Histrionics and Honesty

The tennis player breaks serve to even the match and drops to one knee, pumps his fist four times and turns to his player’s box and gives out a primal scream that makes the birds for hundreds of feet around leave their trees in a panic. The defensive end makes a routine tackle, leaps up, raises his head and points to the skies after thumping his chest like a great ape. The golfer makes a three-foot put that places him in a playoff with another golfer and he pumps his fist like he’s trying to start an imaginary lawnmower and turns to the gallery with a look of triumph as though he had just discovered penicillin.

And so it goes. In every sport and at all levels it seems the athletes act like fools every time they make a relatively routine play. One longs for the days of Johnny Unitas who  threw a touchdown pass and casually trotted off to his bench. Or one waits, in vain, for another Rod Laver who always gave credit to his opponent, even if his loss was due to an injury that he never mentioned to anyone but his closest fiends and his trainer, and who celebrated his record number of Grand Slam wins with a trot to the net and a smile and a handshake.

But those were the days before the JumboTron, the giant TV screen on nearly every playing field and court which shows the player his greatness in high-definition. No sooner is the play or the point over then all eyes go to the big screen and the player waits to see if his feats of athletic prowess have been captured in full color. Perhaps they will be played again on Sports Center’s “Top 10” tomorrow! All of this, the TV and the replays on the field and court, have contributed to the histrionics that now must be regarded as a necessary part of sports. We are told it shows us raw emotion, the athlete being totally honest. And it seems to be the thing that “sells” the sport these days. If one dares to suggest that this whole thing is a sham and even a bit sickening one is considered something of a jerk. So the TV cameras get close-in and show it to us again and again…and again. In super slow-motion. (Can we get a close-up of the tears, or the look of agony on the face of the halfback with a torn ACL?? Show that hit again and do a close-up on the celebration afterwards! Play it again!)  We love this stuff!

Raw emotion in our culture has become identified with honesty of character, the more the better. But if we stop and think for a moment, we realize that as a whole we are not all that honest, and a show of raw emotion may have nothing whatever to do with honesty. Honesty is not about what we see on TV or the JumboTron: it’s about telling the truth. It is about character which is formed in the home by parental example, for the most part. And we know that professional (and semi-professional, i.e,, collegiate) sports are just like everything else in this culture: they are a diversion that shows us what we want to see. Nothing more. Sports, at least at the highest levels, are not a breeding ground for honesty and character-building. (Think: Johnny Football.)

Just consider the cover-up culture: the college campuses across this country where it is a matter of course that coaches and administrators tell the public little or nothing about what really goes on in order to keep the big stars eligible to play the game on Saturday. We don’t want to tarnish the reputation of the institution, after all. But despite the cover-ups, the word occasionally leaks out — as it did at Penn State not long ago. But, they say, “everyone else is doing it” (which may indeed be true). In ethics this is called the “two wrongs fallacy.” It’s quite common. But the felonies that are committed are still wrong, no matter how  many people commit them. And the cover-ups can hardly be considered “honest.”

So let’s not hear all that nonsense about how honest we are as a people. We aren’t. Next to politics and the local used-car lot, sports are only the most obvious place where our dishonesty shows itself — from the big-college cover-ups to where the athlete takes out a pen from his sock and signs an imaginary autograph after a touchdown, or pounds his chest just after the routine tackle.  It’s not honesty, it’s pretense, putting on a show. The emotions may not even be honest. At times they, too, seem staged.

It might be wise to stop and think for a minute about what honesty really means. It’s not about cover-ups and keeping a lid on things. And it’s not about chest pumping and letting it all hang out on the field or the court. It’s the little boy who admits to his Mom that it was him and not his friend who threw the rock through the window; it’s the golfer who tells the umpire that he grounded his club in the sand trap even though it costs him a stroke and the match; it’s about the tennis player who tells her opponent that her shot was in, even though it costs her the game; it’s about the woman who admits to herself that the lump in her breast is something she needs to tell the doctor about; it’s about the baseball player who “goes public” and admits that he took performance enhancing drugs, even though he knows it could cost him a place in the Hall of Fame; it’s about the college sophomore who insists on writing the term paper herself rather than buying it off the internet like so many of her friends. It’s about facing up to things and telling it like it is — and accepting the consequences, which are frequently unpleasant. It is often very private and it requires courage. And, sadly, it will never be replayed on the JumboTron or on “Sports Center’s” Top Ten, even though it is well worth shouting about.

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Silver Spoons and Such

Edith Wharton’s name has come up in previous blogs. She is one of my favorite writers, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Age of Innocence, and certainly one of the best writers this country has produced, male or female. She was born with the proverbial silver spoon in her mouth and spent most of her adult life telling folks how bad it tasted. In a word, many of her novels are satirical studies directed against the puffery of the very rich. As such, they have something important to tell us about those “successful” people who now run the country — you know, the infamous 1%. If Wharton is right, they took a wrong turn somewhere along the line and, despite what they may think, they live empty lives and are not really happy. I must say I tend to believe her: she does make a strong case.

In one of her lesser novels, Glimpses of the Moon, she tells about a young couple, Nick Lansing and Susy Branch, who decide to get married and then live off the wedding checks and invitations from their wealthy friends for as long as possible. They are attracted to one another by their shared honesty and the fact that they are both relatively poor and rely on wealthy friends to get by. The whole game starts out like a lark as the two think they are having a grand joke at their wealthy friends’ expense. The matter becomes complicated, however, when they find they really do love one another and during a prolonged separation following a major argument, they drift apart only to discover the falsehood of their own game, — and also the complete falsehood of the way of life they ridicule– to wit, lives immersed in great wealth.

Toward the end of the novel, as the scales are falling from Susy’s eyes, she agrees to sit for several months with the five children of one of her few remaining friends, a musician who is married to an artist and whose children turn out to be exceptional. As she gets to know the kids, she comes to know herself better. Like Wharton herself who organized relief for Belgian refugees during the First World War in France, her heroine finds herself by immersing herself in the lives of others. Susy comes to see more and more clearly how false is the make-believe world of the very rich. The kids are remarkable: they are bright and “their intelligence had been fed only on things worth caring for. . . good music, good books, and good talk had been their daily food, and if at times they stamped and roared and crashed about like children unblessed by such privileges, at others they shone with the light of poetry and spoke with the voice of wisdom.” As Susy comes to realize, the thing that makes these kids so unusual is the fact that all their lives they have been surrounded by beauty — and the honesty of their parents. As it happens, she finds herself not mothering the children but “being herself mothered, of taking her first steps in the life of immaterial values which had begun to seem so much more substantial than any she had known.”

As Wharton weaves the tale, it becomes clear that the heroine grows as Wharton herself did, from a spoiled child surrounded by the comfort and security of great wealth — with all its sham and pretense — to a life of clarity and truth where she comes to realize what really matters. She finds happiness not by looking for it, but by immersing herself in the lives of others, lives that demand that she come out of herself. Like Wharton, when she divorced her husband and turned her back on all the glitz, she was financially less well off. But in the only sense that matters she was truly richer.

When summarized, the tale sounds a bit corny, but when told by a writer of Wharton’s caliber who knows first-hand whereof she speaks, it has the ring of truth and conviction. It is a truth that must fall on deaf ears in this age of “me-first” where those among us crave material well-being and identify their happiness with the very things Wharton pilloried. But if we would only take the time to reflect we might discover a great truth in novels such as this. In addition to being a superb writer, Edith Wharton was an immensely wise woman.