January 16, 2013

We Need a Hero

For the next few days, until Oprah's two-part interview has aired and been hashed and re-hashed, we won't be able to turn on the computer or radio or television without hearing about Lance Armstrong.  I don't need to go over all the details of his story.  We already know them:  Cycling.  Cancer.  Winning many yellow shirts and giving away even more yellow plastic bracelets.  The foundation.  The accusations.  The drugs.  The lies.

Why do we care?  Sure, there will be a lot of talk about the Role of Performance-Enhancing Drugs in Professional Sports.  It will be a Topic.  But, honestly, how much do we, most of us, care about that?  Maybe we care about our kids.  I don't want mine to think that they need to take steroids to succeed as athletes, but that doesn't occupy much of my attention, or, probably, yours.  Certainly it's not enough to explain the wall-to-wall media coverage.

What do the commercial powers-that-be think we'll be tuning in to hear?

I guess there's nothing like a good fall-from-grace narrative.  He seemed to be such a great guy.  Maybe it's the scene-of-an-accident gawking that draws us in.  How the mighty have fallen!

But I don't think so.

I think, even in our cynical, is-nothing-sacred age of information overload, we want to be able to find and believe in something that is true.  Lance Armstrong told us a fairy tale, and we wanted to believe in it.  We wanted there to be a man who survived cancer and went on to continue his career as a world-class athlete.  We wanted him to start a successful foundation and raise a lot of money for good causes and help little kids and help us all to become better versions of ourselves.  We wanted to believe in him.

He gave us what we wanted for a while, but what are we left with?  Nothing more or less than another reason to be cynical.  Maybe there is nothing sacred.

A few years ago I read the first five books of the Bible (the Books of Moses, Pentateuch, or Torah) end to end.  (If you choose to do this, be prepared to encounter a lot of blood and dead animals.)  One of the things I noticed was what it means for something to be holy in the terms set out in these books of the Law.  Things -- objects, sacrificial animals, people -- weren't holy because of anything particularly special about them, but because they were set apart for God.  Whatever it is, thing, beast, or person, it becomes holy when it is dedicated to God.

What does it even mean for us to set our things or ourselves apart for God?  To aid us in addressing the question, let's call God by one of God's other names, Love.  Not all of us relate to God as a personal Someone, but can we get our heads around what it might mean to direct our possessions, our pursuits, and our hearts toward Love?  And by Love I mean to evoke the classic sense of willing the good of the other.  

That is exactly what Lance Armstrong seemed to be doing, even as he collected more fame and adulation, prize money and endorsements.  Somehow, we felt, he was doing it for us.  For the sick kids.  For the betterment of the world.  For Love.

Instead we see that his work wasn't holy, but profane.  It wasn't Love, but manipulation or fear or greed or pride or vainglory or something.  Something other than Love.

I do it too.  I live profanely when I direct my life energy toward willing what I imagine will be good for me first and foremost.  How can I blame Lance Armstrong?  I get it.

Maybe the real reason it's hard to look away is that Lance Armstrong and other would-be heroes who publicly fall from grace are, in the end, holding up a mirror for us.  I want to find a hero, and I want to be a hero.  If he or she can do it, maybe I can too.

But I'm looking in the wrong place.  There is only one place where I can see a true reflection of true heroism, and I don't want to look there.  You know why.  It's because heroic love involves suffering, bleeding, dying.  It's not about big trophies and getting my picture in the newspaper and living in a mansion.  It's about hanging on a cross.

I want what Lance Armstrong wanted -- all the glory and none of the cost.  But it doesn't work that way.

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