August 13, 2021

Reflection / John Shaughnessy

‘By God’s grace,’ striving to live with freedom instead of fear

John ShaughnessyThe photo captures a heartbreaking, helpless moment in the life of a parent and child.

The photo shows a mother standing by the incubator where her premature, newborn daughter sleeps in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) of a hospital.

The mother smiles, but it seems to be a nervous, uneasy smile, touched by the reality that there were moments during the pregnancy when both the lives of the mother and the child were at risk—and that her daughter’s life still is.

Months after that photo was taken, the mother posted it on the social media platform Instagram. She also included a message that read in part, “Almost 8 months ago, this was my entire world, staying in the NICU all day and night watching my baby girl fight. I can still hear the beeping and alarms of the machines, the uncertainty, the fear. … I thank God we are healthy.”

That Instagram post was shared by the mother, Allyson Felix, on July 25, 2019. Just a little more than two years later, Felix recently became the most decorated U.S. track and field athlete in Olympic history, winning a bronze medal and a gold medal in the Summer Games in Tokyo, to increase her overall Olympic medal count to 11.

Her achievement as a runner will forever be a part of her legacy, but there’s more that defines her, more that her life offers us as a fellow child, a fellow parent, a fellow Christian, a fellow person who struggles.

As a daughter, she credits her parents for giving her the foundations of faith and family, and she’s equally forthcoming in publicly expressing that she tries to make her life God-centered.

As a mother, she seeks to inspire her now-healthy daughter by setting an example of how to use your God-given gifts, and how to keep fighting for what you believe in and who you aspire to be.

As a person, she understands how hard life can be for all of us at times, how it can lead us to the edge of heartbreak and beyond, and how our faith in God and our support of each other can help us through the uncertainty, the fear.

At the Summer Olympics—her fifth—the 35-year-old Felix said it was “by God’s grace” that she was able to compete again. She also shared another defining Instagram post on the eve of running in the finals of the women’s 400-meter race.

“I’m not afraid of losing. I lose much more than I win,” she wrote. “That’s life and I think that’s how it’s supposed to be. I’ve found that I learn more from my losses and that I have gained much more value in the journey toward a goal than achieving that goal.

“I’m afraid of letting people down. Of letting myself down. I hold myself to such high standards, and I’m realizing as I’m sitting here the night before my final individual Olympic final that in a lot of ways I’ve let my performances define my worth. … But right now I’ve decided to leave that fear behind.

“I’m not sharing this note for me. I’m sharing it for any other athletes who are defining themselves by their medal count. I’m writing this for any woman who defines her worth based on whether or not she’s married or has kids. I’m writing it for anyone who thinks that the people you look up to on TV are any different than you. I get afraid just like you, but you are so much more than enough. So take off the weight of everyone else’s expectations of you. Know that there is freedom on the other side of your fear. Go out there and be brave with your life because you are worthy of your dreams.”

In more ways than on a track, Felix strives to run the good race. By God’s grace, may we reach for that goal, too.

(John Shaughnessy is assistant editor of The Criterion.)

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