Every Two Minutes: Reflections on Pelé and Decision-Making

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, December 30, 2022 / 6 Tevet 5783

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Summary: Some memories and lessons I learned from Pelé.

Reading Time: Four minutes

Earlier this week, a congregant shared with me a quote she had found particularly profound: “We are all given only two minutes to live; however, when we take a breath, then the clock resets.”

According to Smithsonian Magazine, the current world record holder went 24 minutes without taking a breath in a pool of water, but most of us top out at two minutes. Most of us, indeed, are only given two minutes to live, so there is a way in which this quote is literally true for each of us.

Pondering its implications, however, offers some interesting insights. For example, I recently read that one of the key differences between highly successful people and the rest of us is that they tend to make decisions quickly and then endure the consequences of their choices. It’s not that they decide something willy-nilly without proper consideration; rather, they are well-versed in their own values and the knowledge of their industry, so when an opportunity appears, they are ready to pounce.

Additionally, as all of us know, not all of our choices turn out as we had hoped. Yet here, too, the highly successful seem to understand that any choice, no matter how long they deliberate on it, can produce a bad outcome. In such cases, all we can ever do is roll with the punches, make adjustments, and keep moving forward. Symbolically, it is as though these people understand that they only have a couple of minutes to live, so they make the most of the time they are given.

My friend Ahmed, with whom I started the Numi Tea Company, has always exemplified this teaching to me. If something needs to be done, he does it without hesitation. I stand in awe of his achievements, which include owning numerous businesses and non-profits, that spring from this deeply internalized understanding of how life-changing any two minutes can be. Nike may have trademarked its famous “Just Do It” tagline, but few of us do just that.

Nike may have figured out how to successfully monetize three simple words, as it makes sense for a company that is focused on athletics. Sports, more than many human endeavors, is often measured in seconds and minutes, not days or weeks. Opportunities on the playing field require sufficient training and instinct so that when the ball comes to you, you don’t hesitate.

Yesterday, the world lost its greatest “gentleman athlete,” and I lost one of my childhood heroes. King Pelé was, indubitably, the greatest footballer of all time; what made him stand out was how his gifts of humility, human decency, and moral standing equaled his football genius. Few athletes who stand at the apex of their sports also shine as inimitable moral exemplars, yet he was one.

I owe a profound debt to my parents who found the resources necessary for me to attend the Pele Soccer Camp in Westchester as a boy. I attended for two or three summers, normally for one week. Though the time was short, the impact was large, another example of how valuable a couple of minutes could be.

At night, once it was too dark to play outside, we would sometimes watch videos of games in which Pelé had played. One evening a film showcased Pelé playing to a stadium packed primarily with white fans who continuously heckled him, calling him a monkey. The thing with Pelé was he really knew who he was and what his value as a person was, one of those necessary components to make successful decisions quickly. At a certain moment, he got the ball just past the midfield. He proceeded to dribble and juggle the ball downfield, passing several defenders before making an exquisite goal. If I recall correctly, he scored using the famous “bicycle kick” that he invented. After this magnificent goal, he ran around the stadium, shouting at the racist fans, “That’s how a monkey scores a goal. That’s how a monkey scores a goal.” After all these years, this memory is incredibly emotional; what a powerful way to counteract racism and bigotry.

What most stands out, however, is one time when I showed up late to dinner in the dining room and found just one table left with Pelé and a few counselors. They could have sent me to the kitchen, or waved me away—after all, I missed the dinner hour. Instead, Pelé beckoned me over, had me sit next to him, and took an interest in me as a person. The King of Soccer made me feel like a king. No hesitation and no surprise; this man who cared for and was a spokesperson for the world’s poor had a heart that instinctively reached out to a young boy to let me know I had a place at the table. There’s a Facebook group for those who attended one of the Pelé Soccer Camps; everyone had a similar story to mine. They may only have had thirty seconds with the King, yet he used that time to transform our lives.

As the secular year winds down, it is a reminder that although we only have a couple of minutes to live, when we take a breath, the clock indeed resets. May we each breathe and live fully the final moments of 2022 even as we endeavor to do the same in 2023.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk will resume in the new secular year. Happy Hanukkah and a healthy 2023.

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