Ignatian pursuit of identity through team & sport

Commentary by
Bill Burke

“Who am I?” This is a question most of us must ask ourselves at some point in our lives, even if it is in the setting of an awkward and uncomfortable Catholic school retreat. The question itself is an attempt to pinpoint identity. Some identify by their family names, or their occupations, but my identity for the past 10 years has been inextricably tied to my athletic career as a distance runner, more specifically to my membership on my high school and college cross country and track teams.

With the end of my collegiate athletic career looming, the state of my identity faces an interesting juncture.

One of the most harrowing challenges we face as humans is how to deal with swift and permanent change. Change is always difficult, even if it is necessary for improvement. Change, however, can be particularly daunting for an athlete. As I prepare for my last race in a Scranton uniform, I must also prepare for the fact that I will never again represent or be a part of a school or team in competition, which is something that most college athletes can relate to. Running will hopefully be a part of my life for many years beyond graduation, but what makes the end so hard to swallow is the loss of my team.

A team makes everything easier, from getting out the door to run in bad weather to the 5 a.m. wakeup calls for Saturday morning races. However, my team has also provided me with something much greater: something to suffer for. During the course of a five-mile cross-country race, if done right, one will endure barely tolerable pain, both mentally and physically, but that extreme pain and oxygen debt is much more palatable when one has teammates to run for. Running, after all, is not the carefree nature romp that pop culture makes it out to be. It’s rarely fun, but there is a strange joy that comes from sacrificing my own personal comfort and safety for the good of my teammates and my friends.

EMMA BLACK FOR SCRANTON ATHLETICS  THE UNIVERSITY’S cross-country team provides one avenue through which students can come to realize their place as part of a larger community. This sport unites teammates with deep and sometimes inexplicable bonds.

EMMA BLACK FOR SCRANTON ATHLETICS
THE UNIVERSITY’S cross-country team provides one avenue through which students can come to realize their place as part of a larger community. This sport unites teammates with deep and sometimes inexplicable bond

It is through this process that I have also engaged in a wholly Jesuit experience, refuting our generation’s obsession with individualism. As a runner at two Jesuit institutions, I have learned to implement St. Ignatius’s Three Powers of the Soul while in competition: the memory, the intellect and the will. When racing I must use my memory to remember my training and to remember my past mistakes so as not to repeat them; my intellect to negate the dark voices in my head when pain enters my body; and my will to overcome my own suffering so as not to let my teammates down.

Suffering is an unavoidable reality, but to find meaning in that suffering is to become, as St. Ignatius referred to it, more fully human. I have not achieved athletic greatness in my time as a runner and like many athletes, through the injury and sickness, the blood and sweat, I carry with me many regrets and convictions of what I could have done to achieve more.

My grandfather still recalls every detail of the last football game he played, asserting that had he done one thing differently, they would have won. The game was in 1955. Athletes never exorcise some demons, and I am no exception, but I do find solace in the fact that I have become more fully human through my submission to something greater than myself. After the meet Saturday at Dickinson College, I will never again toe the starting line with my teammates, prepared to die rather than let them down. I will never again have a group of like-minded friends by my side to defend me when ignorant and unenlightened citizens, who seem to think runners are in need of dramatic gentrification, yell from a moving car, “Nice shorts, (insert insensitive word here).” I will never again don my purple uniform. It is said that every athlete dies twice, once at the end of his life and once when he puts his uniform on for the last time.

As I prepare for my final race as a collegiate athlete, it certainly feels as though I’m preparing for the death of part of my identity, and the sense of loss that comes with this is palpable; however, I am grateful to have found meaning through engaging in the Ignatian pursuit of becoming more fully human beside my teammates and friends.

Nov. 13, 2014

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