OK, Lebron James went to Miami. I think from a basketball standpoint, huge deal.
But morally? Please spare me the indignation people.
Imagine a situation where you took a job right out of high school in your home town. You worked hard in this job and gave it your blood, sweat, and tears for seven straight years. As you diligently pursued your passion, it became clear that with each one of your successes, people raised their expectations of your performance. Meanwhile, you probably bought into the hype. Each time you did not give the people what they wanted, they questioned your abilities, or criticized your coworkers and boss. The weight of people’s high hopes began to wear on you. Eventually, you began to resent the lofty expectations and constant fear of let-down that your job entailed.
You then realize that instead of putting up with the same thing for the rest of your career, you had an out. You could leave your lame home town for a considerably less lame, cool and happening city. Better yet, you could work with several of your friends. Going to work every day would be a treat! Plus, your friends/co-workers are also pretty efficient at their jobs, thereby requiring you to do less work on a regular basis. Not only that, but your new company is paying you a lot. And lest we forget, with your addition, this new company is poised to become an industry-leader, perhaps regularly becoming the best firm in their industry year-in, year-out.
What would you do? If it were me, I would happily switch companies. I bet you would too. Simmons certainly did – do we fault him for leaving the confines of his own website to write for ESPN? Unless you are a superstar like Lebron James, few people would fault you for such a decision.
One thing I would say though, the way Lebron announced his decision was perhaps the epitome of self-aggrandizement. The conspicuous charity (Boys and Girls Club) was so patently insincere that I hear Paris Hilton was taking notes.
What I really don’t get is how the same people who made a messianic idol of Lebron with nicknames like King James, The Chosen One etc. are now the same ones lambasting him for this decision. We spoke of how he transcended sports, how he was a global icon. Why? Because he is the most graceful and skilled and getting himself or his team to put an orange ball into a metal rim with a net on it. Are we now supposed to be pissed that he loves himself too much? That he actually believes he’s worth something, because we’ve told him he’s greater than anything we know. Greater than the Mother Theresa’s of the world? Even if we say we don’t believe that, our wallets seem to speak the loudest on this one.
Are we going to fault him for being selfish, for seeking his own gain or consumption? We were willing consumers lapping up his every move and begging him to become even greater than MJ. His owner, whose scathing and hypocritical letter denounced Lebron’s existence, was the definition of “consumerism”. He lapped up the positive externalities of Lebron. Only when Lebron actually slipped away, only when Lebron would bring cash for another team, only when Lebron wasn’t part of the Cavaliers brand did he lash out.
We criticize him for being disloyal, for not maintaining this relationship between fan and player. This is the antithesis of a relationship. From the get go it was “What can Lebron do for me?”. When the answer was dunks and playoff runs, it was all cheers. When the answer was nothing, it’s scorn and resentment? So what if Lebron only thought of himself, so were we as fans.
Some writers are calling this move bad p.r. They say this sort of betrayal will weigh on the hearts of his former fans. Some have burned his jersey, some have called him a traitor and most are thinking, “Why did I support this guy in the first place?” Perhaps my question is why we even give our life and souls to these players anyways? They say his brand is ruined. We should wonder, “What did this brand represent in the first place?”
Blaise Pascal talks about how jesters were an invention of the court to distract the King from the difficulties and pains of their leadership. Why ponder deep existential questions about kingdom work, when you have an idiot entertain you for a few hours each day? Meaningful self-reflection becomes less burdensome when society says the clown in front of you is more important. Pascal notes mindless diversion has become the forefront of our culture. Our priorities don’t have to get caught up in the mess of real life, say everyday betrayals in the lives of sex-trafficked children when we talk about Lebron’s “betrayal” to Cleveland. Or whether Sudanese refuges have enough to eat when we could spend our time gabbing about whether the rest of Miami roster is enough to win them a championship. Sure the hardships don’t change when you stare at a clown, but it helps you move on to the next day.
So Lebron is one of our court jesters. We worshiped him in our daily obsessions over his every move. Carl Trueman says the sin of idolatry has the nasty habit of turning you into the very idol you worshiped. Before we tell Lebron how empty his soul is; what does it say about our own souls that we’ve been attentively following him for so long?
