Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Definitive Lance Armstrong Perspective, or Why Buzz Bissinger is an Idiot

It was the summer of 1995. I was between 8th and 9th grade. My family had just moved to Colorado from Vermont. We had cable for the first time and we were living in a townhouse as my parents searched fro something to buy. I would watch the Tour de France in the morning then spend hours upon hours riding my bike around the loop that made up the road in our neighborhood. Over and over again, reliving what I saw.

What I saw was the ultimate competition. Thousands of miles raced over all kinds of roads - and not just one big race, but individual races each day and multiple races over the course of the event. The yellow jersey, the white, the green, the polka dot. It was unreal.

I loved it.

In 1995 the big Spaniard Miguel Indurain won his fifth consecutive Tour, tying him with Anquetil, Hinault and Merckx, the giants of the sport. He was the first to win five in a row. He was not a specialist, performing well in the Time Trial and in the mountains, but dominating neither. He was simply a machine, willing his body to do things no man on the planet could do, and doing it in a monotonous, mechanical fashion. He destroyed people because of his consistency. Even on days when he lost ground, he was always lurking right behind, pounding away on the pedals and refusing to be dropped.

The next year was 1996. The end of one era and the beginning of another. Bjarne Riis won the event, almost gifted by his young protege, Jan Ullrich who seemingly was stronger (indeed in 1997 the defending champ waved Ullrich on to win in a gesture of ultimate grace that makes him more of a cycling legend than his 1996 win). Indurain appeared a shell of his former self. He looked pedestrian, finishing well down in the pack. He could just not keep up.

At the time I assumed that there was a cliff in cycling, a moment when great champions just dropped off the face of the Earth and that Indurain could not fight his moment off. Over time, over eighteen further Tours I learned that it's simply not true. That kind of physical gift does not just disappear if the training continues. There is a point where a champion can no longer be a champion, but in cycling, the demands on the body are so strong that genetics has as much to do with success as training. Some people are just better and they don't cease to be better because of age. In cycling, you fade away; you don't fall.

It was the memory of that moment, of watching Indurain slip back and become mediocre, that confirmed to me the truth I did not want to admit: Lance Armstrong was doping along with everyone else.

Before we go too far. LiveStrong is a tremendous success and a wonderful legacy. They do great work and I am glad to see that Armstrong's refusal to fight doping charges has not hurt (in fact helped greatly) the mission of the organization.

I also believe that Armstrong is one of those genetic freaks. A grand cycling champion, built for success in the sport - and one who also trained harder and more intentionally than anyone else (prior to Armstrong everyone ate pizza and drank beer all night because they burn 12,000 calories a day racing - now they have dietitians). I have no doubt in my mind that were the playing field level, Armstrong could win all seven of those Tours again. The playing field was level, but it was not clean.

From the outside, there were few real hints of a massive problem. The Tour raided the Festina HQ and threw the entire team out of the race one year. There were some failed tests here and there. We were OK. Lance was OK. Then the dominos began to get bigger and more frequent. Ullrich lost his title, as did Tyler Hamilton. Riis admitted to doping during his win in 1996. Guys, big name guys, were dropping like flies.

In the end, cycling came clean. The whole sport. Everyone fessed up and came forward. People admitted they were doping; the tests changed. The era was written off and the sport began to move forward. Well, for everyone but Lance Armstrong. He stubbornly refused. Even when it was more and more apparent that everyone in the sport was doping. He began to stand out like those few crackpot scientists who still claim the Earth is flat.

My brothers and my dad and I used to play online scrabble. Words with Friends before Words with Friends was a thing. At one point an email went out, "why are we still playing this, clearly we're all cheating." We were. The games ended.

That was cycling from 1996 through 2011. The final lost appeal from Alberto Contador spelled the end. The end, of course, for everyone but stubborn Lance. The guy who refused to give in to cancer, refuses the inevitable.

There's just no excuse anymore. He keeps claiming he never failed a test. He didn't. 75% of the doping racers didn't either. The tests have never been that great for the kind of doping most beneficial in cycling. In fact, Lance mysteriously retired about the time those tests started getting accurate. Barry Bonds never failed a test. "But MLB tests are a joke." Marion Jones never failed a test either - and she went to prison.

