Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Steroids and Lasik Eye Surgery

Bobby Baun.

I know that for Americans, there is little meaning to that name. Bring it up in Toronto though and people will immediately free associate words like "heroic" and "selfless." Bobby Baun had one of the most iconic moments in hockey history. In game 6 of the Stanley Cup final between his Toronto Maple Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings, the largely defensive defenseman broke his ankle in the first period. He went to the locker room, got taped up, took some painkillers, and returned to score the overtime winner to force a game 7, which the Leafs also won. He is in the pantheon of sports heroes (Canadian sports heroes, but still).

Barry Bonds.

Barry Bonds is one of the most reviled figures in sports history. Bring up his name and people will immediately free associate words like "cheater" and "disgrace." As his career began to take a back seat to the home run record chase between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGuire, he allegedly used steroids and put in some of the best numbers in the history of baseball. Books have been written about how he defiled the game along with every other person from the steroid era of baseball.

I am not entirely certain why, as sports fans, we worship the players who use pain killers to get the most out of their bodies, who enhance their physique through painful and unnaturally long hours of body building, who get corrective eye surgery so that they can see the pitch better, while cursing the players who use steroids to get the most out of their bodies.

The uproar surrounding HGH is even more confusing to me than decrying steroids. Malcolm Gladwell has already written a perfect post on this issue and I do not need to reiterate his points. I wonder if the real problem is that the public generally do not have any idea about what HGH is. They are just scary initials to most people and have been lumped with steroids in the minds of the people. HGH speeds recovery so that a player can get back on the field after an injury as quickly as possible. Why is that different than what Bobby Baun, the hero of the Toronto Maple Leafs, did?

I was reminded of the topic of steroid and HGH use after reading a recent excerpt in Sports Illustrated for a new book detailing Roger Clemens' alleged steroid use. I don't care to link to the article because I don't think Clemens did anything newsworthy. He used then legal means to improve his ability to play the game that he loved. At worst, we should be indifferent. At best, we should see him as heroic, like we do Bobby Baun and all the other players who showed “guts” and “heart” by “sacrificing their bodies” and “playing through the pain."

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Ancient vs. Modern Cultism: Is That a Thing?

earlier today, i was reading a pile of interesting wikipedia articles about all of the "messiahs" that have cropped up over the existence of judaism, and i noticed that a few of them spurred their own sects of judaism that persist even until today.

shabtai tzvi is probably the best known (aside, possibly, from jesus) of the jewish messiah claimants. he started his little campaign in the 1600s. the wiki describes him as basically bipolar, possibly a sociopath. he was well-versed in jewish mysticism, and he used this knowledge to craft a set of practices and doctrines that appealed to a surprisingly large number of jews at that time. he was, it seems, a smart, talented young man who felt self-important enough to call himself the leader of a people, a religious figurehead.

but isn't that a fair assessment of any of the charismatic, messianic figures at the top of any religious sect?

like, is jesus a possible example of that model? muhammad? moses, even? any of those people? couldn't we just see ANY of them as people with some good ideas and the will to push those ideas?

and it seems the current distrust of these types of religious figures might be a difference between modern and ancient attitude, not modern and ancient religious figures. is it just a coincidence that religious figureheads and leaders slide down towards the "levelheaded patriarch" end of the scale the farther back in time they started their religious teaching, but closer to the "mentally unstable cult leader" end of that same scale the more modern they are? older religious leaders, in general, seem more reputable to us, but newer ones, in general, seem less so.

the problem is that we have no way to directly inspect or experience any of the revered ancient religious leaders under modern standards; all we get is the minimal inspection done by their credulous followers.

in other words, would a modern outlook on the religious figureheads of the past convince us they are just as much charismatic sociopaths or attention lovers as, say, j.z. knight's ramtha? would our society's distrust of modern religious figures maintain its potency when turned on the religious figures of antiquity?

i don't see why we can't look critically at the genesis of our deeply held ancient religious convictions using a similar standard that we use for "modern religions" but still see the value in those convictions. for instance, if we really think about the beginnings of judaism (or christianity or islam or any ancient religion), we might ask: was moses a revelator? an emissary of god? or was he just a man with a still relevant and fulfilling message, with the self-importance and will to push that message onto a group of followers?

that's not to say that religion doesn't offer us something fascinating, helpful, personal and deeply fulfilling. that's also not to say that moses wasn't, as depicted, an exceedingly humble voice of reason. that's not even to say that moses's message lacked any sort of divine inspiration or godly spirit (however we choose to define any of those terms). any of those things can still be true. we can still get a ton out of religion even if we are skeptical of the "cult of personality" aspects of our own personal religious affiliations.

unfortunately, this way of thinking about religion implies all sorts of value judgments. it implies dichotomies between "primitive" and "enlightened" thinking, between "religious fervor" and "skepticism," between "smart" and "not smart." that's not the point, though. the point is to remember that religion isn't a set of answers to questions, it's a framework to appreciate and think about those questions. religion can offer us a TON when examined and practiced critically. it's just our job to make sure we actually DO examine and practice our religions critically.

(i, of course, invite any comments anyone has. i don't realllllly know what i'm talking about, even moreso in this post than in a lot of my previous ones, so feedback, questions, and challenges would be awesome. remember, i'm not challenging the validity of any religion, i'm merely challenging the rigidity of thinking about religious leaders. also, that image: public domain. also, no caps: is it distracting?)