"When the act of reflection takes place in the mind, when we look at ourselves in the light of thought, we discover that our life is embosomed in beauty." --Ralph Waldo Emerson, Spiritual Laws
When we think of spirituality, a common image that is conjured is of someone kneeling in solemn prayer or sitting in deep meditation. But, for me, spirituality invokes images of a fictional boxer. Let me explain.
On May 28, 1982, my father and I played hooky, him from his job as an upholsterer, me from Catholic school, so we could catch the first showing of Sylvester Stallone's Rocky III. It was opening day, the Friday before Memorial Day, and this little excursion of ours was a more than a little treat though. It was a bit like a pilgrimage. For almost two years I had played Rocky and Rocky II on a regular basis on our family VCR (now just a plastic dinosaur taking up space in some landfill in Staten Island). In that time,
I had become endeared to the underdog story of Rocky Balboa, a humble Philadelphia boxer who went the distance against the heavyweight champion of the world, Apollo Creed. Rocky defied all odds and even though he was a just a character in a movie, he felt real to me and his struggles, valor and victories left an indelible imprint on my young mind. When word got out early in 1982 that another sequel was hitting theatres in the Spring I tormented my parents with unending questions: So what do you think it's going to be about? Is he going to fight Apollo again? Is he going to win? Is he going to die? What if there are monsters in it? Or Jedis? I watched a lot of Stars Wars on that VCR too.
The third movie did not disappoint. Rocky was back. He was rich now, more civilized, and looked ripped liked the superheroes from my Green Lantern and Superman comic books. There was also a new opponent; the most awesomest bad guy around...Clubber Lang, played with some serious fury by Mr. T. I cringed when Clubber beat Rocky into a pulp. I cried when Mickey, Rocky's cantankerous trainer died of a heart attack, and I literally jumped out of my seat at the start of the final scene--the rematch between Rocky and his formidable foe.
Here's the scene: The two warriors face each other in the ring. Clubber looks his smaller opponent dead in the eye and says, "I'm going to bust you up." Rocky doesn't flinch. Instead he curls his lip and says three short words: "Go for it." I rocketed out of my seat and shouted back at the screen, "Yeah, Go for it!" If I remember correctly, I wasn't the only one. I think my dad said it too.
I don't want to give anything away for those who haven't seen the movie (spoiler: Rocky kicks Clubber's ass), but long after the screen faded and my father and I walked out of the theatre and drove back home to resume our everyday lives, "Go for it" became a catch phrase that defined my life. When a kid tried bullying me in school, Rocky's words gave me the courage to fire back, "Go for it!" (though it didn't actually stop me from getting pummeled to the ground).
When I struggled at Math in high school, I turned things around by quietly, but passionately, speaking to my inanimate Calculus test, "Yeah, you're going to keep me down? Go for it." When my parents got divorced or when I couldn't find work or when a relationship ended or when I felt like I just wanted to give up (because life can make you feel that way), those three words would spring forth from deep inside, "Go for it."
It's been thirty years since I saw that movie at the start of a Memorial Day weekend and as I see it now, "Go for it" is an anthem that best defines this holiday. It's at the core of American spirituality and by spirituality, I don't mean anything denominationally religious, but that homegrown, intangible American spirit that, like water, can't be grasped in your hand, but packs quite a wallop during times of adversity. It's that something that lies inside all of us, something author Jacob Needleman calls the "mystic core of human nature." It's a combination of defiance and determination seasoned with a knowing that there is something inside us bigger than ourselves.
Looking back we can see the "Go for it" spirit in the signers of the Declaration of Independence (King George III:" I'm going to bust you up"; John Hancock: "Go for it" as he signs his name as big as a small house on a piece of parchment that changed the world). You can imagine that spirit in Abraham Lincoln as he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. That "Go for it" attitude was in the soldiers of the Civil War (who we originally commemorated with this holiday),
it was found in Thomas Edison; the Wright Brothers; Susan B. Anthony and the suffrage movement; Franklin Delano Roosevelt; the men and women of the Greatest Generation; the Beats; the Hippies; Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and the leaders of the Civil Rights movement; the soldiers fighting overseas now in far-flung parts of the world; and in the hearts of every man, woman and child who stood up for themselves or someone or something over the last two hundred plus years. In the end it's this affirmative spirit that defines the American soul and makes us most human in the best sense of that word. Emerson writes:
So come I to live in thoughts and act with energies which are immortal. Thus revering the soul, and learning, as the ancient said, that its "beauty is immense," man will come to see that the world is the perennial miracle which the soul worketh, and be less astonished at particular wonders; he will learn that there is no profane history; that all history is sacred.
Or in other words, this Memorial Day weekend: Honor. Live life. Seek beauty in all things. Love.
Go for it.