Armstrong gave up at the final hurdle of a defense that had lasted millions of dollars and thirteen years? Really? The guy who takes nothing from anyone, the most stubborn man in sports gives up right at the finish line? Really? Lance doesn't want the damning evidence and witnesses aired in open court. He wants this to go away, quickly. It should. There's no need to linger. He's forced us to linger long enough.

USADA has been accused of being on a witch hunt. USADA may be power hungry; I'll give you that, but Armstrong is not being treated any differently than anyone else. It's simply that everyone else who's been caught admitted it and moved on. Armstrong is the only cyclist with the kind of money to be able to fight it this far. If you want to know what a brutal witch hunt looks like, check out what Contador has gone through the last five years (and deservedly so).

Nearly a dozen former teammates, coaches, and doctors were set to testify against Armstrong. Sure, some of them were former dopers (but again, nearly every rider falls into this category). Some of the "disgraced former teammates" were caught on tips from Armstrong's camp after leaving his team or angering him in some way. It's tough to refute multiple doctors and friends who put Armstrong in the middle of a massive team wide doping plan, lasting almost a decade. They've got one doctor who says, "I injected him myself."

Buzz Bissinger, never one to shy away from press of any kind, wrote a piece for Newsweek defending Armstrong as a hero, "even if he did use something." The argument being that he was still better. In a sport where everyone was doping, he was still the best.

It's a legitimate argument, but it doesn't make him a hero. In Lance's statement, probably the last statement he'll ever give about cycling, he said he's quitting his fight because cycling doesn't need this. It's true. Cycling doesn't need this. Cycling needed their greatest champion to come clean five years ago, to take responsibility for his part in a rough era of the sport, apologize, and move on.

Almost every one of the dopers is back in the sport. They have to be. There would be no sport without them. Bjarne Riis manages a team. Jonathan Vaughters, a teammate of Armstrong's and one in the middle of the controversy, manages one as well. Even those riders who were never formally implicated, but assuredly were doping have made the transition to clean riding without any fanfare. Not a single rider has made any noise about "being clean the whole time" - that's a telling fact.

Everyone - the media, the riders, the teams, and the fans know what went down. The sport was rotten to the core. It has been fixed (we hope). The only ugly spot left is the refusal of Armstrong to participate in the resurrection of the sport he claims to love.

Remember, for all the good his cancer foundation has done in the world, Lance has always been a selfish person. He was a selfish teammate, both as a supporting rider before cancer and as a team leader afterwards. He dumped his wife and three young children when he got famous and didn't want to be held back from TV appearances and Hollywood parties. He dated Sheryl Crow until she wanted kids and dumped her about the same time she was diagnosed with cancer herself.

It shouldn't surprise us that his own reputation comes before anything else, even the good of his sport. This is who he is. Likely this stubbornness (along with his outrageous CO2 max) made him such a great champion, such an amazing rider. I will never forget the way he just dropped the best cyclists in the world on the most difficult mountains as if they were standing still (and despite their incredible doping - enough to kill a few of them, by the way). Ironically it's that reputation that is being tarnished by his refusal to just make things right.

This controversy is solely a US controversy. Here, where cycling is a fringe sport at best, where cycling is only in the news when Lance Armstrong is in the news, we get a media story crafted mostly by the NBC promotions department and Lance's own PR people.

In the real cycling world, in Europe where it is a way of life, this story was over well before any formal charges were leveled at Armstrong. The whole sport was dirty. Everyone was guilty by association. They've always hated Lance - not just because a brash American ruined their fun, but because they knew what was going on. This is a whole lot of nothing. People on Lance's side are those ignorant of context.

I love cycling. I love the Tour de France. I loved watching Lance Armstrong ride. Those memories are not tarnished. Those superhuman performances will always be with us. Those impossible feats of strength, the lack of human frailty, the dope-fueled records, they are forever a part of the sport.

This year's Tour was the first I got to watch with my daughter. She was about two months old as we watched Bradley Wiggins celebrate on the Champs Elysees. He beat defending champion Cadel Evans. In both of their Tours the drama was gone. Both men simply rode at the peak of disciplined performance. Neither one exhibited short bursts of superhuman strength, but an insane ability to put their body through torture every day for three weeks. They muscled through the event with machine-like consistency.

