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June 2, 2022

Teddy Roosevelt & the Floating Obstacle Course

Maddie and Mason, my college-aged kids, thought I was making too big of a deal out of the situation. Kathleen, my wife, agreed with our kids and couldn’t understand why I even cared. Even though I knew it was part of the game, I didn’t like it. It revealed a frustration, evidently something that had been burning subconsciously in me for a while.

Who would have thought that a floating obstacle course at a Mexican resort would evoke embittered emotions?  

Participants lined up to race through the course floating in the pool. Roughly 25 yards of obstacles separated them from success or failure. The course was slippery and challenging, and most competitors failed. There was only one rule: get to the end without falling into the water.  

But it wasn’t just the course that the competitors had to overcome. Lined up on either side were people armed with large balls that they threw to knock the competitors off the course. These were guests of the resort; spectators recruited to add another level of difficulty.  

This was the part I didn’t like. I watched them closely as they hurled these balls from a short distance at the competitors. I’m not kidding when I tell you that they did it with all their might and with gritted teeth. Perhaps fueled by a few margaritas, these men took their assignment seriously, almost like it was a personal affront to them if the competitors succeeded.

I was actually surprised at how much this irked me. I knew it was all part of the game, and yes, I know it was just a game. But the more I watched, the more indignant I became, to the point that my kids just shook their heads and rolled their eyes at me. I wasn’t even sure why I was getting so worked up, and then it hit me.

You might think I’m crazy and that this is a stretch, but I viewed this through the lens of an excerpt from “Citizenship in a Republic” by Theodore Roosevelt. This excerpt, best known as the “Man in the Arena,” hangs in my office. 

“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.”

Yes, I know it was only a floating obstacle course. You might be thinking I’m reading too much into this or that perhaps I had a few too many margaritas. The competitors’ faces weren’t marred by dust, sweat and blood but merely sunscreen. And completing an obstacle course is hardly a valiant act.  

But, it was a reminder to me to GO FOR IT, regardless of the obstacles. I viewed the men launching the balls as the critics, the “cold and timid souls.” Throwing balls was easy to do. They weren’t putting themselves out there like the men and women who ran, climbed, crawled and jumped through the course. These people had something to risk, and most failed.  

The “Man in the Arena” reminds me of the courage it requires to be the one facing tremendous obstacles, coming up short, failing, and yet persevering to the very end. Better to fail while daring greatly than to live the life of a cold and timid soul.  

I needed this reminder and got it in the unlikeliest of places. I’ve got critics, and I’m sure you do too. Don’t let their voices distract you from what the Lord would have you do. Let’s not be cold and timid souls, but men who are fervent in spirit, serving the Lord (Romans 12:11). 

And if you have the opportunity, see how well you can do crossing a floating obstacle course in Mexico.

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