On March 3, 2018, Sir Roger Bannister died. As news of his death at the age of 88 hit the airwaves some might remember that this was the second time his death was publicly announced. 64 years earlier the young medical student became the first person to run a mile in under four minutes. As he crossed the finish line in three minutes and 59.4 seconds on that momentous occasion on May 6, 1954, he fell exhausted to the ground. One Pathé newsreel report declared that he had died in his attempt to break the four-minutes-mile just as doctors had warned would happen to anyone who tried to do the impossible. The reporter quickly reversed himself when Roger Bannister triumphantly stood up.
One particularly amazing fact about the aspiring neurologist’s accomplishment was that his record was broken only 46 days later. In the following year, six more people broke the world record and today many college athletes run the mile in less than four minutes. Clearly, the human body is capable of doing so which begs the question as to why young Bannister was the first. He didn’t even have any particularly special training! Yet, his name is famous while the names of those who surpassed his record within only a few weeks and months have faded into oblivion.
The answer is simple: Until Roger Bannister ran the mile in under 4 minutes, nobody believed that it could be done.
I have heard my husband relate Roger Bannister’s story and the subsequent question many times. It is a powerful life lesson that if we human beings don’t believe we can do something we won’t be able to do it. We often need to work first on changing our minds and hearts in order to bring our goals to fruition.
While my husband usually draws implications for business from this lesson, I want to apply it to another arena. Fewer and fewer people today believe that it is possible to create a joyous marriage that lasts for many decades. In large part this is due to fewer people having first-hand experiences of such marriages. Not only are we surrounded by divorced friends and relatives, or divorced ourselves, but many couples opt out of marriage in the first place. As Americans and those in many other countries marry later in life, a delighted couple in their fifties may have only been married for fifteen years or so and don’t present a road map for a young man and woman in their twenties who are contemplating marriage.
Even if there are long-term happily married couples in our orbit, the likelihood is great that both husband and wife are working outside the home. Neighborhood backyard get togethers, leisurely cups of coffee and relaxed evenings with friends are fewer and farther between. As large extended families are more rare and spread out over a greater geographical range, many teenagers and those in their twenties and thirties don’t have close relationships with members of other generations. It is easy to grow up without ever having a close look at a traditional, thriving, joyful marriage.
In what has devastating impact, we allow the press to fool us into thinking a celebrity couple are soul mates. A few years later we watch them go through a bitter divorce. Marital affairs of prominent people grab the headlines while faithful couples go unnoticed. Today, increasing numbers of women and men get married or decide not to get married without ever having had personal exposure to a successful and sunny marital relationship.
Paradoxically, in our social media age, a huge number of us pay tear-jerking, almost desperate attention to accounts of elderly couples who share or shared decades of loving togetherness. While it is notoriously difficult for a young person to picture him or herself as elderly, videos such as this one, which has garnered over 7 million views, or stories like this exert a strong pull. Does anyone actually not want someone as devoted to him or her for as long a time as the couples in these stories?
Unfortunately, the message of these sentimental tales is overwhelmed by the noisy media, academia and entertainment driven culture telling us the opposite. Along with the hubris of youth, cultural messaging and personal experience tells young people to reject or delay marriage and to treat the covenant lightly. The bottom line is that many doubt that they could actually have such a marriage. It is worth taking time to internalize the message of Roger Bannister and his record shattering under four-minutes-mile. Believing in and treasuring the idea of traditional marriage is often a prerequisite to achieving one.