The weight of words

Whether or not you are a sports fan, you are undoubtedly aware of the recent documentary on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls’ domination of the NBA through the 1990s, culminating with winning the 1998 championship.

In the current void of live action sports or new movie releases, this documentary captured the attention of a large segment of our population by combining several parts athletic feats of greatness and equal parts soap opera drama. I myself was unable to partake as my family and I lack access to ESPN in any format. It’s really OK, though. I watched it all as it happened.

I have, however, been able to read several follow-up articles in which the author responds to the content. It has provided me with new insights into what one of my childhood heroes was feeling during his epic career. While I always wanted to be like Mike, I find myself rethinking that notion and having a new appreciation for the weight he and other public figures carry.

After reading a recent article, my mind immediately went back to a poignant and powerful commercial Jordan did for Nike in the mid-’90s.

Michael is shooting free throws in a dark and empty gym. As he shoots, he says these words: “What if my name wasn’t in lights? What if my face wasn’t on TV every other second? What if there wasn’t a crowd around every corner? What if I was just a basketball player? Can you imagine? I can.”

As a teenager, I wanted to be wealthy and well-known. In my mind, I took Jordan’s words as the lament of someone at the top of his game, knowing that it would come to an end all too soon. Perhaps that was the intent of Nike as they declared “Just Do It” to a generation with life before them.

The light of this new documentary shows that for Jordan, it wasn’t so much a lament as a longing. He was tired of it all. He was weary of everyone knowing his name and desiring his presence. He was played out on the constant scrutiny of a watching world. While a world of people wanted nothing more than to “be like Mike,” his Airness, Michael Jordan, wanted to just be Mike.

Most of us will never face anywhere near the level of notoriety of a professional athlete, a prominent actor/actress, a political figure, etc., but in the digital age, all of us now face the very real possibility of public scrutiny, and we also have the ability to scrutinize others. In today’s world, we all have something to say, and many of us feel compelled to say it.

If the social media explosion of the last decade has shown us anything, it is how truly critical and hateful we can be as human beings. It doesn’t matter how great someone is at what they do. It doesn’t matter how well-intentioned their efforts are. It doesn’t matter how much good they actually accomplish.

We the people will scour every aspect of the person’s actions, attitudes and outcomes. We will find what we believe to be points of weakness. And we will attack.

It’s not just the rich and famous taking the hits these days. We are more than willing to turn our powers of vitriol and sarcasm on anyone who comes into view whom we believe has stepped out of line.

I find myself wondering if our actions and attitudes are actually doing any good. Are all of our critiques actually making anyone’s life better? Are we ourselves any better for making others look worse? I’m all for exposing falsehood and propagating the truth, but can’t we do that without vilifying and attacking others?

We’ve lost sight of the hurt and heartache our words cause others. We fail to see the weight our critical comments and passing barbs are placing on the intended targets. We, particularly people of faith, excuse our outbursts as “just being honest.” We need to reevaluate our approach and see the damage we are dealing out, not just to the superstars at a distance but also to others just across town.

The world isn’t going to filter our words and thoughts for us. And the world at large may not filter their own. We must remember how to filter them ourselves. Words can do damage and words can build up. We have an obligation to speak and act with compassion and grace, to seek to build others up, not tear them down. We must “speak the truth in love” at all times and in all things.

Perhaps we can use the words of Paul as a filter: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think (speak) about such things.”

The Rev. Jeremy Myers is the lead pastor of First Baptist Church in Seymour. Read his blog at Send comments to [email protected].