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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Tiger Woods

The days are short. The sun rises later, sets earlier. Unemployment holds at 10%. New jobs aren't getting created despite massive attempts to have you buy replacement doors, windos and insulated siding. People aren't earning what they used to -- if you own a restaurant, your patronage is off, if you sell on commission, you're not selling as much, if you're compensation depends on a bonus, it's not as great, and if you've been granted stock options over the years, chances are they're all under water. There's no imminent sign of improvement. Politics are dirty and negative, our leaders aren't really leading as much as they are trying to manipulate the media into making you think the opposition's positions are hazardous to your health and will rob you of your freedom and first born. Community activities become more heated because there are more people with more free time who are, at times, taking out their frustrations through their involvement. Negative stimuli are everywhere.

In the midst of all the negativity, we look for beacons of excellence and hope where we can find them. We enjoy a well-crafted book, take some pride in seeing our kids execute a fast-break in their little-league basketball games, seeing a colleague take her performance to the next level, admire solid products, kind acts and unselfish behavior. That type of behavior doesn't abound, but we know it when we see it.

And we thought we saw it on an international stage in Tiger Woods, a transcendental, post-racial, champion. A master craftsman, excellent in preparation, a great ambassador for the game of golf, a Stanford alumnus, en route to breaking Jack Nicklaus's record for titles in golf's "Majors", with a beautiful wife and two children, a boy and a girl. A true master of the universe.

We admired him for it. Oh, I heard all of the talk radio banter that Phil Mickelson appealed more to fans because of his relative lack of physical fitness (making him more like the weekend hacker), his propensity to take a goofy shot in the midst of a chase for a title, and his friendlier approach to fans and the media. Perhaps, and I'll allow for the doubting. But Tiger quickly became the benchmark against which all other golfers were measured. Tiger was the gold standard -- on and off the golf course.

He was a given, the way you knew a high school English teacher would insist upon excellence and nothing less, the way you knew your local bank would take care of your money or your pediatrician would have a cure for what ailed you (and, if you go way back, would visit your house). Made in America, an American original, the best in the world. Awesome.

Until a few weeks ago. I can think of many adages when I think about Tiger Woods, and I can explain his behavior if not excuse it. One of those adages would be "the bigger they are, the harder they fall." Another one would be that it can take a lifetime to build up a good name and only a moment to tarnish it. But what makes me sad is that another institution in America -- one we thought we all could rely upon for all of the values that we hold dear -- has crashed and burned.

Just like an investment bank on Wall Street. Just like a bank in your community. Just like a local clergyman who it turns out had a nefarious extracurricular activity (or a couple of dozen). Or like a politician who took a bribe, or judges who did the same. People who were considered pillars of a community -- part of the foundation on which a functional democratic society is based. To quote another adage, "just like money in the bank."

That's how highly many held Tiger Woods. An American institution, someone for which we could be very proud. Someone to whom we could look in times of trouble and say, "Wow, he's still out there, he's playing excellent golf, he's a champion." Someone to inspire, and, yes, a role model.

But all of that is gone now.

And that's depressing.

Because if that admiration, that view that all things Tiger Woods were 100% in control, prioritized and ethical, is gone, then what, precisely, is sacred?

We're in social gatherings all the time. We don't wonder for a moment whether the guy we just shook hands with is hanging out at bars with undergrads where he worked, trying trying to get one into a hotel that advertises hourly rates down the highway, or whether he doesn't disclose all his income on his tax returns or snorts cocaine. We look to him as a member of a zoning board, a school board, a coach of a youth team or a deacon at a church. We don't know what he does at conventions or sales meetings, or what his wife might be doing during the day when he's at work. We're not, by nature, that suspicious or cynical people. The omnipresence of the media has changed that a bit, because we get news of a kid who goes missing 2,500 miles away in real time -- right when it happens. We can check out neighbors on Google if we so choose. We can know more -- and more is available by the day. So now we figure, if Tiger Woods can become so tempted, what about the woman who cuts my hair, my pharmacist, the secretary at my religious institution or the people who sit near my cube. What about them?

Or not. Perhaps it's because Tiger is so great at what he does that we're so shocked, or because of the image about him that he and his advisors have helped create. After all, the woman sitting two cubes away doesn't usually hold herself out to be anything other than a competent and helpful colleague. She's not pretending to be perfect, and, truth be told, we don't know all that much about anyone when you get down to it, do we? What they're thinking, what they're saying or doing behind closed doors or their own walls, or in their own cars? We don't know who just bounced a check (or wrote a bad one), who smiled at you and shook your hand and then whispered to his spouse about what a jerk you are (for reasons you might now understand anyway), who just hit a child or bought a gun for personal protection.

Because we don't know all that much, are good-natured, believe in our friends and neighbors and hope for the best, when we're confronted with stories like Tiger's we get shocked. In this sad tale, we all should remember a few things:

1) don't say that you want someone else's life, because you have no idea what that life really entails;
2) don't idolize people from afar (or, if you do, don't meet them, because they cannot possible be all things that you think they are);
3) continue to do the best you can, do well and do good; and
4) don't get cynical or too skeptical, despite all of the stimuli that might tempt you to do just that.

I'm sad because an institution whom I thought was totally in control is a mess. I'm sad because he's done bad things, and I'm sad because obviously he had some deeply seated problems that compelled him -- for whatever reason -- to act the way he did. I'm sad because in the contemporary world there seem to be so few beacons out there, and one of our brightest lights just got put out for the moment. I realize, though, that our beacons are who we decide they are, and if we cannot find those people in Congress, the media or in sports, we have to look a little harder -- and perhaps they live next door, down the street or where we group up. Perhaps they're not famous at all, just terrific because of one thing they do -- no matter how small -- that helps put a smile on someone's face, even if just for a moment.

So, there are many lessons to be learned. Including to have some sympathy for Tiger Woods and his family. There's an awful mess there, one no one should take any joy in. Remember that he's very human, and that so are people all around you. Look for excellence and greatness in the every day, find a place in your heart to forgive Tiger, and pray that he can repair his life and the damage that he's done to his family and to himself.

Yes, an institution has collapsed. But there's greatness in many places. Currently, we all may just have to look a little harder and dig a little deeper.

And be happy when we find that excellence right before our eyes, in our own neighborhoods and communities.

Because that's the type of excellence that affects us the most every day.


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