“Just name a hero and I’ll prove he’s a bum.”
That’s the call-out quote on the back cover of my tattered copy of Baa Baa Black Sheep, Greg Boyington’s memoir. For those of you didn’t grow up watching the TV show loosely based on his exploits, Boyington was a Marine fighter pilot in the Pacific theater of WWII, awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions as commanding officer of squadron VMF-214. He also drank heavily, divorced more than once and largely abandoned his children. Clearly, he knew his subject when he penned that line.
All this came to mind, again, with today’s news of Floyd Landis confessing to sustained doping during his pro cycling career. In a somewhat surprising move, he also implicated just about everybody he ever rode with or worked for in the European peloton. Bitterness might underlie that decision, or perhaps he’s trying to encourage other riders to rise up and overthrow the corrupt money machine that is the Pro Tour. I don’t know and, like the fate of Amelia Earhart or the whereabouts of half my socks, I’ll probably never know for sure. No matter, he’s a hero for finally confessing, and a bum for buying into the system in the first place and stringing us along for years.
We want to believe that people who achieve great things are equally admirable in all aspects of their lives. We basically decent people see ourselves as the same as these high achievers, just not quite as athletically or politically or musically gifted. We want to believe that by hearing interviews and reading articles and watching games or races or speeches or whatnot, we truly know these people who have risen to prominence, and can admire them for what they are. But we’re deluding ourselves.
Even in the Facebook age, we’re like icebergs. We show tiny peaks of our selves to a broad audience, with the rest concealed to all but a few we let dive beneath the surface. That’s not to say that every person is equally rotten; it’s just that we barely get to know the people we work or play or live with every day. How can think we know someone we’ve never met?
My lesson from this, short of plumbing the depths of cynicism, is to strive to melt the iceberg. I don’t mean that I intend to abandon all boundaries and start posting about my toenail clippings or dirty underwear – unless you think it would drive traffic, in which case I’ll get right on it. No, I mean being unashamed of my shortcomings, weaknesses and failures, while taking perhaps a bit less pride in my strengths. Likewise, I need to recognize the heroes around me. I don’t need to look far to find people worth admiring. Yes, if I could see the whole person I would probably find some bum-like attributes. But that’s part of being human. If we all came to terms with that, maybe some of us would feel less compelled to cheat to get ahead.