The Empty Stadium
“I’m almost there. Less than 500 meters now.” Jill gritted her teeth as fatigue coursed through her body. The triathlon is a grueling race and it was taking its toll on Jill. Her knees felt weak, her lungs were burning, and her feet screamed for relief. Relying on her years of sacrifice and training, she searched for the resolve she needed to maintain the slim margin she held over the other contenders.
Jill could see the stadium now. Her energy was nearly spent, but the thought of entering the stadium spurred her forward. She found herself focusing on each step, trying to keep it together.
As she rounded the last turn to enter the stadium, she thought of the many races she had run before this - the cheering fans, the support from friends and family, the rush of finishing first. This time was different though. This time she was met with a wall of silence, nearly draining her of any energy she had left.
She hated Covid. It had changed so much in her life. She had lost her elderly father to Covid and now the Olympic stadium was empty. Jill realized her elation of finishing had quickly turned to anger, but the anger provided a source of energy too that spurred her forward on the last leg of the race.
“What am I doing this for?” Jill asked herself. She had always wanted to be an Olympic champion, but so much of that was driven by her desire to have her father be proud of her. He was gone now. The stadium was empty. Something about the whole situation felt too representative of her life.
As she crossed the finished line, her thoughts rushed back to the present. She had won! She had won a gold medal in the Olympic triathlon! Half a world away at home, she knew that her mother and sister would be cheering her on. She knew she had tremendous support from friends and family in her hometown. And yet, it was half a world away. It felt even farther. It all felt as empty as the stadium.
These thoughts and more continued to weigh heavily on Jill's mind all throughout the succeeding medal ceremony; so much so, that her coach could sense her disappointment. “What’s wrong Jill?” her coach asked.
Glancing around at the empty stadium, Jill's frustration boiled over. "What is the point?" she almost shouted. "Did I put in all that work for this? For the most important race of my life to end with deafening silence? Why have they taken everything away from me?"
“Jill, I know Covid hasn’t been easy for you, or for others either.” her coach quickly replied. “Right now, you serve as an inspiration for all of those watching you, for all of the kids working hard to make it to the Olympics.”
“An inspiration for what?” Jill asked seriously. “Should I be inspiring people to come and compete in front of an empty stadium and pretend it’s wonderful? Why would I lie to kids like that?”
“Winning a gold medal isn’t a lie” her coach replied. “This is a huge accomplishment, a culmination of a lifelong goal. What you are doing is helping people to see that there is more to a goal than having it be just for the immediate praise of others. You are showing that goals and hard work are integral parts of becoming everything you can possibly be.”
Jill’s mind was teeming with thoughts, but she found herself thinking about whether she had become everything she could be. “Does a gold medal represent who I am?” she thought. “Who am I really anyways?”
On the plane back from Tokyo, Jill couldn't tear her mind away from the feeling of emptiness that continued to grow inside her. Her Olympic experience hadn't lived up to its billing, she missed her family, and she particularly missed her father. The loneliness gripped her heart. Was she destined to live her entire life in an empty stadium? Why did life have to be so lonely anyway?
Her mind reflected on all of her days of training, her early mornings, her times foregone with family or friends. She had wanted to become someone important, someone celebrated, someone successful. She had achieved all of that, but yet … the empty feeling stayed, with the pain inside remaining constant.
Was it because there were no fans in the stadium? Did the number of people cheering affect how she felt about herself? Or was it something else?
As the plane continued its long flight over the Pacific Ocean, Jill thought extensively about the empty stadium. Something about it touched her deep inside and stirred a mountain of emotions that had long been buried. She realized that the empty stadium felt somewhat like her heart; containing expansive capacity, yet full of a hollow and empty feeling.
When Jill returned, she was greeted with a number of cheering people that her mom and sister had brought to the airport. Jill smiled and flashed her gold medal at them. It felt wonderful to see her mom so proud of her, but she longed for her father as well. She wondered if people really live after death and whether he knew what she had achieved.
At home, Jill found her life quickly returning to normal. There were a few mentions of her victory in the national news, a celebration in the local news, a sponsorship outreach every now and then, but mostly, life felt too much like the empty stadium.
One day, Jill found herself at the local library, looking through old books from the collection of classics. She had not heard of many of them and thumbed through the ones she did not recognize. As she did so, her eyes fell on a sentence that said:
The only path to know your true self is the one you walk alone.