It was as if we'd come full circle. The champions of the near future will be more like Indurain than Armstrong. The races may be less exciting, but they will be no less impressive. Perhaps one day the mix of genetics, training, endurance, and pure stubbornness will coalesce again into a five-time champion to rest alongside Indurain, Hinault, Anquetil, and Merckx - but they will always be standing in the towering shadow of Armstrong.

The doping is forgivable, given the context. The stubbornness is understandable given the man. It just boggles the mind that he can't ever let it end. The only thing I hold against Lance Armstrong, the only thing most anyone holds against him, is simply a refusal to be human.

That's all we ask.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Be a Man!

We were walking the booths at Middletown's famous Peach Festival a couple weeks ago and I was bombarded by an eager pamphleteer pushing his local congregation. He didn't ask if I worshiped anywhere or even if I cared, but went on happily extolling the virtues of his congregation. "We've got a great children's program," he said, like noticing the stroller I was pushing, "and we're starting up an awesome men's ministry where we're going to do cool man stuff, like wrestle alligators." (I did not make that up.) I politely took his half sheet of paper, glanced at the address (ten miles away in another town) and put it in my pocket to recycle at home.

I could make bones about how his sales pitch had no mention of Jesus in it or how he didn't seem to care who I was (other than a male with a baby), or what exactly wrestling alligators has to do with "ministry," but that would be a lame, lecture-y post.

I wasn't going to write about this incident at all, except later on in the week I read an article somewhere (I really forget; this is what happens when I don't write on the blog regularly). It is likely a common theme and something well documented; it seems overly simple. Yet I had never considered it quite this way before - the article's contention that basically every societal definition of masculinity has to do with dominance, which runs counter to the gospel of submissive love. The result being that when men hear a gospel sermon, it proclaims their very existence as sinful or evil.

If you think about it, this idea of masculinity as dominance makes a lot of sense. We focus on sports (and not those wussy ones where people tie, but the real manly sports where someone has to win - even if it's in "sudden death!), we win at work, even in relationships it's the language of competition. Manly activities include killing animals (and the closer to the extremes of the "with your bare hands - with a bazooka" scale you get, the more manlier the kill). Men are encouraged to shrug off pain - to dominate their own body. It goes on and on.

It's also true that the gospel is often completely counter to these notions. Service, mutual submission, and cooperation are all hallmarks of Christ's teachings. The vision of the Kingdom is one, essentially, where there are no losers (I imagine that makes March Madness much less exciting).

There's a growing faction of pastors out there pushing the "manly" Jesus as a way to recapture the hearts and attention of men so shaped by these societal demands and definitions. All this really does is conform the gospel to the expectations of the culture.

So how do we begin to re-imagine a definition of masculinity which embraces the gospel, but also avoid the wimpy, effeminate portrayal that well serves neither men, nor Christianity?

I think we have to begin with the notion than humanity was created to be disciplined. We have many different impulses and ambitions, but while letting these roam free often benefits us in the short term, the long term effects can be deleterious. I think about the struggle in the NFL between players taught to go all out, but also to be conscious of the places and ways in which they're hitting an opponent in light of recent understandings of head injuries. It's tough to be both brutal and controlled at the same time. James Harrison believes it impossible; I will not argue with this man.

Society seems to want a man who is kind, compassionate, loving and caring - until all hell breaks loose, then they want someone who can knock a few heads.

I'm not sure it works that way.

Strength does not have to go hand-in-hand with domination. I think of Michael Clark Duncan's character in the Green Mile - someone strong and gentle. One of my favorite definitions of "meek" is "strength under control." A Christian definition of "manliness" is more akin to someone who would never use strength, under any circumstances, to benefit himself.

Can we even go far enough to differentiate winning from dominance? Is this why trash-talking is so prevalent in sports? When you reach the highest levels of competition, everyone is good. The games are more an exhibition of skill and not a contest. Trash-talk adds an element of dominance - the attempt to anger or humiliate an opponent. I'm not talking about eliminating pick-up basketball, just the need to use it as a means of proving one's worth.

Maybe that's the answer? Perhaps our equation of masculinity and dominance has something to do with worth. Does our society teach that men are only worthy in proportion to their dominance? Richest, strongest, smartest, nerdiest - men seek out their niche for domination as a way to prove worth. It happens all the time.