Its not my term, I plucked it from Stephen L. Carter, a professor at Yale Law, who wrote about it in a book called God’s Name in Vain. This post is piggybacking off a great idea of his, so props to him.
He writes about it here:
This ideology, which we might call measurism, has a single, very simple dictum: That which can be measured is of greater importance than that which cannot.
I like standardized tests. I find the cold hard number it spits out and the percentile ranking it assigns as a great way to tell me how cool I am.You get X number on the SAT/GMAT/LSAT/MCAT/Firefighter’s Aptitude Test/Miller’s Analogy Test. The question always seems to be: Where do I stand on the totem pole? ST’s give us a cold hard answer, Yes! this affirms I am smarter than Y percentage of people.
EXCEPT….not really. What does this score really tell you? I would tell you that it tells you that this person can do well on this type of test. If a school wants to use this score, it up to them I suppose. But, there’s all kinds of craziness about testing nowadays. Some parents whose kids do really well on them will beam about how “bright” or “gifted” their kids are (which is probably not the entire truth), while a few parents of kids who don’t do well will inform us of some inadequacy of the test to measure the “total package”. Teacher’s unions seem to hate the word test, because they categorically deny its ability to measure something important. (I would say we should use it, just not overuse it, a tricky task indeed) Carter writes aptly:
A speedometer, in the absence of an external judgment (such as a speed limit), provides no information about right and wrong.
He continues later:
Most colleges and universities love to claim, in their admission materials, that they consider many indices other than grades and test score-background, extracurricular activities and so forth. But, when it comes time to tell the alumni about the entering class, most college presidents and deans probably do the same old thing: They stand up and cite the outstanding grades and test scores of those who have recently matriculated. We measure what we can measure, and what we cannot measure we claim to value but in practice, we discard.
In a similar way, I was always obsessed with numbers. I remember during the middle of one season in basketball when I thought that Dominique Wilkins was a better player than Michael Jordan. Why? Because he averaged a few fractions of a point more than MJ and I figured because of that he was better. Now for those of you who think I am merely ranting about statistical wonkishness, I am not. But you could see how silly my logic was here. My mistake was using what limited information I had, and I unfortunately drew a conclusion that made me seem like I’ve never watched a game of basketball.
We Worship the Totem Pole
My friends called me an idiot, which is fair, yet we do this all the time elsewhere (and I am a smarter fan of the game now). We love to open up U.S. News read about the top schools (this phenomena is particularly prevalent in Korea, where a man saying the word “Harvard” or “Yale”, and “I have a U.S. passport” would probably drown in the eventual swarm of Korean women.) It extends elsewhere, perhaps though not as obvious. My blog name is derived from Thorstein Veblen’s term, “Conspicuous Consumption“. While I won’t go into too much detail, its really just the concept of “keeping up with the Joneses”. I buy a car, with the hope others see this purchase so they know how awesome I am. A rather clever way of saying, “By purchasing this vehicle/home/frozen margarita machine, I am demonstrating my ability to measure up to or greater than your standards.” If you think I am insane, I ask that you take a look at what drove our financial crisis. This article notes this nicely (about housing):
As other buyers and many bankers became more willing to take absurd risks, even previously prudent consumers felt they had to follow suit.
Hint: People weren’t just taking out massive loans to finance homes because they thought interest rates were advantageous.
What do we Rank and Rate in Others?
But I’ve already spoken about that here and here, so lets change the emphasis a bit. Take relationships (living with an aunt who seems to think I still need my hand held at crosswalks, makes me think I am probably not the best person to write about this). I was having a conversation with a few friends when one of them discussed their upcoming date with a man she found on eharmony. When we asked her how she was matched to this specific guy, she admitted it was difficult after the website gave her a list of choices. So she ordered the listings by their height and chose the one who was the tallest. Was this the best way to do things? Perhaps. But I am not so sure the guys who were not quite 6’1 were worse just because they aren’t quite up to par in terms of height. Was it her fault? I can’t blame her entirely for making a choice on a limited amount of information, but I think the problem lies in when we decide to place an overemphasis on what we do know. The problem is when we overemphasize the things we can measure, we decrease the emphasis on what we can’t measure or quantify. We all suffer from a desire to rank something; and damn it if we can’t, as Carter implied, we’ll just use what is easy to measure.
