Most of my blogs are too long for practical purposes. To quip that I’m not a practical person is a shabby defence. It will apparently take three minutes to get to the end of this one. I’d be very grateful if you could take the time, even if you skip every other paragraph. It’ll still make sense.
One of our most enduring moral questions is also disarmingly simple: am I a good person?
Concepts of good and evil are threaded throughout the fabric of the earliest stories we encounter. Whether it’s children’s tales, Disney Films or the Bible, one side wears white and clothes itself in virtue, while the other is plainly and simply dark, without the muddied waters of ethical complexity.
Whatever the source of our ideas, the notion of a clear dichotomy soon blurs with the passage of time. The stories we read as teenagers and adults, and even the narratives of our own lives, blow away easy ideas of right and wrong, replacing them with a complex entanglement of choices. Many of these lack a clear ending, and even if we would endeavour to choose the most moral path available, we cannot see enough of the way ahead to know where it might lead.
Very few of us can answer that question with a simple yes or no. Only a small number of people have done something so wonderful, or so terrible, so as to weigh all their other actions into relative insignificance.
Last year I achieved a lot in athletics. That’s not especially interesting in this context, nor morally relevant, but I am going somewhere. You might suppose the highest and lowest points in the year, certainly the latter, came on a running track, when I got the first and then the second Commonwealth Games standards. You might have been right, but you’re not.
In June, I decided to put one of my closest friends ahead of my own interests. That meant turning down the chance to run for Ireland, and to press ‘snooze’ on a childhood dream. There is no decision in my life I regret less.
In November, I did the opposite. Despite missing the chance to run for Ireland twice more, both for the more personally devastating reason of failing to measure up, not earning it when I felt I wanted nothing more for myself, that hurts far more looking back.
On the first occasion, despite difficult personal circumstances and some psychological struggles, I stepped up to the honour of a best man’s speech that I happily managed to deliver reasonably well. It came less than two weeks after one of the worst evenings of my life. Incidentally, that culminated in being injured, unable to sleep, sitting on a toilet in a dingy hotel room in Spain for several hours reading a book on introversion, clicking my heels together an muttering ‘there’s no place like home’. Especially coming after that, the wedding was one of few occasions that I felt weighed heavily in the ‘good books’, so to speak.
I won’t write about the second thing. This blog is the space for a lot of personal thoughts, vulnerabilities, negativity, doubt, hope and experience, but there are always things we hold back. That’s as it should be. Complete openness is often naive at best, and devastating at worst.
I wanted to write a very long piece that looked at the context and the balance of the last few years, when my life changed more quickly than at any other time before. I wrote above about relative insignificance. I’ve done many things I’m not proud of, as I’m sure we all have, and equally the converse is true.
As much as I hate to admit it, adding words often weaken the message. Just like trying to ‘fix’ that pesky, ambiguous number that looks more like a seven than a one, we’re left with a lot more ink on the page, and a messy scribble that no longer resembles either. Suffice to say that I feel there’s a balance to redress.
One key factor in the success of our goals is whether we share them, and in doing so hold ourselves accountable. For all the new year’s resolutions, upcoming international competition and hope for more, 2018 will be a success if I can avoid the kind of moral failure I closed last year with. The title’s very clear in how I feel about that failure.
In writing this, I encourage anyone else to seek to do the same, and put their moral values ahead of successes, disappointments or the easier, simpler broadcasts of empty positivity on social media. If, in sharing any of my vulnerabilities or reflecting on my deficiencies with the hope to do better, I can help anyone else, that will be as valuable a success as anything on a running track.