The men I know who most embody a gospel masculinity are those with a strong sense of who they are and that they are valued irregardless of what they bring to the table. They are men whose weaknesses are not insecurities, who cannot be threatened by force or dominance; they are men who stand up for what they believe in, even if it means refusing to stand up and fight over who's more dominant.

Isn't that what Jesus did? The Roman Empire challenged him for dominance and he just took the beating and the execution and still came out on the other side. The gospel is about refusing to dominate or be dominated. That's a tricky row to hoe and I'm not sure how well any of us can navigate the space in between.

Instead, let's watch this Oscar winning best song in a motion picture for 2012; I think this sums up my perspective on this issue well:

Monday, August 20, 2012


I've been trying to process this whole Augusta National admitting women thing today.

For those not in the know, Augusta National is likely the richest, most exclusive golf club in the world. They sponsor the Masters, definitely the most exclusive tournament in the world. You have to be super rich and at the pinnacle of your profession to be admitted.

A few years back there was some hubbub about their men-only policy and people were lobbying sponsors to pull out of the TV broadcast for The Masters. Augusta National just decided to air their tournament without commercials and paid CBS whatever they were planning to make from ads. They did this for three years!

These old dudes do not like to be told what to do.

I'm all for the membership deciding what to do with their own club - and the two women they let in are exactly the kind of people who become members, well, except for their gender.

I sure hope the members of Augusta National didn't cave to public pressure.

Deep down it seems alright that there are exclusive clubs based on gender. I had a whole post written earlier today defending the idea. Why shouldn't men and women be able to get away from each other with people they enjoy hanging out with?

Then I thought, should there be white only golf clubs? There certainly were for a while. That ended not because of legal pressure - private clubs can still discriminate all they want - but because people stopped wanting to be a part of a club that excluded a large segment of the population out of hand.

Perhaps that was the thought process of Augusta National. Maybe those rich old dudes got together and said, "why are we keeping women out," and the answer was likely a lot of generalizations about women being weepy or complaining about the cigar smoke or wanting to decorate the dining room in pink paisley. In the end they admitted two women who don't fit any of those descriptions.

Condolezza Rice once said she'd resign as Secretary of State if they asked her to be commissioner of the NFL.

In the end I don't know how to feel. I don't think a club should be pressured to diversify its membership, but at the same time I recognize the real, formational value of diversity. I can see the appeal of a place where you can feel at home with everyone, but I also recognize that any sizable group of people, no matter how exclusive, can't provide that luxury.

Perhaps this is just another example of reaching for something that doesn't exist. These old, rich men have succeeded at everything they've ever tried. When it came to building a club full of people they genuinely liked and could stand to be around, it was just a bridge too far.

I give them credit for figuring that out, even if it took 80 years. Maybe there is a little bit of wisdom that comes from age and success.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Voter Suppression or Voter Security?

So this controversy has been going on for years. Some people want to make stricter requirements for identification at the voting booth and others accuse them of attempting to suppress the votes of poor people who may not have easy access to official identification. It's getting serious now as a number of laws are actually going into effect (and with a Presidential election on the horizon, likely decided by a very few voters in a very few states) and people are getting nuts about it.

For a long time I didn't give it much thought; quite honestly, it seemed like a convenient political football for the two sides to throw back and forth - and one that really wasn't all that dangerous.

I, like many others (almost 70% of Americans) think it would be pretty easy to commit voter fraud. I've never been asked to do anything but sign that I voted (they were supposed to compare my signature with the signature I used to register, but the poll worker never even looked).

At the same time, there's very little evidence that voter fraud occurs in the kind of numbers that make any numerical difference in elections. (It absolutely occurs, don't get me wrong - there's just never been any evidence it has swung any elections any time in the recent past). We've heard the stories (apocryphal or not) of Chicago mob bosses and third world dictators stuffing the ballot boxes with votes from dead people - but the reality is that just doesn't happen in the US today to any degree that matters statistically.

Still, in this day and age where life and death seem to ride on election results for some people, it's not too tough to imagine a scheme like our worst fears actually happening. People across the spectrum want to see us be a little stricter on how we identify voters.

I doubt even opponents of these voter-ID laws would have a problem with that - if it were done in ways that don't make it more difficult for some people.

