It’s Not How You Start, But How You Finish

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

from The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats

But he knew what they were thinking and said to them, “Every
kingdom divided against itself will be laid waste, and no town or house
divided against itself will stand.

Matthew 12:25

Looking down, I noticed two small feet, soles up with toes pointed, actively nestling under the edge of my leg. My six year old grandson, Cooper, lay face down on the couch, snuggling as we watched 2002’s Treasure Planet. an entertaining take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, Treasure Island. Cooper’s feet, small but no longer little, reminded me of time’s passing in his rapid evolution toward young man. His brother Fulton, and sister, Reagan, snuggled-in as well and I watched their eyes and facial expressions as the movie rolled and John Silver quipped to the young Jim Hawkins:

“You got the makings of greatness in you, but you gotta take the helm and chart your own course! Stick to it, no matter the squalls! And when the time comes, you’ll get the chance to really test the cut of your sails and show what you’re made of! And… well, I hope I’m there, catching some of the light coming off you that day.”

A short time later, I went upstairs to find find them all in my bed, hiding under the covers, giggling at “fooling” Poppy and casting their votes for the books we would read. The giggles continued into the dark amid all of the gyrations of their three little bodies jockeying for position between Sally and I. These are the moments worth remembering, and though it meant a sliver of bed for us for the night, there is nothing more precious than your grandchildren squirming to get as close as possible. Hold on to moments, they’re slipping away.

Earlier in the week, I asked a job candidate in an initial interview, “What is your center?” Though he prudently tied his answer to character traits and work ethic, casually opening with “Aside from family,” I really wanted the bolder answer. What really matters? Perhaps in our next conversation.

Later in the day, after returning our overnight guests to their parents, the notion of “center” returned to me as I watched the Butler Bulldogs play Villanova at Hinkle Fieldhouse. The Dawgs had a horrific start: poor passing, poor movement without the ball, missed shots, lots of unproductive individual effort. Their first bucket took 7 minutes to find and they were down by 15 points by the time they found it. “This is going to be a long game,” I thought to myself.

Turns out, it was a long game: two overtimes’ worth. For pretty much the entire game, the Bulldogs looked outgunned, out-hustled, out-defended, and outmaneuvered. They were down by 8-12 points nearly the entire game. But they kept grinding. Every time I looked at the scoreboard, I thought, “How are we within 10 points?” Bright spots emerged but the strong and aggressive Villanova squad held off the runs and stayed in command…until they didn’t.

Over time, the Dawgs started moving better, passing better, shooting better – playing as a team better. Adjustments were made. Effort was sustained. Grit emerged. Somehow, someway, they found their way to a tie at the final buzzer and then again in the first over time. By the end of the second overtime, gritty perseverance overcame athletics, and the Bulldogs won with an unimaginable 7 point margin.

After the game, I found myself quipping to Sally and my parents, “It’s not how you start, but how you finish.” In the sense of the scoreboard, there is truth in that statement. The slow start gave way to the strong finish and a contest was won. However, it does little to capture the full story. A story with a “why” far greater than the “W” next to Butler’s name on the scoresheet. The deeper truth is that it took incredible exertion, persistence, and hope, for the entire game, in order for the Butler Bulldogs to even be within striking distance of a victory. The finish mattered, but it would have been useless without the sustained effort shown during the previous 50 minutes on the clock.

What enables us to persist against resistance over time? Where does “grit” come from? Most of us get an occasional “flash” of brilliance in a moment: the effortless bit of something that makes an answer, a decision, or a casual victory, easy. But most of the time, it takes real work, sustained over time, to achieve, accomplish, or create. There must be some kind of burning “why” sitting at the center of our being to drive us on when the odds are against us, hope is lost, or the pain gets too intense.

The Bulldogs won last night because there is something at their center and it held. Perhaps it was a raw desire to win – an elemental competitiveness. Maybe it was a sense of team or mission or loyalty. It could be the “Butler Way,” and whatever that might mean to them as individuals and as a team. Maybe it was a set of values instilled by parents who taught them to never give up or a coach who centered them in a purpose greater than their individual desires. Whatever their ultimate center, it held last night and their finish was far better than their start.

Considering this post’s title a bit more deeply, perhaps the finish does capture the full story, but it really has little to do with the scoreboard. Thinking back on our evening with our grandchildren, I’m reminded that we’re really playing the infinite game…the eternal game. In this world, there are going to be wins and there are going to be losses, but there is really only one finish. Amid a life of mistakes, brokenness, missed opportunities, and second chances, the victories come in our own imperfect efforts to find and hold our center. Our impact, the legacy that matters, is who we are and what we leave along the way.

Over time, our grandchildren will likely forget the particulars of our time together last night. However, they might remember where we finish.

Perhaps real joy stems from a center that holds.

Showing 2 comments
  • Jarilyn Berry

    Teary eyed through this entire post! Go dawgs – what determination! Would I have been a great game to watch in person. This got me thinking more of my center and purpose. Thanks for giving me some deep thinking over these next few weeks when I make my return to work from maternity leave.

  • Jerry Berry

    Nice piece Phillip, well said.

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