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Lance Armstrong, Martin Luther King & The challenge of innocence lost

01/29/2013 06:29:48 PM


   Like many people, I followed the Lance Armstrong saga the past couple of weeks with piqued interest. For those whom the word 'Livestrong' means very little, Lance Armstrong was one of the most highly decorated and lionized athletes of our generation for the incredible feat of winning seven Tour De France cycling championships. Even more noteworthy, Armstrong is a cancer survivor who won most of those championships after his cancer diagnosis and through his personal story and through the Livestrong foundation has served as a heroic figure to hundreds of thousands of people battling the same dreaded disease. After years of speculation and lawsuits Armstrong was stripped of his championships due to his use of steroids and human growth hormones and just last week admitted to the world (to Oprah of course) that he has been a cheater his entire career. 

    The truth is that all of this would come as a huge disappointment and a further impetus for disillusionment if it wasn't for two factors: (a) most people already assumed that he was a cheater and a lowlife (b) that unfortunately most of us have already been disappointed so many times by societies role models or by the role models that we have had in our own personal lives. How many times have we, or our children, had family members, counselors, teachers, Rebbeim, Rabbanim, coaches or other figures of respect act in a way, and sometimes dramatically so, that have made us lose heart and wonder if there is anything truly pure left in the world. The behavior of the very individuals who should inspire us often brings a person to the depths of cynicism. 

   I believe that a thinking and feeling person, recognizes that a far greater threat than scandal and wayward behavior to a community shaped by Torah values is the pernicious tentacles of cynicism. If so we need to arm ourselves with mechanisms to counteract the natural cynicism and hardness of spirit that life and disappointment often breeds. For me personally three simple but fundamental messages deeply resonate. 

   The first is the necessity of maintaining a belief that people are fundamentally decent and that greatness, nobility and exceptional generosity and humanity are easily located. I believe that experience has taught us that most people want to simply live good, giving and meaningful lives, and that the world is replete with teachers and role models who just want to inspire and elevate. Let us not become hardened to the simple beauty and goodness of humanity and the human spirit.

  The second is that I believe we are sophisticated enough to recognize and in some way embrace, the often dichotomous and conflicted nature of man. When I was a kid, Martin Luther King Jr. was held in enormously high regard by our family (parenthetically they just named a street after him in Jerusalem last week). I remember like it was yesterday, when an adult I greatly admired sought to disavow me of my admiration for Dr. King by informing me that he was a serial adulterer and asking how could one admire a person who presented themselves as a man of principle when they were evidently of such a low moral fiber. While I was shaken by his argument, and obviously try to demand that consistency from myself, I don't think it's impossible to greatly admire one part of a person even while acknowledging that other dimensions fall subject to the unfortunate consequences of their humanity. People like Thomas Jefferson and down the line were in their own way great men despite all of their personal failings, and that same more forgiving standard might be applied to the personalities that have inhabited our own personal landscape.

   Lastly, I would hope that we have been able to develop within ourselves and our children a healthy balance in which we are inspired by and molded by family members, teachers and Rebbeim, while at the same time able to maintain a very clear sense of self and more importantly a resilient inner strength. I would like to think our kids are open enough and sensitive enough to be effected by a truly charismatic and caring Rebbe, but at the same time both strong enough to not rely on other's approbation and support, and firm enough to not be shaken by a role model's missteps. That would seem to be the goal of raising kids. Namely that we produce children, hopefully patterned after our own lives, who are looking to be touched and effected by others, but whose belief in themselves and in their faith is unassailable.

    'LiveStrong' indeed. The Torah's messages are all about a strong and developed inner life - Eizehu gibbur, hakoveish es yitzro, eizehu ashir hasameach b'chelko- its the inner dimensions that define strength, happiness and wealth and its those inner dimensions that require continuous nurturing.

   We should merit to find great role models of the highest integrity for ourselves and for our children. At the same time the outer forces that shape us should take a back seat to a beautifully developed emotional inner life and moral compass that will ultimately lead us to real and sustained personal growth.

Fri, May 7 2021 25 Iyyar 5781