On Greatness, Part Two

I’m still mulling it over. What it means to be great, that is. Or more directly, why it means so much to us, to be great.

I ended part one questioning whether all of our striving really matters. For those of us who feel this incessant need to get better, to succeed, and who have this unnatural aversion to failing, at all costs, on any circumstances, perhaps this question is most pertinent to us.

Likely, each of us who have been consumed by our own drive to improve has received some form of encouragement that sounds a lot like the phrase, “It isn’t about the destination, but the journey.” But fortunate cookie platitudes tend not to serve us well. If anything, while meant as encouragement, this sort of statement feels more like a dismissal – as if it failed to recognize the fruits of our labor.

But when examined more thoughtfully (after our internal rage settles), there’s something to glean there, should we choose to extract it.

In itself, I do not believe “striving” is wrong. I don’t believe it’s a complete waste of time. I’m not advocating that we all consider being slackers OK. I’m just trying to get to the heart of the matter – that is, why we strive so hard.

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On my way to get a cup of coffee, I overheard some basketball talk by some bystanders (I have a radar for these sorts of things) and I heard someone ask if the Lakers are out (of the playoffs). His friend responded, “No, but Kobe is.”

Somehow I had missed this piece of news on the rare occasion that I hadn’t checked ESPN before going to bed.

Kobe Bryant is out of commission for 6-9 months due to a freak Achilles rupture, which, he admits, prompted him to take his venting to Facebook and release the following statement.

Full disclosure: It’s been a LONG time since I’ve cheered for “The Mamba”, “Vino”, or whatever he chooses to call himself. I’ve spent the greater part of my hoops fandom booing him relentlessly and making my disdain for him very public. I’m not a Laker fan, and I’m an even greater Kobe “hater”. Admittedly, this is all rather irrational. I’m merely playing my part, as any fan would, by adhering to a completely subjective set of rules. There’s no actual ill-will towards the man, and in the end, his injury is a tragic end to what many have otherwise described to be a mythical season that only bolsters his legend. Kobe may have always been a “bad guy” in my book, but the game is simply less exciting when the bad guy isn’t around  to be an adversary at all. I’m sure Reggie Miller will agree. So, hoping he’s back in 6 months. The game needs him, even if I don’t. 

This whole unfortunate incident happening to Kobe triggered my thoughts on greatness again.

His contributions to the game of basketball are irreplaceable. Like him or not, he’s a perfect example of someone who has strived so hard to be great, and actually got there. His legacy is sealed, regardless of whether he comes back from this, though in his mind, this is probably the last possible scenario he would’ve dreamed up before riding off into the sunset as one of the greatest players to ever lace ’em up.

And yet, his humanness, his frailty, was on full display two nights ago, as his mythical status came crashing down so suddenly and unexpectedly. A star was humbled. He took to Facebook to vent out his frustrations about seeing all of his efforts come to an end so abruptly, seeing hard work vanquished by this injury. You could tell he was legitimately angry.

I cannot blame him for reacting the way that he did, knowing the sort of effort he had put forth just to get his team over the edge. Many will say that this was a doomed season for the Lakers anyway. And yet, he strived. Kobe always found a motivator, whether it was inching their way to the playoffs or hitting a record scoring mark, there was always something fueling the fire. So what happens when the fire gets put out?

We can make our best guess that a character like Kobe (he is very much a special character in the NBA narrative) will come back and leave the game on his terms. But we have no clue what becomes of him as he recovers. We do not know what mere mortal-ness might actually inspire of him, and of us. We who love the game, who respect his greatness, will watch his recovery intently, hoping that in his fallenness, somehow, he still inspires.

And that’s the thing. We’re all well within our right to pursue greatness. Some of us strive for it our entire lives, give our every bit of time, energy, and passion, and will ourselves to becoming better. “Better” is only a stepping stone toward something else, towards “great”, perhaps, and push and push, and for some of us, we break.

In the pit, in the darkest moment, it is easy to believe that all the effort appears to have been wiped away. When the chase ends, the immediate feeling might be despair. That we failed.

And yet, should we find a moment of lucidity, a time when all the rage clears and we have our own thoughts again, perhaps we’ll find something worth holding onto after all. Something actually worth celebrating.

I don’t enjoy a story merely by how it ends. I enjoy it by how it’s told. In our lives, I’ll find a life of meaning based on how it’s lived, and not how it ends. There’s something to be had with the journey itself, and it has little to do with where we were headed.

I hope Kobe sees this. Perhaps in his quiet moments, he’ll see how far he had already gone.

