Vail Daily column: Pulling together profits us |

Vail Daily column: Pulling together profits us

Jack Van Ens
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Jack Van Ens

Rowing with one oar makes a boat go in circles. The boat surges forward, however, when a rower dips oars in the water and rhythmically pulls.

“The Boys in the Boat,” a best-seller about the University of Washington’s eight-man crew working as gears in well-oiled machine, tells a compelling story about collaboration. Working as a team, these scullers formed a cohesive unit, winning a gold medal in Berlin at the 1936 Olympics. This book tells the unlikely story of collegians from working-class families during the Great Depression who showed what works in rowing a boat and winning political battles. They epitomized the adage: “The many, working as one, for the good of all.”

This book recounts how ambitious and agonizing personal endeavor, combined with teamwork, determines success. Unhealthy ambition may get a schemer to where he wants to go, but that path can prove destructive. For instance, Lady Macbeth showed rotten ambition by trampling others to get ahead. She accused her husband of lacking unbridled ambition. That is, do a murderous deed to succeed.

Unlike Lady Macbeth, rowers in “The Boys in the Boat” exude healthy ambition. Shakespearean actor Kenneth Branagh says, “I think that ambition need not be ruthless. Ambition begets adventure, a process that teaches us the journey is potentially more than the arrival.”

“What I’ve learned about ambition,” he teaches, “is to share it, that it need not be about you, that it works best quietly and insistently and can indeed be healthy, despite what Lady Macbeth says.”

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“The Boys in the Boat’s” author, Daniel James Brown, makes the same point, telling the story of rowers who form a team. “The sport offers so many opportunities for suffering and so few opportunities for glory that only the most tenaciously self-reliant and self-motivated are likely to succeed,” emphasizes Brown.

“And yet, at the same time — and this is the key — no other sport demands and rewards the complete abandonment of the self the way that rowing does. Great crews may have men or women of exceptional talent or strength; they may have outstanding coxswains or stroke oars or bowmen; but they have no stars. The team effort — the perfectly synchronized flow of muscle, oars, boat and water; the single, whole, unified and beautiful symphony that a crew in motion becomes — is all that matters. Not the individual, not the self.”

The Bible highlights individual effort that merges into communal good. The Apostle Paul addressed Corinthian Christians who were stuck on themselves. Paul compared them to a human body out-of-sync. Say, an eye wants to go solo, preening as the No. 1 sense. Such a thought is ridiculous, declares Paul. It’s ludicrous for the eye to hog all the glory. “If the whole body were an eye,” the Apostle imagines, “where would be the hearing?” (I Corinthians 12: 17). An ear and eye use coordinated activity in order for a person to simultaneously hear and see.

As World War II fractured Europe into competing militaristic nations, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt believed U.S. citizens needed to pool their energies for the national good. Our nation was “rowing” into choppy international undertows of war.

On Jan. 6, 1941, FDR declared that every person deserves Four Freedoms: Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear.

Citizens agreed their American birthright granted religious freedom to speak, but the last two freedoms from want and fear started a furious debate. Conservatives worried such a pledge bordered on socialism. These freedoms guaranteed aid without recipients working for it. Republicans endorsed an alternate set of freedoms, to preserve the right of industrious citizens to acquire as much wealth as their talents made possible. Conservatives wanted nothing to do with FDR’s programs for justice that forced wealthy citizens to share their fortune with impoverished people.

Promoting hyper-Yankee individualism, congressional conservatives leaned on Roosevelt’s successor, President Harry Truman. They urged him to revise and pare down the Four Freedoms. In 1947, Truman obliged. He dropped “freedoms from want and fear,” replacing them with what economic conservatives believed was the “No. 1 freedom of enterprise.”

Conservatives renounce active government that encroaches on personal freedoms. They reject the federal government regulating business growth. Using the language of rowing, conservatives are convinced that our nation forges ahead when individuals row strong and straight. They forget out-of-sync rowers slow down their boat. The best teams work together, complementing others’ strengths and shoring up others’ weaknesses.

In the 1920s, historian James Truslow Adams (1878-1949) identified what makes the U.S. thrive in his book “The Epic of America.” Citizens harbor a “dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyman.” The devil is in the details, of course, because Americans aren’t of one mind on what it takes for citizens to participate in what’s “better and richer and fuller.”

Picture the U.S. as a sculling boat. Citizens form the crew. President Obama is the coxswain barking signals so the team rows in sync. Benefiting from rising approval numbers at 48 percent in a recent CNN poll, which are equal to Ronald Reagan’s in 1987, President Obama challenges many to work as one for the good of all.

Citizens who heed their president’s call replicate the boys in the boat’s stellar achievement.

The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (, which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.

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