During this past week, my school held graduation performance auditions. Because our school is so large, we do not have a valedictorian. Instead, our school has the principal’s “top ten students” for academic distinction and anyone can audition for a chance to speak or perform at graduation. Eight student speeches or performances are chosen to be given on graduation, and I auditioned for one of those spots with a speech I wrote for the occasion. The purpose of the speech is to highlight the importance of participation and not perfection as a goal.
Fourteen years, eleven months, and three days ago, the largely symbolic South African Rugby team, Springboks, took the field for the 1995 Rugby World Cup Championship game. Led by their captain and cheered for personally by their country’s new president, Nelson Mandela, the Springboks defeated New Zealand’s All Blacks in extra time with a drop goal.
The 1995 Rugby World Cup was the first major sporting event to take place in South Africa following the end of apartheid, and it was the Springboks’ first appearance in the Rugby World Cup, having been barred from participating due to their nation’s persistent racism. To say the least, the Springboks had the spotlight on them, and they performed brilliantly underneath it on the world stage. So much so, that the legacy from that performance extends into the present through the recent movie Invictus, which portrays this story of the Springboks.
While Invictus deserves the critical acclaim it received for its historical portrayal of the Springboks and Nelson Mandela, there is at least one major discrepancy between the movie and reality.
In the movie, Nelson Mandela meets with the captain of the Springboks before the World Cup. Mandela provides him with the aptly titled poem “Invictus,” which means unconquerable, presumably as a source of inspiration for the team facing great odds. In reality, President Mandela met with the captain of the team and even gave him a piece of literature for inspiration, but this poem “Invictus” was not the piece of literature President Mandela gave to the captain. Instead, President Mandela gave him an excerpt from President Theodore Roosevelt’s speech “The Man in the Arena.”
I believe this distinction in Mandela’s choice of literature carries an extremely important message, especially for all of us sitting here today.
Mandela’s message to the Springboks was not that they were or should be unconquerable, as is suggested by the poem in the movie. Rather, his message was one of pride and respect because those men had the courage to be “in the arena.”
None of us are unconquerable. We are all human. But this realization is not an excuse for giving up. Instead, it should serve as motivation for learning from our mistakes. The only failure in a mistake is the failure to learn from it, the failure to better prepare to succeed in the future.
Our arenas will most likely not be as clearly defined or literal as a rugby stadium. But our arenas are no less significant.
Whether your arena these next four years and beyond is a college campus, office building, or military base, it is your arena, and you must learn to excel within it.
My hope today is that we all learn to recognize the arenas that are important to us and that we have the courage to fully participate in those arenas without the fear of losing. To recognize that by participation we are, like the Rugby team, already winners.
Those of us who ultimately succeed in life will choose to enter the arena, learn from setbacks and use those challenges as a motivation for success. As Nelson Mandela himself once put it, “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”
With these thoughts in mind, I would like to leave you with the words of President Theodore Roosevelt. For these are the words that President Nelson Mandela shared with the South African Rugby team to serve as their inspiration, and it is these words I share with you today with a similar intention.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”