For the last few years, my wife and I, sometimes joined by our children, have been huge fans of the hit show American Ninja Warrior. Last year was especially exciting as, for the first time ever, two contestants actually completed Stage 3 of Mount Midoriyama and were able to go for the fourth and final stage. As it turned out, both of them would finish the final stage, but only one of the finishers won any prize money. This year, stakes were high (a million dollars is a huge payout!), and it was once again a tremendously entertaining show. Unfortunately for ANW fans, the show ended last week when the only two ninjas to finish Stage 2, Daniel Gil and Drew Dreschel, both fell on Stage 3.
Since ANW just finished, it’s left me in a lurch for mindless entertainment. But it’s also got me thinking about why this show is so addicting. There are, of course, tons of reasons why people might find ANW to be gripping television (you saw that pun, didn’t you?), but I want here to focus on just three possibilities: discipline, failure, and humility.
Discipline in ANW
In its eight seasons on the air, thousands of ninjas have attempted to scale Mount Midoriyama. But, as I mentioned earlier, only two have succeeded. Through that long span of time, fans have gotten a glimpse into a few “celebrity” ninjas. That is, we’ve come to know a few contestants who have been regulars on the show, and who normally have great success. We learn a little about their background, and really start having a favorite or two (or three) to root for. But more than that, I’ve come to see that there is an absolutely insane amount of work that goes into preparing for ANW. Many of the more well-known contestants either own a “ninja gym” or have built obstacles in their backyard.
Beyond the financial investment, these people often also balance their day job and their family life with their ANW training. Seeing the physical abilities that these otherwise ordinary folks have summoned simply by training hard, for years and years, it utterly amazing. Many times during the show, former professional athletes, especially a number of NFL players, have attempted the course in the early rounds and very few of them are able to complete it. Meanwhile, ordinary moms and dads, engineers, fast food workers, and camera men, and people from all sorts of background have made it to the finals. How do they do it? Through discipline, for starters.
Training for the brutal physical demands of ANW takes a scheduled and well-thought-out plan of life. It means making sure that the contestants take care of their daily duties and responsibilities, and then also have time to train. It probably also means eating purposefully, and certainly means less time spent idly. At the very least, it means having a consistent intention, day in and day out, to pursue their goals.
Failure in ANW
Another element to ANW that, I think helps it connect with fans like myself, is the reality of failure. For the overwhelming majority of the participants on the show, their run will end in failure. Many of them succeed and perform truly incredible feats of strength, agility, endurance, etc. But in the end, they all fail. They fall, usually into a cold pool of water, in front of the live audience as well as the television audience. People see them fail. This is important because much of what we see on television tries to erase failure, and make everything seem as though it all works out. ANW certainly celebrates the successes that some of its competitors experience, but it also does a good job of showing that, in the end, most people will fall short.
One case stands out for me as the best example by far: Geoff Britten. In a competition that sometimes features professional rock-climbers or contestants who actually train full-time, Geoff was an ordinary guy with a wife and children and a regular job. He is a camera man who covers sporting events. Last year, in 2015, Geoff pulled off an absolutely stunning season on ANW. He hit every single buzzer, and was the first person on the show to scale the final stage of Mt. Midoriyama. As it turned out, he didn’t win the million dollar prize. Even moments after losing out on such a huge prize, he had nothing but positive things to say about the winner, Isaac. Geoff returned to ANW this year just for fun, and never uttered a single word about missing out on that prize. He was just remarkably humble about the experience.
Geoff performed as expected up until the finals, where he fell on the very first obstacle of Stage 1 of Mt. Midoriyama. But his attitude was just incredible. He laughed, shrugged his shoulders, and said he was going to focus on the things that really mattered: his wife and children. He later revealed he will take time off from the show in a fantastic interview that really shows, I think, a tremendous example of humility.
This significant chance for failure leads to perhaps the most meaningful aspect of the show, at least for my taste: the possibility for a growth in humility. In particular, some of the more well-known ninjas such as Flip Rodriquez and Drew Dreschel, started out their careers as very high-profile, flashy performers. They ran the course with skill, but they also ran for speed. They wanted not only to finish a course, but to get the fastest time. And that means they’ve taken risks that are needless, just for a bit of personal glory. I’ll be honest here and admit that I have almost always rooted against such performers.
There are a lot of people who have yet to grow out of this prideful sense of wanting all the attention, but some such as Flip, have really given their fans an image of maturity and growth. A few ninjas have also realized that, while they are still competing for a million dollar prize, they also have a chance to do some real good with their fame. Many of them have made significant contributions to charities and foundations to help out those in need. Kevin Bull, for instance, has done a lot with a group of children who suffer from alopecia, while Flip has recently spoken truthfully about being abused as a child, and has encouraged other victims to speak out and seek help.
The Deeper Meaning
Catholics ought to find a ready parallel to all of this, of course, in the spiritual life. Consider the saints: they come from all walks of life, and by the grace of God are able to stick to the grind of Christian discipleship despite sometimes severe push-back from their families and societies. The life of sanctity is, to be sure, not something earned by pure grit and determination or human discipline. Yet there is also no chance of someone becoming a saint without some effort. As St. Augustine famously said, God created us without us; but he did not will to save us without us. (CCC #1847). And, in the life of most saints, we find a mountain of failures. Sometimes these are major, involving lives lived in explicit contradiction with the Gospel, before a conversion changes their course. Other times, the saints detail for us the minutiae of their spiritual lives and how they never lived up to the true call to perfection. In every case, whether we’re talking about a Saint Augustine or a St. Therese, we see a profound image of how to live with our failures, how to grow in humility, and how, in the end, to give it all to God.
God Love You!