The Games

The Netherlands had plenty of bad luck during the recent European Soccer Competition. Weeks before the show started, Dutch soccer fans already had a clear vision of bringing the cup home, or of, at least, playing in the finals. However, things went wrong from the very first match, when ‘we’ shamefully lost the game against Denmark. Well, I do not know much about soccer, but loosing against the Danish seems to be a real tragedy that you want to forget as soon as possible.

The Dutch participants in the Tour de France did not do much better. A certain Laurens ten Dam (of whom I had never heard before), passed the finish line in Paris with a miserable 28th place.

Last night, at long last, the Olympic Games in London have started. During the next few weeks more than ten thousand men and women will compete for 302 gold medals, and for just as many silver and bronze plaques. How many gold medals are the 178 Dutch participants going to win at the 18 events in which they compete? I understand that, if all goes well, we may expect to hear the Dutch national anthem about eight times. Well, we will see.

All around the world the expectations are high. China, the US and Russia will no doubt again top of the list of the countries with the highest number of medals. But every participating country has its hopes! An Afghan boy told me last week that his country will probably win the taewondo competition. After his explanation I now know that taewondo is an (originally Korean) kind of martial arts.

How important is it to win? Many of the athletes have unequivocally stated: ‘I am going for the gold!’ But the actual value in money of a gold medal is very limited, since there is only 6 gram of real gold in this much desired object—the rest is mostly silver. The winning is clearly a matter of personal or national honor. (It is easy for me to say that this would not be an important factor for me, since the chance that I would bring a gold medal home would be somewhere in the region of one in seven billion.)

But . . .  is, in fact, the privilege of being a participant not more important than to win? Is it really such a drama if someone else happens to be just slightly better than you are? And, let’s face it: winning does not always depend on whether you are in fact the very best. The other may just have had some bad luck. And you may loose, since you had a day on which you were not fully fit, or somehow could not fully concentrate. Is it not primary a matter of preparing as best as you can, and then simply of giving it your best?  It would seem to me that this applies to all ten thousand-plus athletes in London,  but also to all of us in the week that is about to begin.

For most of us life is one great, constant competition, in which we must try to be the best. Can we not, however, simply be content with the privilege of being able to participate, while so many can only be spectators? And then, can we be happy to simply do our level best? And can we not accept that at times we may not have our day, or that a colleague is just a bit better in some things than we are? Always going ‘for gold’ may often only lead to a lot of painful frustration.

 

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Wallenberg

If I would have to list the five most famous Swedes, no doubt Dag Hammersköld would be one of them. He served as the second secretary general of the NATO, and died in a suspicious plane cash in 1961. I also immediately think of Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of the world-wide IKEA furniture empire. Others who might be near the top of the list would include (collectively) the famous Abba-group, Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite who gave his name to a series of prestigious prizes, and perhaps film maker Ingmar Bergman. But I would certainly also include Raoul Wallenberg.

This week I discovered in a Swedish bookstore a new biography of this important Swede, that I could not resist buying (Bengt Jangfeldt: Raoul Wallenberg—en biografi; Publisher: Wahlström och Widstrand, 2012). In the last two daysI have already read a substantial part. Wallenberg was born one hundred years ago (August 4, 1912) in one of the richest Swedish families. It was the intention that he would be educated to get a leading role in the family baking business. But things turned out differently. At the beginning of the Second World War he entered the Swedish diplomatic service for a special ssignment in Hungary. He would receive immense fame because of his heroic role in saving many thousands of Jewish lives.  But when the Red Army, in January 1945, conquered Budapest, Wallenberg was arrested on suspicion of espionage. He died, most likely in 1947, in a prison in Moscow under circumstances that have remained unclear until today.

Wallenberg did not live beyond the age of about 35 years, but his short life had great significance. How did he so quickly attain to such a prestigious post, and could he become so influential? The first hundred pages or so of the book answer that question. He had a most privileged upbringing. He was able to travel extensively and could register for the best study programs that were available. In his holidays improving his skills in foreign languages was high on the agenda. His name opened doors for him everywhere and a single letter from a family friend was enough to provide him with an effective recommendation.