I've always said that if these laws go into effect, the State should issue ID cards (not driver's licenses) for free. That way there's no defacto poll tax (even a small one) for voters.

This week, however, I've been exposed to some additional complications. The State of Georgia, for example, due to budget concerns, no longer has a single DMV within the city limits of Atlanta, a city of 400,000 people. Those with a lack of transportation would have a pretty tough time getting an ID.

To make things even more difficult, it was brought to my attention that many black people over the age of 60 who were born in the South don't have birth certificates. Before the Civil Rights movement many hospitals would not take black patients and many black children were born at home with no official record. With new laws in place for 2012, no state is allowed to issue an official ID of any kind without a number of forms of ID, one of them being a birth certificate.

I know from experience, this can be a confusing process. My wife had to go three times to the DMV in New Jersey and had to pay for a new birth certificate from New Hampshire because her original one no longer complied with US law. If there had been no birth certificate in the first place, who knows how long or even if she could have ever proven she was born in the US.

Some people would like to make this a partisan issue (and perhaps there's some knowledgeable persons in each party doing just that), I have to believe it's more of a cultural illiteracy issue. I never would have imagined how difficult or near impossible it could be for someone to get an ID. I always thought the problem was coughing up $40 to pay for it. The problem is bigger and deeper than all that. I suspect lots of well-meaning people voting for these things are in the same boat.

That being said, I don't think this changes anyone's mind that it wouldn't be a bad idea to be a little more secure in our voting processes (my last vote in NJ, they had three sets of previous residents at our address still on the rolls as active voters). It's going to take some more care on the part of election commissions and volunteers for sure. It's also going to take some creative means of identification.

I find it hard to believe anyone would want to withhold voting privileged because of an inability to get to a DMV or the fact their birth certificate doesn't exist.

A week ago I was clueless as to why this was a problem; now I'm not. Perhaps this post can help other people to engage and together maybe we can figure out a better way to secure our voting system and also enable everyone who wants to vote to exercise that privilege.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Winning the Lottery

The Powerball jackpot is growing again - something over $300M the other day. Like a lot of people I spent a few minutes thinking about what that kind of money would mean for my life. I could pay off my debts and those of my family, but I'd be most excited about the amount I could give away. There's a lot of great organizations I've worked for of volunteered with doing wonderful work; I'd love to set up administrative endowments so they could focus on doing good things and think less about fundraising.

In the end I went back to the old cliche, one I believe to be true: that this sort of windfall generally does more harm than good.

I can imagine it would be difficult to draw a line between setting yourself up well and indulgence. Do we need new cars (since ours are prone to breakdowns and inefficiencies) If so, do we get Hyundais or BMWs? We could use an extra room in our house - of course, if we had five extra rooms we could provide space for people who need it. There's just a lot of questions and probably more power than I trust myself to deal with.

In the end, even if I'm being as altruistic as possible, I'm still trying to make my life a bit easier - to get something (even if it's purportedly for someone else) without having to work hard (or at all) for it.

Then I ran across another infamous internet meme - one with some less-than-famous economist or politician saying something like, "So it's greedy to want to keep the money I make, but not greedy to want to take someone else's money?"

I suppose it's a decent question. Of course, it also assumes a radical individualism, completely denying the existence, let alone validity, of any societal or corporate communal identity (if I want you taxed, I am greedy for your money, even if I never see a dime of it directly or through benefits).

The logic makes no sense and the practicality is moot without a completely independent every-man-for-himself system. The point, however, it pretty valid.

There's a lot of people out there who want something for nothing. We've raised an entire generation (probably two or three) who expect to have electricity 24 hours a day and running water that's safe to drink, and roads with a reasonable enough maintenance to prevent your car from being torn up just driving - along with schools and police and fire protection, not to mention unemployment insurance, food and housing assistance, and other basic services. Very few people know where the money for those things comes from beyond some generic communal pot.

The other problem, as I see it, is that people with money have pretty similar expectations. Sure, they're not generally in need of basic services, but they certainly don't want to see beggars and invalids camped out on street corners or in front of their homes. They do similarly expect electricity and water and transportation and education to be available, if not for themselves, at least for the people who buy their goods and use their services.

