June 3, 2011

Reflection / Sean Gallagher

Remain humble in life’s victories and defeats while running the good race

The finish of last Sunday’s centennial running of the Indianapolis 500 should be remembered for the next 100 years because it teaches us timeless lessons that touch at the core of the human condition.

Most of you know the story by now. J.R. Hildebrand, a 23-year-old rookie driving the Panther Racing/National Guard car, was half a mile from winning the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” He had safely completed 799 left turns at the Brickyard, and only had one more before he could drink milk in Victory Lane.

Then he tried to pass a slower, lapped car, got too high in turn four and, with the finish line in sight, slammed into the outside wall, destroying his car and hopes for victory.

As Hildebrand’s car slid down the front stretch, Dan Wheldon passed him and went on to beat the rookie by two seconds. At the time of the crash, Wheldon was four seconds behind Hildebrand—a virtual eternity with only a quarter of a lap to go.

Humility seems to be a clear lesson to be learned from this great sports story. No matter how close or how far we might be to achieving whatever goal we might have in life, we should never presume that it is either entirely within or outside of our grasp.

Circumstances—some within our control, others that are not—can change our outlook for victory or defeat in a moment, just as happened to both Hildebrand and Wheldon in the final seconds of the Indy 500.

Concluding that we have everything sewn up or that defeat is assured can be expressions of pride, if perhaps unconscious ones.

With the former, we think that victory is within our grasp. With the latter, we think that there is nothing that we can do to change our fate. In both cases, we put the emphasis on ourselves.

Yes, God has blessed us with gifts and talents unique to each one of us to further our own salvation, his glory and the good of others. But if we forget that we are to do all of this with the help of his grace, we will end up either in pride or despair.

Such hopelessness could have easily gone through Wheldon’s mind moments before Hildebrand’s crash. He had finished second in the previous two Indy 500s, and had done so as a member of the same team that Hildebrand was racing for—and with the rookie’s sponsor.

In the previous offseason, the once golden boy of IndyCar racing had fallen out of the limelight, failing to secure a

full-time car for the 2011 series. With a quarter of a lap to go, Wheldon faced the prospect of a third straight runner-up finish and witnessing his replacement at Panther Racing taking the checkered flag.

But in interviews after his victory in which he discussed the latter portion of the race, including the final lap, Wheldon said he was only focused on passing as many cars as he could to put himself in a position to win at the end. He had never given up hope.

Yet, no matter how much hard work that he put in, the factor that directly led to his victory was still out of his control. He did nothing to cause Hildebrand’s crash.

The same is true in our own lives. Triumphs should never be occasions of prideful complacency for ourselves. They instead should lead us to gratitude for the help we received from others and from God.

And if defeat comes our way, which it inevitably will, we should look to Hildebrand’s noble response to his downfall as a model for ourselves.

He never bemoaned his fate or sought to blame others. In interview after interview, Hildebrand simply explained his crash for what it was, and said he would learn from it and improve in future races.

If we take a humble attitude toward life, defeats will never weigh us down and victories will never puff us up. God’s grace, in either case, will keep us on level ground, running the good race.

(Sean Gallagher is a reporter for The Criterion, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.)

Local site Links: