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The Quiet Heroism of 'Right Living'

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It's been a rough week for self-appointed heroes and the hero-worshippers who love -- or loved -- them.

The clay-footedness began with cycling legend Lance Armstrong's Oprah-orchestrated mea minima culpa, continued with details about celluloid hero Tom Cruise's role in the creepy Church of Scientology (courtesy of Lawrence Wright's new book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief), and became a hat-trick with the strange tale of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o's love affair with a non-existent girlfriend whose existence was tragically snuffed out by leukemia just before the big game.

Until evidence of his cheating and lying became overwhelming, Armstrong strong-armed his fellow athletes, the media and his fans with scorched-earth attacks on anyone who dared to challenge his self-serving storyline. When Oprah asked him whether he'd sued masseuse Emma O'Reilly after she provided details of his doping (he allegedly called her an "alcoholic whore"), Armstrong said, "We've sued so many people -- I'm sure we did."

Armstrong's serial bullying was tame compared to the alleged litigiousness, intimidation and abuse practiced by Scientology, as reported by Wright. Cruise gave massive financial and personal support to the Church -- reportedly viewing himself as its third most powerful person -- and the Church formalized his heroic status by awarding him its Freedom Medal of Valor. One plan for Cruise control was allegedly to "gather a group of top Scientologists in Hollywood -- Kirstie Alley, Anne Archer, Paul Haggis -- to go on Oprah or Larry King Live to denounce the attacks on Cruise as religious persecution." The scheme never got off the ground, depriving those stars the chance to swap media manipulation tactics with Lance in Oprah's green room.

World-class football prowess wasn't heroic enough for Te'o. Initially the target of an outrageous prank from a bogus online "girlfriend," he admits that he "tailored" his story for his own benefit. (Translation: He lied to his family, friends and fans). Journalists obliged with an orgy of paeans to Te'o's grace under pressure; the real pressure, it seemed, was a young star's need to be seen as heroic.

Washed-up faux action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger showcased the absurdity of hero addiction when he explained to his friends on Fox and Friends why his unspeakable deceitfulness toward his family and constituency wasn't as bad as Armstrong's: "I never lied." In the world according to Ahhnold, living a lie is superior to lying.

Such celebrity failures may be the exception; most celebrities may in fact lead lives of real quality. But these implosions certainly provide an opportunity to ponder the meaning of real heroism.

Among my favorite descriptions of what the Buddha called "right living" appears in David Foster Wallace's posthumous novel The Pale King. A lecturer in an advanced accounting class an IRS Agent enters by accident says, "True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care -- with no one there to see or cheer" (emphasis mine).

Before the depression-plagued Wallace took his own life in 2008, he sought solace in Buddhist meditation.[1] In the short story Good Old Neon, the narrator, surely a stand-in for Wallace, takes a hard (heroic?) look at the narcissism that bedevils his meditation practice. He observes that he could only "sit and appear quiet and mindful and withstand the unbelievably restless and horrible feelings when there were other people to make an impression on."

When I read Wallace's definition of heroism to my meditation group, some thought it was right on, while others balked at the glorification of boredom at the expense of "real heroes" like doctors and social workers.

But even those "real heroes" are sometimes wonderfully unself-aware. I learned that my dad had been awarded the Bronze Star for service in WWII only when I found the medal after his death in 2001. According to my mom, Dad said that when he injured himself in the process of saving the lives of two comrades, there was exactly zero heroism or courage involved; the impulse to act and the act itself, he insisted, were reflexive -- nothing more, nothing less.

Dad did take pride in the $25 war bond Gen. Matthew Ridgway presented to him for writing the official 82nd Airborne theme song, "The All American Soldier." The phrase "We're All American and proud to be" refers to all the soldiers who braved the vast tedium of war -- long stretches of boredom during which inattention could kill you and too much attention could drive you insane and get you killed -- as opposed to disgraced All-American athletes like Armstrong, Marion Jones, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and, worst of all, O.J. Simpson, who retained hero status among some fans who cheered his bizarro Bronco chase as though it were a brilliant broken-field run.

If heroism means anything beyond a comic book fantasy, perhaps it can begin with Wallace's -- and Buddhism's -- quiet endurance with "no one there to cheer," aka self-lessness. As long as we're attached to the good opinion of the other -- a parent, a girlfriend, the media, the public -- self-delusion blocks our best selves faster than an Armstrong bike race, a Cruise car chase or a Te'o takedown.

Quietly going about one's business -- putting in time as an IRS agent, serving in the army, working toward winning the Heisman or performing small acts of kindness for their own sake -- is a noble and satisfying pursuit. Far easier said than done, but surely not impossible.

References:

[1] Max, D.T. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace. New York: Viking, 2012.

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