Monday, July 20, 2015

Contextual Courage

What makes a king out of a slave?

What makes the flag on the mast to wave?


What makes the elephant charge his tusk in the misty mist, or the dusky dusk?
What makes the muskrat guard his musk?

What makes the sphinx the seventh wonder?

What makes the dawn come up like thunder?
---The Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz


Last week, the ESPY Awards were given out for various sports related types of things.
  • Best Post Touchdown Dance.
  • Best Athlete Who Didn't Beat His Wife.
  • Best Drug Test Results.
  • Best Sportscaster Who Did NOT Say "Boo-Yah!".

You know, stuff like that I imagine. 

Anyway, among the awards that were given out was something called The Arthur Ashe Courage Award. It goes to someone in the sports community who has shown incredible courage in the previous year. Courage against adversity or pain or illness, any number of areas where one might be called to display a little courage.

This year the award was given to Caitlyn Jenner

There were some who questioned this choice.

What about the athletes who are also war heroes who came back from Afghanistan, Iraq and other parts of the world with limbs missing? These are people who endured pain and tribulations to recover some semblance of a normal life with prosthetic limbs, some even pushing themselves back into athletics. Do they not personify courage? Yes they do.

Or what about the young women who dreamed of playing college basketball, only to have her dream waylaid by leukemia. She still suited up and supported her team. At the end of their season, she took the court and made a couple of points. She got her dream to play in a college basketball game. Two weeks later she was gone. Is this not the very definition of courage? I would say so.

These and other stories like them represent terrible trials and the amazing strength of the human spirit to face up to those trials. There are so many awe inspiring tales of men and women and children who have displayed a strength of will and character and spirit that I could not begin to emulate.

So you're ESPN and you have an awards show with an award for courage. Who do you give that to? There are dozens, hundreds, thousands of people who have demonstrated courage. Who gets this award?

The thing about courage is that it is conditional on the individual. A firefighter rushing into a burning building to save someone is a display of courage. It is also his job. An average man or woman running into a burning building to save someone? That too is courage but it is not that person's job.

If I bravely face up to a disease that threatens to take my life, if someone wants to say I'm showing courage, OK by me. But if I'm facing a disease that thousands of other people get and there's a roadmap of treatment that might save my life, that might be a bit different than someone facing up to a deadly illness that is less understood with no clear path of treatment.

Perhaps to understand the point I'm floundering around to make, let's consider who ESPN's award for courage is named after, Arthur Ashe. Ashe was a champion tennis player who, as a black man, had already blazed trails into a white dominated sport, displaying a great deal of courage in doing so. But fate dealt Arthur Ashe another hand that spelled the end of his career and of his life. He was diagnosed with AIDS.

When Ashe contracted AIDS, there was still much that wasn't known or understood about the disease. It was dismissed as "gay cancer" although heterosexual people could contract the disease as well. So when Arthur Ashe announced he had AIDS, he had no idea what he was in for. The road ahead was still being forged through the wilderness of ignorance. Not just a public figure but a sports celebrity told the world he had an incurable disease that frightened a lot of people. Arthur Ashe wasn't just taking a first step on a path; he was making the path. He put a face on the AIDS epidemic and made us wake up and care about the people ravaged by this disease. Before that, too many people were less than kind to victims of AIDS and Arthur Ashe had no guarantees he would not encounter a similar lack of kindness. But people knew and respected Arthur Ashe and because he had to courage to lead the way, others who came forth with news of their own diagnosis found a world just a bit more understanding.

I don't think we can begin to equate Bruce Jenner putting on a dress and becoming Caitlyn Jenner with struggles against war injuries and life taking diseases. But Caitlyn did something for which there was no playbook. Transgender people have been marginalized for so long and there was no guarantee that Caitlyn Jenner would be treated any differently. But she put a public face on the reality of transgender people. And not just a public face but the face of a famous athlete.

Male athletes have projected the image of rugged heterosexual men, real men who did real men stuff with real women. The idea of gay men and transgenders among their ranks ran counter to that image.

And there was Caitlyn Jenner standing there in front of them. All the world knows who he was; all the world knows who she is. This very public journey has no guidebook. And it takes courage to go on that journey, a very unique type of courage that very few of us can understand. It is very much a type of courage that fits well within the context of the courage Arthur Ashe displayed years ago. 

Let Caitlyn Jenner have her award because she has done a courageous thing indeed. And thanks to her courage, sometime in years to come, we might wonder what the fuss was all about.

Everyone, be good to one another.

I'm So Glad My Suffering Amuses You

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