When reading such a biography, one cannot help but wonder how others would done if they had been born and raised into a similarly privileged home. Who knows what many of them might have achieved? Come to think of it: What possibilities might have opened for me, had I not been born into a simple, poor family in a small village in a rural area north of Amsterdam, but would have come into this world with a name that opens doors, with parents with good academic degrees, etc.?

It is better to quickly stop thinking along those lines. There are plenty of people whose cradle was also found in a prosperous suburb, but who do not profit from their privileged start in life. A few days ago I happened to see a sad example of this on a website where super rich kids tell about the ways in which they throw around their money and are engaged with things that radiate boredom on all sides.

Yet, there are also lots of examples of men and women who did not have a golden spoon in their mouth when they started life, but who—often against the stream—have succeeded in building a life of significance, for themselves and for others. I just hope that others might include me in that category.

 

 

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Grandchildren

 

Children determine to a large extent the quality of your life. Often people are prepared to go at great lengths or to spend enormous amounts of money in their desperate attempts to have children themselves or to adopt them. Those who are familiar with the Bible may feel that they have the duty to produce offspring, since the first human beings were told by their Creator ‘to go and multiply’ (although He did not say with what factor. . .).  The Creator was good enough to equip his human creatures in such a way that this would not be an unpleasant chore, but, on the contrary, provide a great deal of pleasure. Those who defend the idea of evolution are convinced that natural selection made it possible for attributes to develop in order to ensure that the various forms of life would multiply with sufficient enthusiasm.

But all of us who have children know that getting and raising children is more than a sum total of a series of biological factors and involves more than some natural and social laws. For most people who have witnessed the birth of their child (or children), this remains an event they will never forget. Of course, this does not imply that a person who, either voluntary or involuntary, does not have any children, must live an incomplete life. Nonetheless, getting and raising children changes a person’s life.

Getting and enjoying grandchildren is somewhat similar, but there are differences. Whereas, often one has to patiently wait until the first child arrives on the scene, this is even more often the case with regard to grandchildren. A lot of displeasure (to put it mildly) has been caused when mother or mothers-in-law kept asking when they would at last have the pleasure of becoming grandma.

The arrival of a grandchild is usually a reason for intense joy. I remember how, just a little over five years ago, our son called us from Sweden (where he lives with his family) to tell us that we would soon become grandpa and grandma. That was great news. Recently I read a statement (from someone whose name I have forgotten): ‘Getting grandchildren is God’s way to compensate us for the fact that we begin to grow old!’ There seems to be a lot of truth in that.

This seems to describe the feeling I have, now that my wife and I are back in Sweden for some ten days to enjoy our two grandchildren. I am amazed how rapidly the oldest of the two, who is now almost five years of age, is accustomed again to being with ‘opa’ and ‘oma’.  The youngest is a little over a year and is also not afraid of faces she does not see everyday. But being with the grandchildren also reminds me of another quotation that I had subconsciously stored somewhere in the back of my mind: ‘An hour with your grandchildren makes you feel young again, but after that, you become older quite rapidly.’  I just went with five-year old Leah to a playground. I had to push her tricycle up a long hill. And I had to push the swing and also move other things around. And, of course, on the way back home, Leah knew exactly where I could buy her an ice-cream.  Altogether, a lot of agreeable but hard work. It did not take long before Leah knew how to find YouTube films of Donald Duck and Micky Mouse on grandpa’s laptop. And opa’s services are regularly wanted for reading from the pile of Dutch books that is regularly replenished when we visit. Since the children are raised bilingually, Leah has no problem in understanding the Dutch stories.

How can it be that children that you see at most twice a year mean so much to you? And that they can be so quickly at ease with two elderly people who can only be seen from time to time on Skype and only visit a few times a year?  ‘Family’ is and remains a mysterious phenomenon. I cannot explain what it is, but I surely would not want to miss it.

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