Everyday Greatness: Inspiration for a Meaningful Lifeby Stephen R. Covey
Every issue of Reader's Digest features a story that exemplifies people living to their best, often through adversity and challenge. This collection of inspiring stories, the best from the Reader's Digest archives, are brought together with pertinent commentary from Dr. Stephen Covey to become an inspiring and life-changing resource for anyone… See more details below
Every issue of Reader's Digest features a story that exemplifies people living to their best, often through adversity and challenge. This collection of inspiring stories, the best from the Reader's Digest archives, are brought together with pertinent commentary from Dr. Stephen Covey to become an inspiring and life-changing resource for anyone who wants more from life. The format lends itself to either serious study or more casual perusal.
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Everyday GreatnessInspiration for a Meaningful Life
By Stephen R. Covey
Rutledge Hill PressCopyright © 2007 Stephen R. Covey
All right reserved.
All men should strive to learn before they die, what they are running from, and to, and why. - James Thurber
In our most reflective moments, each of us wants to make a difference-a contribution. Call it a cause or call it a mission, we want be a part of something meaningful. Detecting what our contribution will be on a daily basis, however, is not always easy, especially when we are so tangled up with the little things of life. Yet there comes a point when each individual should strive to clarify what he or she will stand for and what purposes he or she will choose to pursue.
The following stories highlight three individuals who each came to a point of choice in life-a time when each was forced to decide whether he or she was to act upon life by stepping forward and making a contribution, or simply sit back and be acted upon. The first story tells of a young man by the name of John Baker. A gifted runner with Olympic aspirations, John's sense of meaning and contribution is tested like never before. As you read of the choices he made and the purposes he chose to pursue, reflect on what you will do with your life over the next weeks, months, and year. What contributions will you make?
John Baker's Last Race William J. Buchanan
The future looked bright to twenty-four-year-old John Baker in the spring of 1969. At the peak of an astonishing athletic career, touted by sportswriters as one of the fastest milers in the world, he had fixed his dreams on representing the United States in the 1972 Olympic Games.
Nothing in Baker's early years had hinted at such prominence. Light of build, and inches shorter than most of his teenage Albuquerque pals, he was considered "too uncoordinated" to run track in high school. But something happened during his junior year that changed the course of his life.
For some time, the Manzano High track coach, Bill Wolffarth, had been trying to induce a tall, promising runner named John Haaland-who was Baker's best friend-to join the track team. Haaland refused. "Let me join the team," Baker suggested one day. "Then Haaland might, too." Wolffarth agreed, and the maneuver worked. And John Baker had become a runner.
Surge of Energy
The first meet that year was a 1.7-mile cross-country race through the foothills east of Albuquerque. Most eyes were focused on Albuquerque's reigning state cross-country champion, Lloyd Goff. Immediately after the crack of the gun, the field lined up as expected, with Goff setting the pace and Haaland on his heels. At the end of four minutes, the runners disappeared one by one behind a low hill inside the far turn of the course. A minute passed. Two. Then a lone figure appeared. Coach Wolffarth nudged an assistant. "Here comes Goff," he said. Then he raised his binoculars. "Good grief!" he yelled. "That's not Goff! It's Baker!"
Leaving a field of startled runners far behind, Baker crossed the finish line alone. His time-8:03.5-set a new meet record.
What happened on the far side of that hill? Baker later explained. Halfway through the race, running well back of the leaders, he had asked himself a question: Am I doing my best? He didn't know. Fixing his eye on the back of the runner immediately in front of him, he closed his mind to all else. Only one thing mattered: catch and pass that runner, and then go after the next one. An unknown reserve of energy surged through his body. "It was almost hypnotic," Baker recalled. One by one he passed the other runners. Ignoring the fatigue that tore at his muscles, he maintained his furious pace until he crossed the finish line and collapsed in exhaustion.
Had the race been a fluke? As the season progressed, Wolffarth entered Baker in a number of other events, and always the result was the same. Once on the track, the modest, fun-loving teenager became a fierce, unrelenting competitor-a "heart" runner who simply wouldn't be beat. By the end of his junior year Baker had broken six state track records, and during his senior year he was proclaimed the finest miler ever developed in the state. He was not yet eighteen.
In the fall of 1962, Baker entered the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and stepped up his training. Each morning at dawn, spray can in hand to ward off snapping dogs, he ran through city streets, parks, and golf courses-twenty-five miles a day. The training told. Soon, in Abilene, Tulsa, Salt Lake City, wherever the New Mexico Lobos competed, "Upset John" Baker was confounding forecasters by picking off favored runners.
