The Greatest Game Ever Played is a true story about an unaccomplished young golfer, Francis Ouimet, at the turn of the century and how he beat the world’s top two golfers in an 18-hole playoff at the 1913 U.S. Open.
Francis’s goal to be a great golfer is juxtaposed against his father’s more mundane ideas. Mr. Ouimet is a hard-working immigrant from the old school. His attitude toward Francis’s ambitions is summed up by his words: “Being a man means knowing one’s place in the world and making peace with it” (quote isn’t exact). Although the movie is somewhat sympathetic to Mr. Ouimet, overall his thinking is portrayed as peasant-like: backward, old world, and as un-American as his foreign accent.
The movie portrays Francis’s struggle and eventual championship at the U.S. Open as the American way. His battle celebrates initiative (trying to be the best), democratic social leveling (crashing through barriers that surrounded the game at the turn of the century), and individualism (doing what he wants, even against his father’s wishes).
America views itself as the land of no limits: A person can be whatever he wants, if he’s just willing to work hard and not give up on his dreams. It’s the reason a sizable number of movies (Rocky, One on One, Rudy, The Rookie, to name just a scant few in the sports genre alone) resonate with the American populace.
But a moment’s reflection shows that the sentiment is foolish. Dreams do come true occasionally (and are the stuff of movies, like Miracle and Glory Road), but normally, a person doesn’t reach the heights he strives for. Dream trains get derailed all the time, by a legion of causes. A person might pick a field in which he lacks the God-given talent. He might lack the proper funding to get the training. He might lack the time. He might lack the connections. He might lack a dozen other things.
Mr. Ouimet’s peasant sentiment of making peace with one’s situation, on the other hand, is rock solid. It’s been a mainstay of philosophic thinking for thousands of years, perhaps finding its greatest expression in the works of the Stoics (Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius).
Now don’t get me wrong: I think young people should strive for their dreams. But each youngster should also be prepared for what happens if the dream doesn’t come true, and I don’t just mean prepared financially (the college football player who also gets a meaningful degree). I mean prepared psychologically and emotionally, so he doesn’t live in depression the rest of his life, thinking he’s a loser if he makes peace with his situation in life.
Happiness, by definition, means contentedness. Every type of unhappiness stems from a feeling that something isn’t fulfilled, that something falls short. Sometimes, the missing thing is obvious: “I’m unhappy because my spouse died.” Sometimes, the missing thing isn’t obvious. Ask depressed people what’s bothering them. They’ll admit something is, but they often can’t identify it; they just know something’s missing.
If a person can’t make peace with his situation—whether it’s as a millionaire who didn’t succeed in becoming a billionaire, as a father who works for a living and can’t achieve his artistic goals, or a young golfer who must give up his PGA dreams—he’ll never be happy. If a person doesn’t make peace with his situation, after all, that means he’s not content. And if he’s not content, that means something is missing, and happiness will elude him.
Can you think of any situation (feel free to use your imagination) in which the peasant sentiment of making peace with one’s situation doesn’t make for a good life?
You can’t . . . unless you think happiness isn’t the ultimate goal of living. And if you think that, there’s nothing I or anyone else can say that will make a difference.