For instance, guys might for fun assign a numeric value to a girl, saying something to the effect of, “Wow, that girl is an 8.5!”. I will take a Zosima stance on this particular behavior and say, “Each one of us is guilty before everybody for everything, and I am more guilty than anybody else.” Might I also interject that this sort of mental calculus is not unique to men or romantic relationships. Now you ask me what an 8.5 is and I will tell you I have some vague idea that isn’t logically quantifiable per se. The point of this exercise is obvious: even though we don’t know what an 8.5 is, we know its better than an 8. The numbers are a convenient measure to say, “I like this one better than the other.”
What About the Stuff we can’t Measure?
Stephen Carter writes:
We might say that we value honesty-or love……or God. None of the concepts, we will loudly insist, can be measured; and all of this, we will add, is what we value most.
I can assure you that these ranking systems are indexed very little on one’s character. I will argue this condition lends itself to overemphasizing, again, what is easier to measure: looks, charm and perhaps status. Phrases like “She’s hot”, “He’s a baller” etc. don’t lend themselves to deliberate thinking about one’s capacity to be trusting, selfless or loving. This is a mistake that I certainly make over and over again; I take what I can initially and make a judgment call about someone based on the visually quick and aesthetically pleasing. My eHarmony filter doesn’t have a tab for ranking one’s character damn it! I’ll take it because it is so easy and so superficially pleasing. Like the colleges before, we all might say we emphasize certain things, but when push comes to shove, we know what really drives our desires. I blame this in part with a culture (that I am certainly not above) that has lost another meaningful characteristic: patience. Its easy to conclude someone is visually attractive or will become a substantial provider. Taking the time to draw out a person’s character seems to be more and more time wasted in this fast-paced world of ours. It could also be a reason why we might be quicker to end relationships when something “better” comes along. I blog as concisely as possible (I swear I do!) knowing full well most of you probably get bored after the first few words.
Grace is the New Starting Point
Its funny because as a Christian, this is a clear demonstration that I “misunderestimate” the concept of grace. Men are called in the book of Ephesians to “love their wives, as Christ loved the Church”. While I am not a biblical scholar, the love that Christ had for his church was surely not a conditional one based on a standard of measurements that any one of us would hold valuable. Many of early disciples came from lowly (fishermen) or unsavory (tax collectors) positions. Yet he loved them unconditionally and without prerequisite; his love was not based on the initial “sexiness” of those he saw as the foundation of the church. I think that we have been drawing too many lines in the sand though, lines that we can quantify or measure but that we overemphasize and lines that eventually fade away literally with age.
Later in Ephesians, Paul exhorts husbands to “love their wives as their own bodies, he who loves his wife loves himself”. Jumping a little deeper into the fray of relationships, perhaps the bigger problem here is that many of us don’t really love ourselves. I think our own emphasis on measuring up others is just a deeper reflection of one’s own insecurities about themselves. I won’t speak for anyone else here; but I know I am afraid of what the mirror in the morning will tell me, I worry about whether I’ve done well enough at school, I wonder whether I will have made enough money and I wonder what others think of me in all of this. These lines in the sand we’ve been drawing for others remind us painfully about all the lines we fail to meet.
Assuming an omniscient and perfect God, this would be problematic, if we were called to fulfill his standards of excellence. Thus there should be an awareness of the human inability to meet excellence. Sure, we might set up our own standards of excellence, but amidst perfection this becomes meaningless. But if understand the nature of grace; how God doesn’t call us to live in excellence because Christ was the not only symbol but fulfillment of excellence that we so desire in ourselves. This human condition of insecurity is wiped clean; our knowing we don’t have to pretend to be anything we aren’t. There’s a flipside as well, we understand we can look at others in a different light as well. Amidst our own failings, we learn to place less of an emphasis on the “obvious failings” of others. Understanding the gift of grace, helps us realize when someone truly says the love you, they are demonstrating a capacity of grace that you probably didn’t deserve. Or you might think I am insane and are saying, “BDK, you’ve got to be kidding me. I am supposed to marry just anyone then. This is dumb, what kind of love is that?” I hope you don’t read this is an exercise in trying to find the “perfect” companion, I would argue that is impossible. But maybe instead of going back to the place where we drew all these lines in the sand, we can start at a new location called grace. Perfection is above our pay grade, but changing the framework is certainly not beyond our means.