough; for four years, China has done its best to teach me, but I am a slow learner. There’s a lot of that going around, as you may have noticed, particularly if you’re a climate watcher.

Recently, we’ve been thinking of the front lines of the climate wars. EnviroBride has taught me much about the crisis we’ve created in the global ecology, and the search for sustainable ways to live with and within it. We have avoided, it seems, a third World War, though Native American prophecies of the three “great shakings” that the world must undergo before the age of peace are an eerie warning.

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In the Arena

I am a peaceful man, and a pretty obscure one, but I have always wanted to be on the “front lines” of life. The heat and the totality of athletic competition, even when it was just my small-town team against the runty evil empire on the other side of the county, helped me to feel that way. Being in China, with its astonishing pace of growth and change (constructive and sometimes not-so), its relentless shouldering into the fast lanes of life on Earth, reminds me of hearing the reports of war correspondents from mysterious locales. (Except that it’s me and I’m there, and it’s still too much to grasp.) And when I sometimes come nearer an understanding the vision and the work of the Baha’i community in the world, well, that feels like being an advance guard for a new kind of humanity — not out of any sense of deserving, but simply through having stumbled upon a spiritual revolution and, occasionally, acting like it.

I teach some of the speeches of President Obama in my English and Western Culture classes at the Dalian University of Technology. Today, thinking about this “front lines” mentality, I’m inclined to add parts of this one, by the 26th American President, Theodore Roosevelt.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Superb, yes? Roosevelt said this in a speech called “Citizenship in a Republic”, which he gave in Paris in 1910. The sporting undertones of his “man in the arena” metaphor no doubt contribute to the strong impact it has on me, and its exclusive language is only an arti, fact of its time. The women are in the arena, and challenging the men to share it with them.


Theodore Roosevelt (on deeds-not-words, on *Jihad*)

* In the Islamophobic (and Islam-ignorant) West, we tend to have a hostile perspective on the Muslim concept of jihad, often translated as “holy war”; we think of burning towers, violent coercion and hate. I’m no Islamic scholar, but I think Roosevelt’s famed “Man in the Arena” speech, quoted partially below, is actually a pretty good description of the highest meaning of jihad, as I have come to understand it. I wrote about my efforts in understanding Islam here, plus two other posts that immediately followed. The particular discussion of jihad is in the second one. Roosevelt was talking, in gritty and athletic terms, about citizenship, and I’m fairly sure he wasn’t thinking of jihad at all! It fits, though, and here is part of what he said, the most often-quoted and beloved bit. I love this:

“It is not the critic who counts,…the man who points out how the strong man stumbles….The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood,… who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions,…so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Theodore Roosevelt, from a speech titled “CITIZENSHIP IN A REPUBLIC”, given at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910. A fuller quotation of this part of the speech, along with my commentary about it,  can be found in an entry in the “On First Glance” section of, November 22, 2010.