Now is the winter of our discontent.
I never cared much for basketball, but I always liked Michael Jordan. I mean, did you see Space Jam?
Yes, his legend was romanticized. Yes, Michael Jordan and others profited from it; the silhouette of his slam dunk sold shoes undoubtedly made by some other nation’s kids in a sweatshop. But there was something magical that Michael could do that other athletes couldn’t: Michael made me believe in myself. Michael Jordan was the poster boy of the American success story: work hard, love what you do and you may reap the rewards of your dedication.
Michael Jordan set a pretty high bar, but he made the attempt so fun to pursue. We’ve had other heroes along the way as well: Babe Ruth, Michael Johnson, Tony Hawk, and others.
Then Lance Armstrong was caught doping. The Michael Jordan of the cycling world watched as his statue built in the hearts and minds of America came crumbling down, and not Livestrong, not Oprah, not any of his supporters could come out and save it.
Every time a hero falls from grace, the war we wage with our own moral integrity gets a little more difficult to fight.
“After all,” we say, “if our heroes lie to the tune of $500,000, is the lie justified?” But what about someone who doesn’t care about profit? What does that cyclist, or runner, or weightlifter who told themselves, “I can do it without doping; Lance Armstrong did it!” have left when it comes out that their excuse for pushing themselves was built upon a lie?
Now maybe not everyone gives a damn about Lance Armstrong. But what about Catholics?
It’s coming out now that the Pope’s real reason for resigning is so that he can hide in the Vatican for the rest of his miserable life dodging the responsibility of the decisions he made while running the Catholic Church—because what the Catholic Church right now needs is a leader who tucks tail and runs from the law. Wasn’t the Christian religion founded on the teachings of a man who not only faced his persecutors, but did so knowing they would crucify him—literally?
What are the amputees of the world supposed to tell themselves after finding out their hero, the “Blade Runner” Oscar Pistorius, is accused of murder?
What about the many children in elementary and high school who dream of playing football? What do they tell themselves after hearing about Jovan Belcher’s murder-suicide, taking the lives of his girlfriend and himself, when it’s being revealed that the cause was likely head trauma caused by the very sport they want to play?
What is my soccer-loving friend from college to say? The world’s most popular game is again facing credibility issues as a match-fixing scandal implicates over 400 club officials, match officials and even high-profile players as suspects—and they may be just the “tip of the iceberg” according to Europol. This friend of mine regularly wore the jersey of a team whose captain may be accused of corruption, a captain who—more than his parents I fear—may have been his hero.
The music world is used to their heroes burning bright but burning out early, with Amy Winehouse being the most recent inductee to what is referred to as the 27-Club, following the footsteps of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, and others. Need I mention the lives and deaths of Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson?
What about young, aspiring writers like myself? How am I supposed to deal with hearing that Jonah Lehrer was paid $20,000 by the Knight Foundation to give an apology speech about plagiarism after being fired from The New Yorker, demonstrating to me that even the heroes of the Fourth Estate are not above scandal when it comes to making a living.
Those Livestrong bands, those captains’ jerseys, those books and trading cards aren’t just manufactured to give kids in sweatshops jobs. People wear those jerseys! People read those books! It’s not about the merchandise; we invest in those things because, like any investor, we’re hoping for a return in the form of a shard of that legendary greatness. We want to be shareholders of that experience!
I own a Livestrong band. It sits next to my computer.
My grandmother died from cancer.
In my head there exists a garden, peopled by statues of marble and bronze: the heroes of my life in their greatest aspects.
The birds in this garden sing the quotes of these heroes like mantras. These are the aspects I call upon within myself from time to time, urging me to be better, to push harder, to get back up when I have fallen to the floor. I have never met these heroes in person; some died long before I was born. Some were never born, but were the fictional crafting of other artisans. The point is not their reality, but the power that I have to invoke them and, through them, change the course of the reality that lay before me.
We do this with our heroes: we erect likenesses of them in our minds and aspire to be as good or better than that image, not the real person. Lance Armstrong isn’t a flesh and blood being; he exists entirely within my imagination. In many cases, our expectations are so overshot that we forget the people who inspired them are capable of failure. Sometimes, we cannot look objectively at the facts.
The Buddhists have a saying, a koan: If, on the road, you should meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha.
The Buddha long since left his flesh behind; he was a man once, but now he’s a set of ideas and (mis)quotes, a face people attach to everything from yoga studios to shoes: the Buddha is competing with Michael Jordan in more fields than one.
Every now and then, a yogi is called upon to commit murder. These murders that yogis partake in are not ones of flesh and blood; what Siva’s sword cuts is not flesh, but ideas, habits and patterns. When we fight our wars, the battlefield is in the realms of consciousness, and the demons we fight are addiction, anxiety and their allies. Perhaps it’s easy to think, “What a futile effort! Do you not know about global warming?”
In case you haven’t heard, a cheating epidemic is sweeping the nation, as was highlighted in the recent Stuyvesant High School study. While other studies have begun to probe into not just the “how” but the “why” of cheating, it is becoming apparent that cheating has become more ethically acceptable, at least by those doing the cheating. The younger generations (within which I include myself), when faced with the decisions of profit or passing grades vs. ethical integrity, ethical integrity isn’t just losing—it’s getting creamed out there. But we didn’t just drum up this idea; we got it from somewhere.
If the illusion being offered by our heroes is one that corruption, cheating and impulsiveness are not only expected, but acceptable and even deemed as necessary from big banks, the government and the worlds of sports, education and journalism, then it’s time to return to our gardens.
It’s time to rip down the statues we have built.
It’s time to kill the Buddha.
It’s time to buy shoes not by the silhouette on their side but by their comfort on our feet, or the trade it took to make them. It’s time to take up our cycles and pedal even harder. It’s time to stare in the eye those who tell us that only by unethical aid is success possible and say, “I will show you otherwise.” It’s time to write our legends not with the aid of steroids or schemes, but by the sweat of our efforts and the passion in our hearts.
If you were waiting for your Campbellian Call to Action, by God, by Buddha, this is it:
You can settle for a less-than-ordinary life. But you feel like you were meant for something better—something special.
I dare you to do better.
Livestrong was founded in 1997 and has since raised nearly or more than U.S. $500 million towards cancer research, research that has saved innumerable and invaluable lives, research that gave my grandmother a fighting chance. That $500 million was raised not by a man, but by a statue built in a garden, a statue that weeps and weathers in the wind.
I dare you to do better.
Kevin Macku is a 20-something fledgeling yogi with a love of words. He is a trained actor who occasionally appears in local movies and on stage. His preferred methods of expression are based in movement: Suzuki’s Training for the Classical Actor, Viewpoints and Butoh to name a few, all of which benefit from the practice of yoga. In the midst of a rigorous physical practice, he discovered he was undergoing a spiritual transformation, and began to document the experience. These entries can be found at http://doafy.posterous.com/. Kevin himself can be reached at [email protected].
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Ed: Kate Bartolotta