The President got lambasted for his "you didn't build that" line, but his main point is true. Business owners have a distinct benefit from infrastructure largely funded by the government. In the earliest days of the US, business owners had to build their own roads, construct their own ports, and set up transportation companies to ship their goods, and generate their own power for operation. The fact that those duties are done for them today is a decided benefit.

Ultimately it's two sides of the same coin. We're all seeking to reap where we haven't sown. I want to win the lottery so I can give without worrying about my own needs. I want my responsibilities taken care, so I'm completely free to spend my money how I want. The stereotypical poor moocher (who exists in some form, even if the generalization isn't accurate in most cases) wants to have a big tv and a satellite dish and stylish clothes - and it's easier to do so if someone else is subsidizing their house and food.

The stereotypical selfish richy (who exists in some form, even if the generalization isn't always accurate) wants to maximize profits by any means necessary - and it's much easier to do if the only needs I have to pay for are my own.

I can understand the ideological political differences between having a public institution and a private one serving as our communal voice. No arguments here; I'm much more concerned about what we do than how it gets done in that respect.

At the same time we have to acknowledge that there's no life lottery. Even for those people born rich who will always be rich, there's pressure and expectation. Even for those people born poor who will always be poor, there exists a strong work ethic and a sense of personal responsibility.

The world in which we want to live won't magically happen just because we stumble on the right combination of political or economic policies. Those dreams are a lie.

The kind of world we want to see - the lottery world, if you will - doesn't happen when we try to grasp and grab for all that we can. It happens when we stop taking such an individual view of the world and expand our horizons. Some things on earth are limited commodities, but life and love and happiness and satisfaction are not among them.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Call Me, Maeby

Societies and cultures change; they evolve. We often take this fact for granted and, I think, we subconsciously chalk all social change up to this evolution without really thinking it through.

For example, even in this age of near unlimited digital photography, if you have a big family gathering, likely, at some point, everyone will crowd in together so there can be a portrait (professional or, more likely, otherwise) with everyone in it - knowing full well that the gathering itself, and the family comprising it, will be far better and more accurately represented by the thousands of candid photos taken and posted to facebook. Why do we still gravitate towards the portrait? We might as well be renting a Daguerreotype; it's just as relevant.

We just don't think through things. It's either, "that's how we've always done it," or, the equally infuriating, "I guess that's just how things are these days."

What particularly gets me in that realm is our insistence on expecting and treating everyone as if they're nine years old. We've normalized infantile behavior. Even with all the renewed talk of "personal responsibility," we don't actually expect people to behave maturely in any situation.

From hockey dads beating each other senseless while their kids look on in horror to women in pink skinny jeans with "princess" written across the butt taking their four kids to the mall for school clothes - we've reached a point in which society has so elevated youth to premier status that people are incentivized to not grow up!

Reading a book about consumerism recently, I was amazed to realize that the entire point of our consumer economy is to make people act like children - to follow instincts, without regard for consequences.

Everything is always someone else's fault. Just ask the Republicans... or the Democrats...

...or your average 5 year old.

I'm as big a fan of consequence-free immediate gratification as the next person, and I'm willing to admit we live in a society that makes it as easy as possible to present that consequence-free immediate gratification actually exists, but I also think we're smarter than that. I think we all know deep down there's something more to life; we've just been taught to avoid thinking about it or asking why.

My wife, the middle school teacher, is constantly surprised by the new ways her students find to be ignorant of the world (that sentence was intentionally vague in the hopes it would apply to a variety of contexts). I'm not sure those kids are any different than the same kids in other times and places. I just don't think we provide the space, or the encouragement for anyone to develop self-aware, self-assured, or self-conscious.

Self-consciousness has gotten a bad wrap as uptight or boring. It really just means we've come to recognize our actions have an effect, both on ourselves and on the people around us.

Perhaps we could use a few more self-conscious people around here?

Friday, August 03, 2012

I Choose Not to Run!

Someone posted a facebook meme the other day with three olympic athletes on a medal stand and President Obama awarding a medal to a fat guy in an easy chair, saying, "Let's spread the wealth around, guys."

I was immediately disgusted, not because I have any particular love for the President, but that people revel in simplicity and straw men and generalizations as a means of understanding and debating serious issues. I realized, this wasn't so much disgust at the cartoon or its position, but at our political and cultural laziness.

Then I paused to ask why specifically I was upset with that particular cartoon.