In the spring of 1965, when Baker was a junior, the most feared track team in the nation belonged to the University of Southern California. So, when the mighty Trojans descended on Albuquerque for a dual meet, sportscasters predicted doom for the Lobos. The mile, they said, would fall to U.S.C.'s "Big Three"-Chris Johnson, Doug Calhoun, and Bruce Bess, in that order. All had better times for the mile than Baker.
Baker led for one lap, then eased purposely back to fourth position. Rattled, Calhoun and Bess moved uneasily into the forfeited lead. Johnson, wary, held back. In the far turn of the third lap, at the same moment, Baker and Johnson moved for the lead-and collided. Fighting to stay on his feet, Baker lost precious yards, and Johnson moved into the lead. With 330 yards to go, Baker kicked into his final sprint. First Bess, then Calhoun, fell back. On the final turn it was Johnson and Baker neck and neck. Slowly, Baker inched ahead. With both hands above his head in a V-for-Victory sign, he broke the tape-a winner by three seconds. Inspired by Baker's triumph, the Lobos swept every following event, handing the demoralized Trojans their third-worst defeat in sixty-five years.
A Coach Who Cared
Upon graduation, Baker considered his options. There were college coaching offers, but he had always planned to work with children. There was also his running. Was he, he wondered, Olympic material? In the end, he accepted a job that would allow him to pursue both ambitions-he became a coach at Aspen Elementary School in Albuquerque, and at the same time renewed his rigorous training with an eye to the 1972 Games.
At Aspen, another facet of Baker's character emerged. On his playing fields there were no stars, and no criticism for lack of ability. His only demand was that each child do his or her best. This fairness, plus an obviously sincere concern for his students' welfare, triggered a powerful response. Youthful grievances were brought first to Coach Baker. Real or fancied, each was treated as if at the moment it was the most important matter in the world. And the word spread: "Coach cares."
Early in May 1969, shortly before his twenty-fifth birthday, Baker noticed that he was tiring prematurely during workouts. Two weeks later, he developed chest pains, and one morning near the end of the month he awoke with a painfully swollen groin. He made an appointment to see a doctor.
To urologist Edward Johnson, Baker's symptoms were ominous, requiring immediate exploratory surgery. The operation confirmed Johnson's fears. A cell in one of Baker's testicles had suddenly erupted in cancerous growth, and the mass was already widespread. Though Dr. Johnson didn't say it, he estimated that even with a second operation, Baker had approximately six months to live.
At home recuperating for the second operation, Baker confronted the grim reality of his world. There would be no more running, and no Olympics. Almost certainly, his coaching career was ended. Worst of all, his family faced months of anguish.
Edge of the Precipice
On the Sunday before the second operation, Baker left home alone for a drive in the mountains. He was gone for hours. When he returned that evening, there was a marked change in his spirits. His habitual smile, of late only a mask, was again natural and sincere. What's more, for the first time in two weeks, he spoke of future plans. Late that night, he told his sister Jill what had happened that clear June day.
He had driven to Sandia Crest, the majestic two-mile-high mountain peak that dominates Albuquerque's eastern skyline. Seated in his car near the edge of the precipice, he thought of the extended agony his condition would cause his family. He could end that agony, and his own in an instant. With a silent prayer, he revved the engine and reached for the emergency brake. Suddenly a vision flashed before his eyes-the faces of the children at Aspen Elementary, the children he had taught to do their best despite the odds. What sort of legacy would his suicide be for them? Shamed to the depths of his soul, he switched off the ignition, slumped in the seat and wept. After a while he realized that his fears were stilled, that he was at peace. Whatever time I have left, he told himself, I'm dedicating to the kids.
In September, following extensive surgery and a summer of treatments, Baker re-immersed himself in his job and to his already full schedule he added a new commitment-sports for the handicapped. Whatever their infirmity, children who had once stood idle on the sidelines now assumed positions as "Coach's Time Keeper" or "Chief Equipment Supervisor" all wearing their official Aspen jerseys, all eligible to earn a Coach Baker ribbon for trying hard. Baker made the ribbons himself, at home in the evening, from material purchased with his own money.
By Thanksgiving, letters in praise of Baker from grateful parents were arriving almost daily at Aspen (more than five hundred would be received there and at the Baker residence before a year had passed). "My son was a morning monster" one mother wrote. "Getting him up, fed, and out the door was hardly bearable. Now he can't wait for school. He's the Chief Infield Raker."
"Despite my son's assertions, I could not believe that there was a Superman at Aspen," wrote another mother. "I drove over secretly to watch Coach Baker with the children. My son was right." And this from two grandparents: "In other schools, our granddaughter suffered terribly from her awkwardness. Then, this wonderful year at Aspen, Coach Baker gave her an 'A' for trying her best. God bless this young man who gave a timid child self-respect."
