On Being Successful

In a recent professional football game involving the Pittsburg Steelers, one of Pittsburg’s defensive backs suffered a spinal injury because of a head-on tackle in which he exhibited poor technique. He lay moaning on the ground for minutes until he was carted away and sent to the hospital. As of this writing he has had back surgery and is still being observed by the medical experts to see if there is any permanent damage. If there is, it certainly wouldn’t be the first such case. And it will almost certainly not be the last.

This set the networks abuzz with talk about how brutal a game is football — at all levels — and had many a talking head on television wondering what more could be done to prevent further injuries. The NFL is already concerned about concussions, which have had serious consequences for many retired football players; equipment has been improved and there is a great deal more caution after a possible head-on collision than there once was.

In any event, one of the Steelers was interviewed on ESPN and defended his sport despite its violence — trying to calm the waters and assure people that the game is not “brutal” and it would go on. I will not mention his name (because I can’t remember it!) but it matters not. His somewhat disjointed comments defended the sport which he loves because it has enhanced his “family legacy,” i.e., it has made him an immensely wealthy man. There was more to his comments than this, but this was the gist of what he said. And it raises a number of questions.

To begin with, it is a non-sequitur because the violence of the game cannot be dismissed because it makes a number of men very wealthy. In addition, of course, the comments were all about the player himself with little mention of his teammate who lay in a hospital bed trying to recover from a very painful injury. But, more to the point, we heard once again the All-American mantra that identifies success with wealth (his “family legacy”). To be a successful person in this country one must be  tremendously wealthy. Those who dedicate themselves to the well-being of others and make sacrifices every day to make sure that others are healthy and happy, or perhaps simply better informed, are not regarded as successful — unless they can brag about their bank accounts and show you their expensive cars and their overpriced, palatial homes. This is absurd.

In his lectures on sincerity and authenticity, Lionel Trilling points out that the West has struggled for many years with the concept of authenticity, the notion that human beings are truly human when they have achieved not wealth but authenticity: when they are who they truly are. Trilling  focuses on Jean Paul Sartre who spent many pages in his Being and Nothingness talking about “Bad Faith,” the tendency of people — all people — to play roles, to pretend to be someone they are not.  To an extent, Sartre would insist, society demands that we do so. But this does not alter the fact that we wear masks.

Trilling points out that true authenticity has to do with being, not about having. He quotes Oscar Wilde who insisted that “The true perfection of man lies not in what man has but in what man is.” We are truly human when we achieve autonomy, when we are self-directed, not when we become wealthy. In fact, money has nothing whatever to do with it. He notes that this popular misconception, this false identification of wealth with success, stems from the confusion of having with being: it is a type of inauthenticity. We are not what we have; we are what we are within ourselves and in relation to others.

It is not likely that our notion of success, insisting that success is identified with what we have, will change. But it is quite likely that the storm over the violence in America’s most popular sport will quiet down and there will be more injuries in the future. Is it just possible that this is a good thing because it allows Americans to get vicarious pleasure from a violent sport that releases some of the pent-up frustration resulting from lives spent pursuing wealth which they identify with success — though they sense dimly that there is something terribly wrong somewhere?

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Selfies

If there are still doubters out there who insist that this is not the most narcissistic age ever, they should consider the “selfie.” As we all know, and which the always reliable Wikipedia affirms, a “selfie”

” is a self-portrait photograph, typically taken [seemingly endlessly] with a digital camera or camera phone held in the hand or supported by a selfie stick. Selfies are often [seemingly endlessly] shared on social networking services such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. They are usually flattering and made to appear casual. Most selfies are taken with a camera held at arm’s length or pointed at a mirror, rather than by using a self-timer.”

Indeed, according to the statistics I just made up, 93.7% of the information on social media is about the person himself or herself. Issues are largely ignored and other people only enter into the discussion if they happen to have some important relationship to the person posting the information. It’s all about “ME.”

Or consider the “self-esteem”movement about which I have blogged previously (seemingly endlessly) which has taken over our schools and which parents have swallowed hook, line, and sinker — despite the fact that all the evidence (which I didn’t make up) suggests that the self-esteem movement actually LOWERS a child’s self-confidence, their sense of who they really are in relation to others around them. But it raises their idea of how accomplished and bright they are and in recent studies of students around the world (which again I did not make up), despite the fact that test scores show that our students trail much of the rest of the world in subjects like language and mathematics, the students themselves are convinced they are the best and brightest. They have the highest sense of self-importance in the world. This is narcissism that borders on self-delusion. And, as we know too well, it has led to the sense of entitlement that pervades this culture in which a growing number of people expect to be handed things because they have a nice smile or are pleasant to be around. Or, simply because they can still breathe in and out. In addition, as Christopher Lasch has pointed out, narcissism can readily lead to violence as those who expect to be handed everything on a platter find their desires thwarted.

In the light of this, it was refreshing recently to read about James Harrison, a professional football player, who returned two very large trophies his sons received for merely participating in an activity. It was not only refreshing because it wasn’t another story about a professional athlete beating his wife or sweetheart, but about a professional football player who is practicing good parenting skills. As Harrison himself said about the awards:

“I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies!” wrote the Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker on Sunday in an Instagram post to his 180,000 followers. “While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they earn a real trophy. I’m sorry I’m not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned, and I’m not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best … cause sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better … not cry and whine until somebody gives you something to shut you up and keep you happy.”

Is it possible that this professional athlete knows more about child rearing than the so-called “experts” who dare to give parents and educators misleading advice? Imagine, thinking that praise should be earned and not simply passed out until it means nothing! Harrison just uses his common sense and gut feelings to do the thing he knows is right. I can’t help but believe that we would be much better off if parents and teachers followed Harrison’s lead than they are in raising and teaching their kids “by the book.”