I realized that if I were to argue with the author I would begin by explaining that it's a poor analogy because the olympics are an athletic competition and life is much different. Then it dawned on me:

A lot of people view life as a competition - thus making it no different than the Olympics. Viewed in those terms, giving somebody something they didn't earn is an absolute affront. Like giving a gold medal to someone in the stands (or giving every kid a trophy). If life is a competition - and one with plenty of unpredictable variables - what we have is vitally important. We have to be constantly striving to get more, earn more, be more - because if we don't, someone else will and we'll fall behind.

What if life isn't a competition? I know, to this point, competition has been the formative element in the development of life on earth - and I suspect that competition will continue to play a key role. But competition is really only important to human beings if continued existence is the goal. Evolutionarily, we compete to maximize our offspring and keep our DNA alive for as long as possible. I hope there's not too much argument that this isn't exactly a fulfilling goal in life.

I've often said, and I very much believe, that whatever the goal, wherever we're going in this life, wherever it is, we get there together or we don't get there at all.

That sentiment seems silly in our competitive, individualistic world. It might be nice to help other people when I've got something to spare or because it makes me feel good - but in the end, when push comes to shove, everyone is on their own, right?

Is that right?

I'm not sure we can answer that question outside our own experience. I'm certain there's plenty of people out there who were in tough spots and needed someone, yet no relief presented itself. Most of us in the West, are raised with this mindset.

The longer I live and the more I experience, the more I've come to believe that we do really need each other - that we're responsible both to and for each other - that we have to get there together to get there at all. If you arrive alone, you didn't get there - wherever "there" happens to be.

I've come to this through faith in Christ. Jesus spoke often of serving the poor, forsaking ourselves, giving freely, and relying on God for the future. The introduction of the Lord's Supper (communion, Eucharist) initiated a communal rite. When Christians gather together to share the bread and cup we are acting out God's plan for God's people: to be one. That's why the Church is called the "Body of Christ;" it is many becoming one.

This isn't purely a Christian concept, though. I believe it is from God, something inherent in humanity. Many peoples and cultures around the world, from many different traditions embrace this concept - that the group is primary and that society works best when individuals willingly submit themselves.

We fight this in the West because we like our freedom and our independence. We should be proud of our individualism. We just haven't seemed to figure out that self-determination is not the ultimate ideal, but a means to an end. Society (the Church, the nation, the family, humanity itself) should be forming individuals who come to recognize the value of sacrificing individualism for the best interests of the group.

This gets us into trouble when we narrow our focus (my country is better than your country; our family is the best; my faith is superior to yours). We need to begin to get our heads around this idea that we're all in life together. Not even just every human being, but the whole of creation. Our momentary victories mean very little if they harm or hinder others.

Life is not a competition. There's nothing wrong with celebrating individual achievement - after all, we are individuals, with the absolute choice to participate in society or to leave it alone - but we have to make sure that achievement doesn't come at a cost to the rest of us.

Olympic athletes dedicate a lot of time and energy to excel at their sports - probably more than a healthy amount. The benefits of doing this for a time are myriad. It helps people learn discipline and determination and gives unique insight into our abilities as a species. At the same time, we have to help our athletes understand the limits of these benefits. Four years or ten years or twenty might be an acceptable amount of time to focus so intensely on one aspect of life - but not a life does it make.

High level athletes struggle to adjust when their athletic participation decreases and the rest of life rushes in. Their equilibrium is thrown off. If they emerge from the competition of sports into a life where competition is the norm, they'll constantly search for new things to dominate and never find a true balance.

The same goes for any of life's pursuits. Individuals are reigned-in, in many different ways - as a means of reminding them that their success, their pursuit, their life, is not the most important thing. Bankers, lawyers, doctors, preachers, business owners, students, janitors, mechanics, and rodeo cowboys all have limits placed upon them for a greater good.

There are those who will argue that these limits are the problem. If all limitation were removed every individual would be free to succeed on their own. My faith and my experience tell me differently. But even if it were true, even if every person on earth won the competition of life, I'm still not sure we've be winners.

There's just something utterly intangible about working together, about caring for others and allowing them to care for you. Life is not a competition; it's all about cooperation.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Is It Just Chikin?

As I've watched the streams of vitriol and defiance cruise by on twitter and facebook today, I've been thinking about how this whole Chik-fil-a thing is playing out.

