No Finish Line

My father died when I was 19.

That’s a heck of a way to start off a post, right?  But bear with me:  I’m going somewhere with this.

He died of lung cancer. He never smoked, but he’d been in the Army his whole adult life and had been exposed to second hand smoke for decades.  He seemed perfectly healthy, right up until he collapsed while leading his regiment in PT, and that’s when they found the mass in his lung.  He fought the cancer for more than a year, going in to work and fulfilling his duties to the best of his ability until he just couldn’t do it any more.  And then he hung on, fighting still, until he couldn’t fight any more.  And he still hung on, until he was satisfied that my mom and my brother and I would be taken care of.  Finally, he passed away in his sleep.

A lot of people came to the viewing and the funeral, family and friends and colleagues. I don’t remember a lot of them clearly, not more than twenty years later, but I do remember Claudia J. Kennedy, who was a general by that time but who I always remember as “Colonel Kennedy” from when my dad served with her. At the funeral, she gave me and my brother a medallion from one of the units he’d been in. I’ve long since lost it, which saddens me when I think of it, but something on it has stuck with me to this day – a motto, beneath an owl with spread wings:

In the pursuit of excellence, there is no finish line.

Generally speaking, I try not to think of the “end game” of all the work I’m doing. I stay focused on the here and now. On walking today. On hitting my calorie goal [i]today[/i]. On exercising today. Do that enough times, I figure, and the goal will take care of itself. But I do think about the end. About hitting my goal. And when I do, there’s a temptation to think I’ll be done. That this will be over. That I’ll have won.

In the pursuit of excellence, there is no finish line.

It’s not true, of course. I’m not on a diet. I’m changing my life. I’m getting healthy. And there’s no finish line for health. No finish line for self-mastery. No point at which I can say “I’m done! I don’t have to work at this any more!” Because it would be easy to backslide. Easy to stop working, once I’ve hit that goal. Easy to regain all of the weight and undo all of the successes I’ve had. I struggle with it now. I can’t imagine that it will be any different when I’ve hit my goal.

In the pursuit of excellence, there is no finish line.

No matter what your goals are, you have to be actively engaged in pursuing them. You have to act with purpose and intent. And it’s difficult, especially if you haven’t been actively pursuing a goal before. Objects at rest tend to stay at rest, and that’s true with minds as well. But objects in motion tend to stay in motion, and that is true as well. Take the first step. Take the next step. Take the step after that. It doesn’t matter how slow you go, because any speed is better than immobility.

In the pursuit of excellence, there is no finish line.

Excellence is a difficult thing to pursue, because you will never catch it. You will always be able to improve. You will always be able to do better, to do more. And that can be frustrating. But you can draw closer, and closer, and closer still to excellence.

One step at a time.

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