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Olympic healing

07 September 2012

FOR a nation that is supposed to be bitter and cynical, there is a nagging question in the air: why have the London Olympics and the Para­lympics made us feel so good?

These Games have seized us in a way that no one expected. Wasn't the whole thing meant to be a disaster from beginning to end? In the build-up, the press permitted only negative stories, and, back in May, some east-London clerics were told by an offi­cial doom-monger: "For the dura­tion of the Olympics, make no plans to travel anywhere; be prepared for Christian funerals to be sus­pended, and mobiles will probably crash."

But the truth was rather different. London roads were quieter than ever, mobiles were fine, and wonderful hosting left the Games rated a great, if expensive, success. The large medal haul for Britain simply added to the celebrations - and why not?

Remarkable achievements have littered our screens this summer, both on the track and behind the scenes. And, as the opening and closing ceremonies revealed, we may have lost our empire, but we still have our humour, and our music. A decent exchange, many would say.

But is this the whole story of our feel-good Games? Or have they also become an unexpected parable of psychological health?

The integration of psychology and spirituality, of reality and aspiration, is a slow journey; a cheerful mara­thon rather than a frenetic sprint. And, along the way, as in the hurdles, pole vault, or rowing, there is no journey that is free of failure and pain. We face our challenges in life as best we can, while accepting our limita­tions as humans. Rebecca Ad­ling­ton was not worse in London than in Beijing: it's just that others were better. Hard work was helped by luck in China; but the same hard work without luck in London meant disappointment.

And so we accept certain things as a given: we accept, along with the athletes, that we cannot eliminate suffering; that we cannot experience all there is to experience; that we must limit ourselves to certain events; and that every choice we make is also a loss of something. Train to win the 10,000 metres, and you will have to say goodbye to your family for a while. That's a lot of acceptance.

"Integration means a life that is constructed as much around defeat and hurt as around attainment and joy," writes the psychologist Kenneth Pargament. And perhaps this is why living the Olympics and Paralympics has been so healing. In the stadium, as in our lives, defeat and hurt jostle with attainment and joy, all part of the whole. How could anyone win without someone else losing? For Jessica Ennis to have her hour, others had to forgo theirs.

And we must somehow allow it all, aware that nothing puts out our inner fire. Throughout the Games, nothing puts out the Olympic flame; and nothing can extinguish yours.

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