When heroes fall: forgiving Lance Armstrong

Posted by Karen M. Wyatt on August 24, 2012 at 3:25 PM

This week the world of professional cycling has experienced both the best and the worst that the sport has to offer. Here in Colorado the USA Pro Challenge has been a huge success, providing thrilling feats of physical strength, intense competitive drama and jaw-dropping scenery to spectators and viewers around the globe. Not to mention the inspiration that is generated by the stories of these athletes who train with superhuman determination, battle injuries and limitations, and persevere against the odds to attain the glory of victory.

And on the other end of the spectrum, this week, our former national hero of cycling, Lance Armstrong, gave up the fight against charges of using performance-enhancing drugs that have been levied at him by the US Anti-Doping Agency. His giving up has been interpreted as an admission of guilt, much to the dismay of his fans and supporters, who must now figure out how they feel about this man they have so admired.

Some of us are shocked and in disbelief at this fall from grace, while others are feeling smug and self-satisfied because they “knew it all along.” But regardless of Lance Armstrong’s innocence or guilt, what we all could have known all along is the fact that our cultural heroes often fall and leave us with heartache and empty disillusionment.

Consider the recent events at Penn State, where the reputation of beloved and adored coach Joe Paterno plummeted so severely with the allegation that he helped cover up child sexual abuse, that his statue was removed from the campus. The other fact in evidence here is that when our heroes do fall from grace there is no soft landing and very little room for redemption.

However, the real problem in these situations is that fact that these two men are just ordinary human beings, with all the flaws and deficiencies that plague the rest of us. But, in our attempts to cover up and deny our own weaknesses, we have made them larger-than-life. We have shaped them into all-powerful gods that we can worship, emulate and identify with to compensate for our own feelings of helplessness and insignificance.

We love our heroes because doing so makes us feel powerful and legitimate. We wear their names and slogans on our T-shirts, hats and wristbands so that we can be seen as extensions of their greatness and claim some of their heroism for ourselves.

But it is all a sham. They are just ordinary men. They are just like us. And when we thrust them onto impossibly high pedestals without no real support underneath, they will most certainly fall, sooner or later. Now is the time for Lance to fall and the humiliation is ugly, precipitous and painful, but we all must share it in some way.

We worshipped Lance for his unheard-of 7 Tour de France titles, his brashness and swagger, and his faith-inspiring triumph of beating cancer to become a champion. This story has all the ingredients of a perfect hero’s journey – no wonder we loved him! But the dirty little secret behind hero worship is that hidden underneath our adoration is envy and spite. He has what we want to have but can never possess – and even while we love him for his accomplishments, we secretly hate him.

So when the fall from grace occurs, we are likely to lash out at our hero with vengeance and destroy everything that he stood for - by taking down a statue or wiping out a record of achievement. Just like that the old hero is dismissed and we turn our attention to someone new – someone who “deserves” our adoration and won’t disappoint us.

But we should be wiping out our own need to worship greatness in others and finding what is heroic within ourselves. We should be releasing these ordinary men from the grip of our desperate need to be in awe of something external to us. We should be recognizing the perfection of all of life on this planet – even though flawed – and celebrating our membership in that life.

Let us forgive all the Lance Armstrongs and Joe Paternos and other fallen heroes whom we have discovered are just like us. Let us forgive ourselves for needing them so much that we lost touch with reality. Let us turn our attention to our own lives and figure out how to live what really matters every day. Let us let go of our heroes so that they can also find their way back to what really matters.

Categories: Current Events, Sports, Forgiveness

Copyright ©2010 Karen Wyatt, MD

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