A comment on my last post about the issue got me thinking. KaylaKaze wrote

No one (well, now one worth listening to) is up in arms about Cathy's opinion. What they're upset about is they financially support hate groups. They're free to have whatever opinions they want, even if they think the KKK is great and Hitler was misunderstood. When they start ACTING on those beliefs and giving money to actively hurt people is when it becomes an issue.
What she's talking about is that the Southern Poverty Law Center has declared the Family Research Council a hate group (like the KKK or the Aryan Nation) because they have repeatedly (in print and on their website) tried to link homosexuality with terrorism and pedophilia. The charitable foundation funded by Chik-fil-a once gave the Family Research Council $1,000.

First of all, I don't think Kayla and I travel in the same circles. There's a lot of people I know and love who are upset about Cathy's opinion - but most importantly I realized that people I know on both "sides" of this issue are completely talking past one another.

Those people I know and love who are swamping Chik-fil-a restaurants around the country and proudly posting their waffle fry pictures are purportedly doing so to defend "href="">religious freedom" and freedom of speech and, I guess, taking a public stand on how they think the country should define marriage. They're not focused on hate speech or hate groups and likely haven't even heard the argument behind Kayla's comment.

As I said before, they're defending a brand - their brand of political ideology currently represented by Chik-fil-a. Most of the Chik-fil-a supporters I know would never intentional flaunt something as serious as hate speech or hate groups in the face of anyone, no matter their opinion on homosexuals or gay marriage. They're not insidious villains.

At the same time, I know a lot of people who would never accept the characterization of the Family Research Council as a hate group, would never consider the Southern Poverty Law Center as an authority to name a ham sandwich, and would at least not directly challenge connections between homosexuals and pedophiles. Basically, none of the rationale expressed would even be considered by most of the intended audience. The only solution is making friends and allowing people to make up their own mind through experience.

This doesn't really change my initial argument - people are substituting chicken sandwiches for relationships. People don't trust each other because they're defining themselves and everyone else by what they buy, use, wear, eat, consume. Only your own actions represent you, not your consumption. Eating or not eating at Chik-fil-a doesn't represent your beliefs on gay marriage. As much as you want it to, it just doesn't.

Here's the deal:

LGBT friends - those at Chik-fil-a today don't care about your life or your relationships. Yes, maybe in some existential/salvific sense - they don't really want you to end up in hell (which is at least well meaning). But they don't care who you're with or what you do, not really. What they believe, for some reason, is that the government should be an arbiter or Christian morality. Granted, they generally want this only as it applies to homosexuals and fetuses and less so as it applies to war, life, death, taxes, interdependence, generosity, the environment and national identity, but it's not really about you. It's about power and control and how terribly frightened we are when things seem to be changing and we find ourselves on the "losing" end.

Conservative Christian friends - those people attacking your beloved Chikin restaurant, they don't care about you or your religion. Sure, everyone would like to be accepted and no one really enjoys people disapproving of something so central to one's identity. But they're not out to destroy religion or make your church, or its doctrines, illegal. What they want is to be accepted by society. Remember, these are people who spent large portions of life being told they were broken or deficient or somehow lesser human beings than the rest of us. You have to ask yourself, who are you protecting and at what cost? Marriage, in the government's eyes, is essentially a contract between two consenting adults to share property, receive benefits, and file joint tax returns. We've had "no fault" divorce for more than 50 years. What's in any way Christian about marriage in our society?

If it was up to me, the government would just get out of the marriage business altogether. Call it a Civil Union, call it a legal partnership, call it a Taco Grande - just don't call it marriage.

Marriages would be reserved for religious institutions, who they could discriminate in any way their conscious demands or allows (presuming they stick to legal requirements for age and consent). As a Christian minister, I'd welcome the added ability to understand marriage in light of Christ without having a watered down civil definition clouding people's judgment.

While we're at it, if it were up to me, Chik-fil-a would serve only naturally fed, free range, hormone free chicken (as God intended) and it would cost five cents per sandwich.

In short: listen more, talk less, prioritize relationships, freely give the benefit of the doubt, and don't leave your political statements to fast food chains. Also, if someone tells you to be scared of something, don't listen - they are only tryingto manipulate you.