In December, during a routine visit to Dr. Johnson, Baker complained of a sore throat and headaches. Tests confirmed that the malignancy had spread to his neck and brain. For four months, Johnson now recognized, Baker had been suffering severe pain in silence, using his incredible power of concentration to ignore the pain just as he had used it to ignore fatigue when he ran. Johnson suggested painkilling injections. Baker shook his head. "I want to work with the kids as long as I'm able," he said. "The injections would dull my responsiveness."
"From that moment," Johnson later remarked, "I looked upon John Baker as one of the most unselfish persons I've ever known."
Cups for Dashers
Early in 1970, Baker was asked to help coach a small Albuquerque track club for girls from elementary through high school age. Its name: the Duke City Dashers. He agreed on the spot and, like the children of Aspen, the girls on the Dashers responded to the new coach with enthusiasm.
One day Baker arrived at a practice session carrying a shoebox. He announced that it held two awards, one for the girl who, though never a winner, wouldn't quit. When Baker opened the box, the girls gasped. Inside were two shiny gold trophy cups. From then on, deserving Dashers received such cups. Months later, Baker's family would discover that the trophies were his, from his racing days, with his own name carefully burnished away.
By summer, the Duke City Dashers were a club to contend with, breaking record after record at meets throughout New Mexico and bordering states. Proudly, Baker made a bold prediction: "The Dashers are going to the national AAU finals."
But now a new problem plagued Baker. His frequent chemotherapy injections brought on severe nausea, and he could not keep food down. Despite steadily decreasing stamina, however, he continued to supervise the Dashers, usually sitting on a small hill above the training area, hollering encouragement.
One afternoon in October, following a huddle on the track below, one of the girls ran up the hill toward Baker. "Hey Coach!" she shouted. "Your prediction's come true! We're invited to the AAU finals in St. Louis next month."
Elated, Baker confided to friends that he had one remaining hope-to live long enough to go along.
But it was not to be. On the morning of October 28, at Aspen, Baker suddenly clutched his abdomen and collapsed on the playground. Examination revealed that the spreading tumor had ruptured, triggering shock. Declining hospitalization, Baker insisted on returning to school for one last day. He told his parents that he wanted the children to remember him walking tall, not lying helpless in the dirt.
Sustained now by massive blood transfusions and sedation, Baker realized that for him the St. Louis trip was impossible. So he began telephoning Dashers every evening and didn't stop until he had urged each girl to do her best at the finals.
In the early evening of November 23, Baker collapsed again. Barely conscious as attendants loaded him into an ambulance, he whispered to his parents, "Make sure the lights are flashing. I want to leave the neighborhood in style." Shortly after dawn on November 26, he turned on his hospital bed to his mother, who was holding his hands and said, "I'm sorry to have been so much trouble." With a final sigh, he closed his eyes. It was Thanksgiving Day of 1970, eighteen months after John Baker's first visit to Dr. Johnson. He had beaten the odds against death by twelve months.
Two days later, with tears streaming down their cheeks, the Duke City Dashers won the AAU championship in St. Louis-"for Coach Baker."
That would be the end of the John Baker story except for a phenomenon which occurred after his funeral. A few of the children of Aspen began calling their school "John Baker School" and the change of name spread like wildfire. Then a movement began to make the new name official. "It's our school," the kids said, "and we want to call it John Baker." Aspen officials referred the matter to the Albuquerque school board, and the board suggested a voter referendum. In early spring of 1971, 520 families in the Aspen district voted on the question. There were 520 votes for, none against.
That May, in a ceremony attended by hundreds of Baker's friends and all of his children, Aspen School officially became John Baker Elementary. It stands today as a visible monument to a courageous young man who, in his darkest hours, transformed bitter tragedy into an enduring legacy.
John Baker did not choose to have cancer, but he did choose his response. He chose to make a contribution. By focusing his last energies on the hearts and spirits of the children, he left a lasting legacy in the lives of those he touched. And in so doing, surely he experienced the inner rewards that accompany a life of meaning.
* * *
Like John Baker, Mary Clarke, too, faced a choice point. With her children out of the nest, her husband gone, and so much of life behind her, would she choose to sit back and be a "spectator" or choose instead to make a contribution?
Gail Cameron Wescott
A riot was raging through La Mesa prison in Tijuana, Mexico. Twenty-five hundred fed-up prisoners, packed into a compound built for six hundred, angrily hurled broken bottles at police, who fired back with machine guns.
Excerpted from Everyday Greatness by Stephen R. Covey Copyright © 2007 by Stephen R. Covey. Excerpted by permission.
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