She stared at the sentence. Something about it resonated with her, but she did not understand why. She had certainly never felt more alone than when she had entered that empty stadium in Tokyo. “Is that empty stadium helping me know my true self?”
As Jill reflected on this, she thought about the difference in winning gold in triathlon in an empty stadium versus winning in front of a cheering crowd. She realized then that the lonely path exposed her true desires and motives.
When others were around, they influenced her decisions, motivations, and desires. With others around, it was not entirely possible to know who she really was inside, not until she was in a position to have to decide for herself what it was that she really wanted. The lonely path was helping her understand who she was and what she wanted.
As she reflected on this, she thought about the desires that pushed her to pursue Olympic gold. She wanted friendship, popularity, a sense of achievement, and others to understand that she was strong inside. Most of all, she wanted to make her father proud, and she realized that she never fully knew where she stood in his eyes.
Her eyes filled with tears as her thoughts turned to her father. He had not been a very emotionally expressive person, and she realized how that trait lived on in her; impacting her ability to connect closely with others. As she thought about why she cared so much about what her father thought, she realized it was because of all he had done for her.
Her father had worked non-stop to give her more opportunities in life. He was often tired, and not around much. He was not able to make it to all of her meets and competitions as he was usually working to pay for them.
She tried to imagine why he would have done all of that work so that she could compete. She realized it had to be because he loved her. Maybe he didn’t express things perfectly, maybe she wanted him to be there more, but maybe, she suddenly realized, a part of him still lived in her, pushing her to achieve and be all she could be.
Her eyes flashed with sudden understanding. She was not alone; she never had been. Similar to her competition in Tokyo, her family and friends had been cheering and screaming all along, just like her father was still motivating her. The empty stadium was just an illusion of the true reality she lived in, one that spanned the globe and involved people cheering and supporting her, even people she did not know.
She realized then that she was the product of a long line of people who had each given and contributed something to get her to where she was today. While she had put in a considerable effort herself, her heart was not the only place to find what she was looking for.
As she thought on those that went before her, she reflected on all that they had gone through and overcome and how the gifts of their sacrifice became a part of who she was. She could see the brilliance and beauty of the unique individual that she was, with parts and pieces contributed by countless ancestors.
As these thoughts flashed through her mind, she also saw her lonely walk. While loneliness gave her the ability to refine and develop what she had inside, it was also an illusion. She was never really alone. Her father lived in her, as did many others who went before. She was connected and a part of a vibrant tapestry of progression, pursuit, and achievement. It was now her turn to help inspire and touch others.
She suddenly knew what she needed to do. Her life had a purpose, and she had people to help. She smiled as she realized that her best days were just ahead as she could work to change the world, for good.
Loneliness is an important part of understanding who we are. When others are around, we act differently, and it is in our lonely walks that we learn the most about who we are and what we are made of.
We are not always proud of what is inside of us. Sometimes we give up, or give in to things that we know we shouldn’t. Sometimes we fear, sometimes we abuse the gifts we’ve been given, and sometimes we do nothing productive with our time.
Despite this, we are never truly alone. There will always be a small light prompting us inside, prompting us to understand our true, deeper purposes, prompting us to understand that we are the living embodiment of many who have gone before, and that we can change the world, for good.
When we accept the truth that we are capable of helping to change the world, for good, we gain connections that run deeper than we can often fully sort through or understand. In other words, these connections transcend the logical, conscious mind, but they impact and inform so much of what we do.
To truly know who we are, we all need our own empty stadiums; our empty days, weeks, months, or years where we have to decide who and what we are about. These empty stadiums can then bring us to a place of connecting with the many who have helped us to get to where we are; as long as we can put aside our shallower drives and desires.
So, if you find yourself feeling alone, welcome the ability it gives you to understand more about your true self. At the same time, heed the small nudges of light you feel inside, the voices of those speaking to and encouraging you, the spirits of those who have gone before. As you learn to be who you were called to be, you will find relationships that will help you live a life full of connection, purpose, and happiness as you strive to become who you were called to be.
Life is short, but you can work to help change the world, for good. Please join us as we work to help inspire and lift each other to be our best selves. The world will never be the same.