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Rules

The other day my colleague asked for my opinion on whether or not she should purchase a handmade, three-stone ring or a royal blue beaded necklace. It was becoming apparent that either purchase would feel a bit impulsive and could very well lead to buyer’s remorse, but we reasoned why, in the end, she could take comfort in knowing that she at least supported a good cause, by purchasing jewelry that helped raise money for a local non-profit. 

“If you’re going to buy something, it should at least be ethically-made, and responsibly-sourced.”

“When you get an accessory, is it something you’ll find yourself wearing with most of your outfits, or is it a piece that you’ll use sparingly but when you do, it will make a statement?”

“If you shop at Zara, rest assured, they’re a ‘good’ company, overall. They’re owned by Inditex, and long story short, they make most of their clothes in Spain! So, yea, sweatshop-free…”

A few things to note: 1) I enjoy lists, if this isn’t apparent already. 2) I won’t shy away from an honest, practical conversation – about fashion. 3) I’ll find a way to employ an encouraging approach to telling other people what I think they should do. 

In fairness to my colleague, it wasn’t as if she didn’t make up her mind on her own. What’s more telling for me when I look back at our consumption-justifying was how sincerely, and eagerly, I tried to communicate to her the “rules” upon which I lived by. 

It helped that I was preaching to the choir, of softs. After all, we both work at a fair trade company, and so our zeal for ethically-produced items might be a notch higher than your average shopper. 

That said, I’m noticing more and more my tendency to, not only do my best to subscribe by my own set of life rules, but to justify them to others – in a passive enough way so as not to sound overtly preachy, but with a concerted enough effort win over some “converts”.  

This spills over into everything, really. In sports, for starters, and in pro hoops in particular, which dominates my free-time thinking and bathroom breaks. (Full disclosure: I practice my jump shot by repeating the flick of the wrist motion, without a ball, whenever I find a private moment.)

1. Win or lose, you choose a team to stay loyal to. If it is your home team, even more commendable. Because then, you’re stuck. (Good luck, if you live in Charlotte. And way to stick it out, if you’re from LA and bleed Blue and Red.)

2. As a fan, you’re allowed to irrationally hate certain players. Whether your spite is fueled by tabloid headlines about this figure or because they seem to be the one person that consistently, and single-handedly beats your team, whatever reason is acceptable. You’re allowed to hate players. It is like the 1st Amendment in the Constitution of Sports Fandom.

3. You’re also allowed to irrationally love a player, even if they do not belong to your chosen team. Brian Scalabrine, is a perfect example. Beloved by the fans of whatever team he ends up on, and yet his legend spans all basketball fans across the continent. He is your prototypical basketball everyman – the man that shouldn’t have made it, and yet did, and is making the most of it, even if he’s only utilized for the occasional corner three, and mostly as a human mascot for hire. 

Wasn’t I nice enough to convince you that I’m right?

It doesn’t end with fashion and hoops of course. The territory upon which all my rules apply spreads over the vast, sweeping region, within. Then it filters down into core things within me that require much more serious attention, and demand far more effort in implementing than those that help tailor my sense of style or direct my fanatical, basketball energies. 

And then it become overwhelming. The great sum of all my rules – those that guide my moral compass, the ones that dicate my relations with my loved ones, the lot of them that define my musical leanings and that help me determine what actually constitutes a “film” – all the internal organization can get, tiresome. And yet, the thing with rules, and with me, is that it seems as if I couldn’t, and wouldn’t operate any other way.

Still, there is a more dangerous thing – and the adherence to which, leading to consequences far more devastating. It isn’t a rule at all, but a lie, disguised as one. 

Once I start subscribing to these lies as if they were rules, allowing them to organize the tenderest, most vulnerable parts of myself – this is when it becomes truly insidious. 

The lie that “I’m not good enough, and therefore…” is crafted so cunningly – it is purposefully ambiguous that it could apply to just about anything about me that needs improvement. That it begins with a negative statement already sets the tone for the list of things which would then follow, none which likely to be rooted in the idea, that perhaps, I’m actually good at some things, at all.

I’d rather stick to the silly rules, and actually try to live by them, desperately. I find that these help me actually enjoy life a little more – to take myself a little less seriously, by taking something that isn’t so serious, more seriously than most. 

So, a final rule for the hipster that plays hoops – if you’re going to get yourself a pair of glasses, make sure to get some with an actual prescription. Then you’re free to pick the hippest pair you can find, and wear them, without pretending.”